Monday, May 30, 2016

Creative Chat: Michelle Houghton

It's time for another Creative Chat--this is the month of painting, and I'll be interviewing Michelle Houghton. Back in December, when the idea for Creative Chat came up, Michelle was the very first person who came to mind to interview. She is very literally one of the most inspiring and talented people I've ever met, and I can't believe I get to call her my friend. She is constantly just blowing me away with her insight, creativity, and amazing heart. Not only is she an incredible painter, but she's also a counselor, the co-founder of The Bravery Board--a mental wellness and personal growth organization that offers services such as counseling, life coaching, and regular workshops & gatherings--and a writer for The Mystery Hour, an Emmy Award-winning locally televised late night talk show. (You might have seen their hilarious viral video, "Instagram Husband" earlier this year!) Oh, and she's also a wife and a mother to one of the most adorable kids on the planet. She's basically Wonder Woman. No big deal.  
Okay, I'm going to shut up about how amazing Michelle is now, and let her show you herself:

1//When did you first become interested in painting? How did you choose painting out of all the creative mediums that exist?
I’ve been interested in painting since I was a kid. The first time I remember doing a painting I was probably 8 or 9 and painted watercolors on top of a JCPenny box that my mom ended up framing and putting on her wall. (And yes, it's still there in my parents’ house!) Although I always dabbled in painting growing up, I never pursued training for it until college. Throughout childhood and adolescence I mistakenly thought I needed to be naturally talented at painting or drawing in order to sign up for any sort of art classes. Anytime I created anything-- I had a lot of doubts about how good my work was, especially when I thought about how gifted some of my friends were at designing and drawing. Eventually I matured though and stopped taking myself so seriously, so when I took that first drawing class in college I loved it and produced some cool stuff. I’ve painted and drawn as a hobby off and on ever since.

2//How do you deal with creative blocks?
Most of my creative blocks are exhaustion blocks, honestly. My worst times of feeling uncreative and like everything I touch is crap is when I am tired and am stretched too thin. If I can get enough sleep and have enough time stowed away in the weekend to work on a painting, I just start going for it and see what turns out. I don't always like what I’ve worked on or feel good about it. For the most part though, if I just keep looking at it and messing around with it I get it to a place I really like. It just takes time. I try not to push it; give myself plenty of grace, and see what evolves. Of course there are hopeless exceptions sitting in the back of my studio, but for the most part that’s how I do it.

3//I know you had some difficulty accepting the “artist” label for yourself. How did you overcome that resistance?
The resistance that I had to calling myself an “artist” was definitely by my own making and my own insecurities. I got over that by taking small steps into claiming my title as an artist through posting pictures of my work online and talking about it and actually telling people that I paint, which lead to me owning it more and more. Over time I grew in my confidence and got over myself to an extent that I stopped caring so much what other people think. It's been a liberating experience.

4//What are your biggest sources of inspiration? Are there any artists that you look up to?
My biggest sources of inspiration are kind of wherever I’m at or whoever I'm with in the moment. That may sound like a cop-out answer, but it's true. Sometimes it’s a podcast or a book I’m reading, a place I’ve visited, or a mood or feeling or something I am working through in my head-- an obstacle I am working to overcome.

A big part of my creative process is to collect images of natural objects that inspire me, then paint an abstract image in their likeness. I’ve always found a lot of inspiration in nature-- especially tiny objects found in big spaces like rocks or seashells or flowers. When I paint something like that, I never stick to the original image completely, but it gets me started in a color sequence and spatially helps me map out what I would like the painting to portray. I start by looking at the image a lot as I am drawing it out, then painting over the drawing, and then at some point I almost always abandon the image and go off the rails on what I feel like it should look like intuitively.

I try to paint with a lot of emotion and feeling rather than trying to make something look a specific way. Almost all of my paintings have an edge of loss of control to them, which I like and celebrate. That is what inspires me the most.

5//You’re also a counselor. How do your experiences in that capacity inform your art?
I used to think my experiences as a counselor didn’t “bother” me-- that I was able to not take it home with me-- but it was either a build up of time that changed my outlook or I just realized I was completely lying to myself to say that- because it does. There are some days that are fine, and others that mentally and emotionally drain me. I primarily work with children and have to listen to a lot of terrible sadness that the world craps out on innocent kids. It's hard. Painting has been a clear way for me to process and get lost in something that I am in control of and to some extent has no bounds or limits. I experience a world that is not so put together, and In fact, when people can express their worlds in ways that are not so put together they experience healing. I think my artwork is much the same. It's a way for me to express myself that is a bit crazy and out-there. It helps me heal so I can help others heal.

6//If you had to create a beginner’s toolkit for learning to paint, what would it contain?
Well, for me as a self-taught artist, I sort of wish I would have taken more than one class or learned some great lesson on how best to put paint on a canvas to achieve the look that’s intended. Maybe some day when time allows. That self-taught bit means that I have literally no experience with what I would suggest someone would “learn”-- my experience has been entirely trial and error, and a whole lot of getting better-as-I-go. I would say my beginner's toolkit would involve some mental lessons-- ones involving letting go of expectations, getting over comparisons, allowing yourself to suck at it for a  while, and just letting whatever colors and space you choose to occupy on the canvas mater in whatever way it matters in that moment for you. There is no real rulebook in creative pursuits I have learned-- it just takes a lot of time and evolving to learn how to do it.

If you could convey a single message through your art, what would that message be?
That we are all okay. You’re okay. I’m okay. The world is okay. We’re all in a constant state of becoming and learning and transgressing and building. It's a process.

8// How do you manage making time to create with working full time, pursuing side projects, and being a wife & mother? How do you stay inspired in the busyness?
I wish I knew! Really I’m in a constant state of learning how to do that. What I do know is this…

There was a time in my life not so long ago when I told myself I was stuck. Stuck just going to work and coming home and making dinner and being a mom. I bought into the myth that Michelle-being-a-good-mom needed to look like everyone else being a good mom, but it just didn’t fit. I was a victim to the lifestyle I thought I was supposed to have, and I felt that way too.

After some time in that state, I realized I WAS stuck and didn’t want to be anymore. I did some difficult staring at myself in the mirror, changed my attitude, and realized that I had a choice. I could continue to see myself as “stuck” and act stuck, or I could find space and time to figure out how to do the things in the world that mattered to me. So I chose the later.

I rarely watch TV anymore (well, except Game of Thrones). I’m always on the go. I don’t take care of my body nearly as much as I should or used to. I eat out too often or barely eat at all. I have a terrible memory. I forget details and sometimes worry that other people think I’m a huge flake.

But I am much, much, much happier.

I guess what I am trying to say is that it's a choice, just like anything else, to find time for the things you want to do in the world, and it has consequences and good-and-bad points. Sometimes you don’t get as much sleep as you want or your workout regimen may amount to nil. Sometimes you have to have your kid stay at daycare for an extra hour or two longer than you’d like. But you just find time to do things that you want to do instead of trying to do the things you think you should do, and allow for a whole lot of grace in the process. Let other people think you’re a flake or a bad mom or that you’re forgetful-- better that than be miserable and stuck trying to fit everyone else’s bill for what a good employee or mother or wife or whatever is.

9//What are you proudest of in your creative journey?
That I’m freaking doing it. I thought “creativity” was for everyone else, but then I stood up and claimed it for my own. Sometimes I feel like I’m cheating or that I stole it somehow-- but the truth is we can all learn a craft  and be creative if we can just get over our fears and “do the thing” we want to do. It takes time and practice, but we are all capable of it.

10//What advice would you give to a beginner who was interested in pursuing painting as a medium of creative expression?
Just paint. It doesn’t have to be good. It probably won’t be good at first. Keep doing it, trying new things, and finding a way to do it that suits you-- that’s the only way you’ll get better, and you’ll probably learn something about yourself in the process.

Thanks for sharing your incredible art & insights with us, Michelle! The world (and my life) is so much better because you're in it.

Michelle Houghton: Website // Instagram
The Bravery Board: Website // Instagram // Facebook
The Mystery Hour:  Website // Instagram // Facebook

All photos obtained from Used with permission.

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