Artist’s passion for environment lives on in book

Peter Wege finances educational efforts

by BETH ALTENA

Whether Rockford artist Mark Heckman’s billboards made people laugh or shocked them, they were always noticed. Now, after Heckman’s death in May 2010 at age 49, following a two-year battle against non-Hodgekins lymphoma, the passion that inspired him lives on in a book tour aimed at raising environmental awareness.

Prior to his May 2010 death Rockford artist Mark Heckman illustrated a book now being toured to children across the midwest.

With the financial backing of philanthropist Peter Wege, Heckman’s book “Sooper Yooper: Environmental Defender,” illustrated by Heckman and written by best friend and author Mark Newman (check), is making its rounds throughout the country, spreading the message that every individual can make a difference in protecting our environment.

“It’s something they both wanted to do for a long time,” said Heckman’s widow, Diane.

Diane said she and Newman visit schools across the Midwest, presenting “Sooper Yooper” and providing teachers with lesson plans, worksheets and a copy of the book. They have presented their interactive road show in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, including right here in Rockford.

“Sooper Yooper” features hero Billy Cooper, who purposefully is a hero lacking in super powers. This point is to emphasize that anyone, not those with special powers, can protect our natural resources. Billy chases down zebra mussels, sea lamprey and other threats to the environment. “Sooper Facts” offer some sobering statistics regarding the dangers of ballast water from interoceanic freighters that regularly visit the Great Lakes and the resultant 180-plus invasive aquatic species already entrenched in our waters.

Diane said the presentation, often with the Heckman family dog, Tank—included in the book as Mighty Mac—has been given to over 7,000 children and will visit schools as requested at least through the year. The program is supplemented by an art contest offering scholarships to students.

The illustrations are “typical Heckman,” Diane said. The artist worked on the book during his illness and refused to let his health darken his unconventional view of the world—a view he was always eager to share.

Heckman was a nationally recognized artist whose work was featured on the pages of Times and Newsweek before the age of 27. He was commissioned to create the portrait of President Gerald Ford that hangs in the state capital. Much of his work had a touch of “shock value,” including his 1989 AIDS-awareness billboard that was created with 2,001 condoms dipped in paint. Often political or environmental in nature, his billboards had messages regarding the importance of protecting the Great Lakes. Drivers may remember the “Back off Suckers” billboard on US-131 showing images of residents of other states slurping up Lake Michigan water through long straws. Heckman was also hired by actor Dustin Hoffman to create a logo for Hoffman’s production company.

A billboard featuring Tiger Woods unhappily sampling dirty water earned Heckman a dip in some hot water when attorneys for the golf legend asked the work be removed. In response, Heckman created a self-portrait of himself being raked by the claws of an angry tiger (the animal, not the man), which he provided to The Rockford Squire for publication.

Diane said her husband’s friendship with Wege and work in environmental awareness were long-standing. In 2006, Wege commissioned Heckman to paint a $12,000 billboard, “Jumping Jack Splash” to grace the Kent County Administration building. His foundation also funded many of the environmentally themed billboards featured around Grand Rapids during the 1990s.

“Sooper Yooper” is a fitting legacy for an artist who cared deeply for our natural resources and wasn’t shy about pushing others to act, or at least think, about the issues that threaten our water, air and land. In “Sooper Yooper,” Billy Cooper—portrayed by nephew Paul Vandyke, along with Wedge, Peter Wege’s character—fight invasive species. The message, Diane said, is as simple as it is important. “Everyone, even children, can make a difference. Fight for your environment, call your congressman,” she said. Or as Sooper Yooper Billy Cooper says in the book, “We have to hurry if we’re going to save the Great Lakes.”

“Sooper Yooper” can be purchased at Amazon and Barnes and Noble bookstores, or for more information visit online at sooperyooper.com.

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