The Art of Harmonix Artist Jeff Hesser

Many of the artists who make their way into Harmonix arrive here for their first professional art job out of college. Jeff Hesser’s path to the Harmonix studio in Cambridge evolved from a different route than some of his teammates in the 3D art team.

Jeff has enjoyed an exciting career as a renowned professor & sculptor exhibiting his work across the US exhibiting with artists like Chuck Close, Louise Bourgeois and more. Jeff has taught in the Sculpture and Illustration Departments at RISD helping students develop their talents in figurative sculpture for the last nine years and in 2006 he was the recipient of the "John R. Frazier Award for Excellence in Teaching".

Jeff sat down with us recently to talk about Harmonix, how he got his start here and show us some of his work.

Fish: Tell us about your background as an artist.

Jeff: I went to the University of Chicago for an undergraduate degree in literature; I went on to graduate schools at the NY Academy of Art and at the University at Buffalo. My background is in traditional art, I was trained as a figurative sculptor and I have taught at RISD for 9 years now.  A couple of years ago I tried digital sculpting for the first time with a program called ZBrush and immediately fell in love. When I worked traditionally in clay I could go into a state of flow where time disappears for several hours but when I work digitally I can go into that state for much, much longer. That was an early sign for me that I was enjoying (digital sculpting) even more than before. Sculpture, for me, is more of a mental act of thinking about three dimensional forms and making them real. With sculpting digitally I felt a direct connection between thinking about the form and building it immediately. The art work becomes something you interact with and it is immersive.

"Fragments" by Jeff Hesser was displayed at the Copley Society

Fish: Can you talk about the differences between the hand tools you have worked with as a sculptor versus sculpting digitally?

Jeff: Even though I am working on a tablet it feels more like I am thinking about the sculpture and watching those thoughts unfold in front of me on the screen. There is a direct connection through the tablet to the work, where I can think about the sculpture and it happens in front of me rather than having to touch the materials. For some people the physicality is a really important part of their work, for me it is about making the forms.

Fish: One thing I always wonder about sculptors is how you have to move all the heavy materials and tools you need to make your work. Is the freedom from those traditional tools part of the allure of working digitally?

Jeff: It’s huge. Now I can carry my whole portfolio on a memory stick which I can keep in my pocket. I was working pretty large in water based clay. A lot of the work I was doing was large morphed old man/baby heads and they were monumental. Other works were life sized or slightly larger than life sized babies or children. If I had a show I would have to rent a Uhaul, move all that and have storage.

"Baby Face" & "Old Boy" by Jeff Hesser

Another great thing is I can sit down, start working right away and completely productive for hours at the computer. When I am done I am done. Whereas when I worked traditionally in water based clay I would have to get to my studio, unwrap the large scale clay sculptures which is kind of like unwrapping a mummy. It was a long time before I could even get started working. All that prep work is removed working digitally.

I think it was helpful having worked in real 3D for years. When I started working digitally I could wrap my head around the illusion of working in the computer. All those years helped me get into the new process really quickly.

Fish: I remember when you first started here thinking “That is so cool that he is switching gears with his process as an artist”.

Jeff:  It’s been really exciting, every day I am making art in new ways that I enjoy more than ever before and constantly learning new processes. Another big part of it all is the communal aspect of working at Harmonix. I am not just by myself or with a studio mate; I am working on a large project with the design team. It's a community oriented work flow and that has been incredibly fulfilling. I never realized how much I was missing this (teamwork) when I didn't have it working in my studio.

I love the way the Rock Band games create communities and get people to do stuff together. It’s such a positive cultural thing to be working on bringing people and families together to enjoy each other’s company.

Polyphemos fromThe Odyssey

Fish: Tell me about this one eyed character you designed as a personal project.

Jeff: The Odyssey is one of my favorite books. When I first started using ZBrush I went right to the Odyssey as an inspiration and a source to start thinking about characters. This creature is based on a character named Polyphemos who was a Cyclops. I started thinking about how these characters would be evolutionarily possible. How would they come into being? Instead of a creature that had just one eye what if he evolved to only need one eye. Living in caves with one eye he would have less peripheral vision and develop these bat ears for hearing and a wider nose for a stronger sense of smell. In the end he looks like an orc, but it was a fun design process to go through as I worked on it.

It really helps me to have some kind of back story or framework to tie together all of the details of their appearance together. What kind of nose, body type, ears, appearance, hands, will this character have? If there is some framework that allows those questions to be answered then everything fits into a larger picture.

The desert fish

Fish: This desert fish appears to be an amalgamation of several animals.

Jeff: The desert fish is part of a world based on a child’s dream. It is influenced by talking with my two year old daughter, the art of Maurice Sendak and the Little Nemo comic strips of Winsor McKay. When I was doing this sculpture (my daughter) would often come in and look at it and give ideas. I started to look at it as combined animals much like the ones in Little Nemo. My next step with this project is to resculpt the desert fish in a few different styles. I’m trying to use the process sculpting this one character to get a sens of what the world will look like on a larger scale; more stylized or more natural. I imagine a herd of these that will float through the world silently without much interaction with other characters in the world.

To see more of Jeff Hesser’s traditional and digital works please visit