Welcome to our third Artist Spotlight featuring Michigan artist Bethany Houston! Every other month, we interview a fellow creative to showcase their work and ideas, and peek into their very own Lake Michigan Book Press sketchbook.
You grew up in St. Joseph, MI - a small town on the shores of Lake Michigan. While small, this community seems to foster the arts being home to both the Krasl Art Center and Box Factory for the Arts. Would you say living in such an environment gave you a starting point for becoming the artist you are today? How so?
I’m so thankful to have been surrounded by such a great art community. My family moved to Saint Joseph, from LaPorte, Indiana when I was in 6th grade. I remember being completely new to Lakeshore Middle school and the art teacher, Wendy Cleworth immediately encouraged me to develop my drawing skills. She always gave me information about classes and youth shows at both the Box Factory and the Krasl. She even got me involved in displaying some of my art at a booth for ‘emerging artists’ during the Krasl Art Fair on the Bluff. I got to see what other artists my age were creating and it really drove me to improve. Both my middle school and high school art teachers were skilled female artists I looked up to. While I’ve always wanted art to be a part of my life, growing up in Saint Joseph certainly made art seem like a reasonable career path.
As an adult, you’ve moved and traveled many places. What initiated these moves, where have you lived and how has living in new places influenced your art?
I still had a year or two left for my BFA in art Ed through Western Michigan University, but my husband, Jesse was stationed in Charleston. We had done the long distance thing off and on since we first started dating, and tried, but just couldn’t deal with the distance any longer-- so my first move was out to Charleston, South Carolina.
We were supposed to be in Charleston for about 12 months, but after 6 months living there, the Navy decided to send him to Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York. We spend 6 more months there before the Navy gave us last-minute orders to Japan. We weren’t expecting an overseas station at all, but making sure our dog got to Japan was the only truly stressful part. We lived in Yokosuka, Japan for about 2 years, and I would go back in a heartbeat. They sent us to Norfolk, Virginia for about 2 years, which is where we are currently stationed.
I was able to appreciate the local art scene in both Charleston and Saratoga, but never got a chance to partake in art groups or shows in either location. I’d rather paint and draw the Mountains than the ocean though, that’s for sure. Japan was spent absorbing art around me. At this point, I feel like I missed so many opportunities to draw from life, or plein-air paint, but gathered so much reference material. Hopefully sometime I can sit down and sift through my thousands of photos from our time there, and use those as inspiration for larger pieces.
While moving so frequently has proven to be a challenge for finishing my degree, changing jobs and getting familiar with the local art scene, I love having lived in so many places in such a short amount of time. We are set to move in less than 8 months and aren’t even sure where we are moving next. Seriously frustrating.
You mention your husband, Jesse, is in the Navy. Do you find any changes or differences in your art between times of deployment and his returning home?
When Jesse was home, we were both so busy spending time together, catching up, catching concerts and events before he would leave again. It would make it difficult to work on art. When he was gone, I would have all the time with no distraction, but finding the motivation to work was the challenge.
Now that he no longer has deployments since his ship is in drydock for maintenance, he’s on a normal work schedule and I’ve gotten way more efficient at time management and just sitting down and making time for painting and drawing.
Guessing from your Instagram feed, your favorite subject is the human form. What do you enjoy most about portraiture and other representations of the human figure? The least?
I absolutely love drawing every face and body possible. Even now more than ever, I see strangers and think of how great it would be to try and capture their features or how they carry themselves. I’m so lucky to have come across the Norfolk Drawing Group. It’s this large group of local artists that have been meeting for years, and every tuesday I walk away with a handful of 60 second gesture drawings, a few short poses, and 3 longer poses where I can focus on developing a form and portraiture.
My least favorite thing would be struggling to find the right amount of realism for my own pieces. I want to create realistic shapes and capture the likeness of my models and references, but sometimes I find the most structured drawings and paintings are my least interesting. I can have some crazy line work and ignore some shadow and light, and the piece really moves me and gets a great response. I still want to improve my realism, but I don’t want to get too carried away and lose the ‘life’ within the figure.
You recently started an internship at Orzo Studio, a ceramic workspace and gallery in Portsmouth, Virginia. How did you get started? What are some of the duties, and perks, of interning in an artist studio?
This time last year, a few artists from the Norfolk Drawing Group heard me talking about how much I loved working in clay, and recommended going to the studio to throw pottery. Orzo had just started a life-sculpting group similar to the life drawing painting one that meets across town. One 3 hour pose, a block of clay, and a rotating model. It’s fantastic. So now both my Tuesday and Thursday nights are spent working from live models. We share a lot of the same models.
I fell completely in love with clay studio work back at Western Michigan University’s ceramic department. I always wanted to get back into working directly for a pottery studio, but with all our moving, I never got the chance. Before life sculpting one evening, Stephen Marder, the owner asked if I was interested in becoming an intern for the studio. I started with cleaning the studio, keeping the tables and floors as dust-free as possible, and setting up before the many pottery classes they teach during the week. Over the last few months I’ve been able to mix glazes, load kilns, learn about American ceramic masters from my boss, who has studied under and worked with several of them over the years. He just returned from a trip to the ‘National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts’ in Portland, and my goal is to attend that next year, and absorb more of the amazing clay art being produced across America. I also have goals to perfect throwing pottery enough to teach classes at the studio. Until then, I’m trying to be a good teacher’s aide.
As a side note, I’m torn when it comes to what art form I love more, drawing and painting, or ceramics. I feel more comfortable with drawing, especially human figures. Ceramics is always a challenge, and doesn’t come easy. I have a lot more bad days, and I think the challenge makes me love it even more. Some nights I wonder if I should practice on the pottery wheel, or make a painting. I KNOW I’ll end up with a halfway decent painting, but might end up with a pile of smashed clay from ruined pots. It’s hard convincing myself to do the more challenging thing, but is infinitely gratifying when I make a good clay piece.
Years ago during art history lecture, I’d watch as your bored doodles quickly came to life with gesture and expression. It seemed like there was never a moment when you weren’t putting pen to paper. Do you always have this drive? If not, how do you get past personal creative blocks?
Whenever I go through old papers as far back as elementary and middle school, there are these terrible doodles of faces or unidentifiable scribbles in the margins. I had some teachers and professors that didn’t seem to mind, or even encouraged the doodling, which was really kind of them. Any down time used for drawing, even things that end up in the trash, seem like it keeps my brain in some sort of productive art-mode. Sometimes it even feels meditative. I get a lot of people compliment and comment that they wish they had my art talent, but I don’t think any of them understand that I never stop drawing.
I still get really bad creative block days, but the ‘draw every day’ concept feels like it helps break through the bad days, knowing you’ll just give it another try the next day, and hope the creativity flows better.
Which piece from your LMBP watercolor sketchbook is your favorite? Why?
I’ve been using my watercolor sketchbook as a project piece. I’m doing frequent, not quite daily paintings of people using the Sktchy app. It’s a good resource for artists that want an endless selection of faces and poses posted by the people themselves. Some artists host great reference material, and some people just post selfies. The artists that use the app work in traditional or digital media, so I figured I would use the LMBP book for kind of a ‘moleskine project.’ I have a hard time deciding which piece I like best, but I do feel like each new painting, I love more than the last. So far, my favorite is the woman with her head tilted back. She saw that I used the image on the app, and messaged me that she loved it. She does a lot of great modeling work, and receiving her praise is a special feeling.
I was afraid, at first, of using too much water on the paper, but it holds up nicely to layers of washes. I’m working front-to-back pages, and haven’t had any bleed-through with the ink brush I use either. When I received my first watercolor sketchbook I immediately showed it off to my drawing group friends. It opens completely flat, so I don’t have to break the binding trying to work across two pages.
Bethany is a Southwest Michigan native, who currently lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia and is working as an intern at Orzo Studio in addition to part time jobs. She works on figurative drawings, paintings and sculptures from life, of everyday people using stylized realism. She aims to teach art in K-12 grades, and is almost finished with a BFA in Art Education. @psyche3090 on Instagram is the best way to catch her most current art stream.