top of page

Heather McLeod and the Symbology of Ears in Art

Updated: Mar 1, 2020

By: Megan Sanchez

Can you hear me? That sounds good. Is she hearing, or is she listening? I’ll play it by ear.

She’s wearing such a small and cute earring! That red is so bold and expressive that I can see it and hear it!

These phrases represent some thoughts that may emerge into an observer’s mind upon seeing Heather McLeod’s art piece portraying and isolating one of the primary human organs: the ear.

'Heather' (2018) ©. Oil on canvas. 70 cm x 70 cm.

In order to better understand the complexity of this bodily organ and how it has been represented in the art world and beyond, this article will first introduce and explain both the nature and symbolic representation of ears.

In succession, the critical analysis of Heather McLeod’s art piece, entitled ‘Heather’ (2018) will be presented. The third part will focus on the biography of the artist Heather McLeod in order to dive into her life and mindset.

The conclusion will reveal Heather’s favourite artists, influences, and colors along with her personal explanation and interpretation of the meaning of ‘ears’ in art.


Anatomically, the ears are one of the most important of the bodily organs that not only process and interpret sounds in order to derive meaning and information, but also aid in maintaining balance. They are particular, in as much as one cannot turn hearing on and off at will, like eye-sight, for example.

Symbolically, instead, researchers at the University of Michigan suggest that ears have “long been considered the seat of memory, receptivity, inquisitiveness and awakening” (Protas et alia., 2001).

Even in prominent pieces of literature, such as Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, one finds reference to ears and their symbolism as seen through poetic metaphor.

According to Nicole Smith in The Power of Words & Language in Hamlet (2011), Shakespeare utilizes the metaphor of pouring poison into someone’s ear in order to represent the way words may in some instances do greater harm than actions (Smith, 2011). This is seen in the following verses:

Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment (I. v. 59- 64).

In these verses, Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, is said to be “pouring poison” in his nephew’s ear. According to author Nicole Smith, these verses represent a metaphorical expression of how harmful and poisonous words are both to the ears and to the mind.

According to experts, Hamlet’s ear is not truly poisoned, but rather this bodily organ represents Hamlet’s ‘channel of interpretation’ (of evil or good). His uncle metaphorically ‘poisoning’ his ear means that Hamlet interpreted Claudius’ actions negatively, bringing him to suffer as if he had been poisoned.

Artistically, one of the most famous paintings depicting an ‘ear’ and its significance is reflected in Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665).

'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer (1665). Oil on canvas. 44 cm x 39 cm.

The sharp contrast between the dramatic onyx background with the ochre-dominant foreground of the young girl, immediately drives the eyes’ attention to her ear – even if the work had not been entitled ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’.

Considering the historic period (mid 1600s) in which Vermeer produced this magnum opus, one can infer that the girl is a servant due to her peasantry fashion. In light of this, what strikes attention is her prestigious pearl. Where did she get it? Was it a gift? Why is it important?

Her gaze and her ear are positioned at an angle in which the observer feels penetrated, stunned and petrified at the same time. When the girl stares, she pierces the soul and almost seems able to walk out of the painting at any moment.

Her ear is precious and attentive, seeming as if it is always listening. One could argue that in this painting, the ear is of grand significance as it holds a symbol of prestige and power – a pearl – which is blatantly in contrast with the social position of the young woman.

However, to the eyes of the beholder, the painting appears to be highlighting many things at once. The ear is not the only protagonist. In fact, the young girl’s angelic and pale visage with soul gazing eyes begs the viewer for attention, creating a metonymy between eyes and ear.

As the observer’s eyes move in infinite circular motion, from the girl’s face, to her eyes, to her ear, and back to her face, the viewer both internalizes and interprets the young girl’s dichotomic emotions - ones of melancholy in contrast with dreamy sentiments of intrigue – all at once.

Heather McLeod: ‘Heather’ (2018)

'Heather' (2018) ©. Oil on canvas. 70 cm x 70 cm.

In June 2018, an art exhibition at the University for Foreigners in Perugia (Italy) took place, celebrating the works of the Rhode Island School of Design graduate – Heather McLeod.

Despite the numerous works exposed, many eyes were immediately pulled like a magnet onto the canvas portrayed above.

The composition in itself injects drama into the scene in as much as it loudly whispers: ‘mystery’. Who is this girl? Where is the rest of her face? Is she smiling? Frowning? What is she feeling?

The excitement and frustration it evokes of ‘the unknown’ allows the imagination to inquire and fantasize hypothetical realities, leaving the observer content in a child-like way, like a preschooler excited to discover a novel game.

The decision to compose and isolate a human ear, impeding the observer to see any other facial feature, is in a sense: complexity within simplicity.

The simplicity is reflected in the fact that the observer is forced to focus on a single event/object, such as the ear.

The complexity emerges soon thereafter, when, in the absence of major clues, the eye moves onto the ‘crimson alizarin’ surrounding it.

At the distance of 10 centimeters from the painting, as much as 3 meters away from it, the observer can feel the passion, and intensity of the color, that truly and immediately recalls the same intensity of Mark Rothko’s works – not so much in technique – but 100% in the ability of a single color becoming the carrier and sole transmitter of pure, untampered-with emotion. Few “single-bloc” colored works can achieve that.

In contrast to Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring,’ Heather’s choice of not including a full face, but isolating the ear, therefore, does not produce the same ‘circular motion’ aforementioned to the viewers’ eyes.

Rather, it creates the opposite: a fixed point where the observer dives into the infinite world of everything that ears represent. Can you hear it?

Heather McLeod: Biography

Heather McLeod is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Illustration and a concentration in History of Art and Visual Culture.

She graduated in 2016, worked for a year in art conservation at Yale University Art Gallery and then applied for and was awarded a Fulbright grant to study puppetry in Italy.

This is how she found herself in Perugia, Italy at the University of Foreigners and was able to present her latest art works.

In her youth, she had a preference for Realism with one of her favourite artists being Norman Rockwell.

As the years would go by, however, she’d develop an appreciation for the Impressionist movement as well.

More artists she appreciates include Euan Uglow, Giorgio Morandi, Alex Kanevsky, Jenny Saville, Alyssa Monks, and Nicholas Sanchez.

Conclusion: “In Heather’s Own Words” Interview

EVMO News: “What is your favorite color?”

Heather McLeod:

“My favorite color is mustard yellow. Every time I see it I can't help but be drawn to it. I think it's a very under-appreciated color. I just love it... I have noticed that a lot of my paintings use this mustard yellow or yellow ochre color ... [But] when I think about my favorite color to mix, though, I always think about crimson alizarin.

I used a lot of this crimson alizarin in the painting with the ear... I just love how fluid it is. It's more on the transparent side which is tricky when your'e trying to make an opaque color, but I still think it's beautiful.”

EVMO News: “What is the meaning of ‘ears’ for you in the art that you created?”

Heather McLeod:

“The ear project, as we talked about, came from the idea of creating a portrait without the need to see the obvious facial features.

I think ears reveal so much about a person's character as well as their physical form through not only the color and shape, but the way people adorn them with earrings and tattoos as well as their hair surrounding the ear.

The piece "Heather" (I like to title things with the name of the model because they are for me portraits of a person as much as a traditional portrait would be) shows only a slice of a person's head and yet I love that you can get so much more out of it.”

Artist: Heather McLeod (2018). ©

Heather McLeod (2018). ©


Unknown member
Aug 06, 2018

Thank you so much! I really appreciate it!


Unknown member
Aug 02, 2018

Beautiful painting both in concept and color! Excellent article.


Unknown member
Jul 27, 2018

Dear Heather, your piece is incredible, well done and keep it up!

bottom of page