Memories Like Souvenirs: Interview with Heather Sundquist
My name is Heather Sundquist Hall, and I am an artist based in Austin, Texas. My work is heavily drawn from narratives. I grew up amongst a band of storytellers. Each and every one of them had a part in shaping my attraction to illustrating my own story.
My illustrations have become pieces of the stories that I tell myself; their purpose is to preserve memories like souvenirs. They’re a place where I have control over how I want to address a memory and how I want to file it in my mind.
Much of my focus is on the details. It’s the subtle awkward shadow that I remember, or the kind of plaid a certain couch was that I sat on in November of 1986. These become the thumbnail sketches on how I bring up the memory of a person, place, or thing.
My artwork is also my attempt to honor the past, either by way of exploring its authentic parts or through my own interpretations. It’s where I can release something that was hard and simultaneously where I can explore a dream.
Although my work illustrates my personal stories, it is my hope that, when making and sharing art, I can create a connection with the person looking at it. I want them to pause for a quiet moment, to feel even just the smallest pull on their heartstrings. I want them to recall their own narratives, the stories that have helped to shape them and the ones that they live by.
We love the dream-like feeling you create in your paintings. How do you come up with the “stories” in each piece?
The majority of my work is based on memories, so each piece generally begins with a tangible element from my past. I guess after that, the stories build by the current themes in my surroundings. Lately, that's looked like a lot of foliage, wildflowers and outdoor elements, especially the full moon.
It's a big goal of mine to avoid forcing the viewer into my world. Whenever possible, my preference is to invite them in and recall their own memories, like a lucid dream might unfold while you're dozing off.
How do you collect references and inspiration for your art? Do you keep a detailed sketchbook or is your process more spontaneous? Tell us about how your work comes to life.
Over the last few years, I've been keeping a very detailed sketchbook. I typically create lots of thumbnail sketches and even jot down important words I'm associating with each piece as I am planning. I feel like this initial step helps me get all the ideas out of my head and allows me to piece the elements together that feel close to home and the ones I'm most excited to explore.
During this time too, I search through old photos for reference material. When I have all the pieces, I'll usually sketch out an entire painting completely in my sketchbook. This gives me some more time to play with composition and affords a little more wiggle room to make any edits.
I typically like to isolate the painting portion in my illustrations. The more I use gouache, the more I want to experiment with it. When I have all the pieces ready to go, it gives me more time to challenge my tiny brushes.
When did you first decide to be an artist?
I guess I've always felt like a creative person, but I realized I was an artist when I started feeling that I needed to paint, draw or sketch in order to feel grounded. Growing up, I feel like I retained a lot of memories in my head, but keeping a journal and writing didn't feel like the best vehicle to get my thoughts and feelings across.
It wasn't until a few years ago, long after art school, that I thought that I actually had anything important to say for an audience other than myself. Now, I realize that this is the first time in my life where I feel like my voice feels confident and complete, even when I'm feeling like a mess. It was a pretty big surprise to me to realize how my artwork kind of reshaped me and my life.
What is a day in the studio like? Tell us about what inspires you, how you like to work and anything else you want to share with our readers.
Well, a day in my studio often starts after a long dog walk and a cup of coffee (or maybe two or three). My husband is also a painter and we share a studio in our very small house. We have a pretty solid vinyl collection and take turns alternating between records and dipping into a long list of podcasts. Whenever possible, I like long studio sessions but with a full time job as a teacher, I usually take what I can get. As long as I at least get 30 minutes every day I feel good and connected. The longer I spend away from making art, the more unsettled I get and the more stir crazy I get.
Even when working on freelance work at home, I like to have a piece of my own on the back burner, that I can alternate between if I am feeling stuck or needing a break. I've learned that it's really important to not push anything that I'm not 100% about- whether it's a wash of color, an element of composition, or an entire project. I guess that can be transferred over into the rest of life, too. Historically, quick and rash decisions always comes back to bite me in the ass and I feel like I don't have time to backtrack.
As much as I like sitting at my desk for long studio sessions, I've also learned that I am most inspired by nature, being outside and moving around. I've been living in Texas for the last 6 years and the terrain, my road trips and adventures in this part of the country have really had lasting impressions on me and influenced my work.
Who are a few of your favorite artists and influences?
A few of my favorite artists and biggest all time influences have been Rebecca Westcott, Margaret Kilgallen, Alice Neel, Sally Mann, Henry Darger, Nikki De St. Phalle, and Kiki Smith. I've also always been drawn to works by artists who create complete and intimate worlds, so Alexander Calder's circus and anything Jim Henson has touched leaves a soft spot in my heart. I love installations in art and am always fascinated by how space can be transformed. While living in Philadelphia, I got to see some pretty amazing installations at Space 1026 and the Fabric Workshop and Museum. Those landmarks, along with Shelley Spectors' gallery Spector were incredibly eye opening for me while in art school. It showed me to what art could be and how it could be delivered. I will always be indebted to Philadelphia and it's bustling alternative art scene in the early 2000's for opening the art door wide for me and letting me peek inside.
What do you think about when painting?
My mind is all over the place when I paint. A lot of my time, I think is spent reconciling the day, and clearing out thoughts. Again, painting is very therapeutic for me so I think that while I paint, I just get to sit with myself and check in, feel all the feelings, plan next steps and move along. It's hard to be patient with yourself all the time, painting has helped me practice that and be a little more present with myself and others than I've been in the past.
Share a favorite quote or piece of advice that helped you along the way.
I wouldn't say this is my favorite but it's a good one. I had a sculpture professor in college who would say, "We are human beings, not human doings." His Austrian accent pops into my head saying this from time to time and I laugh, but for me, it forces me to consider the immediacy and the stress of perfectionism/industrialization that art making and even living can attach onto us and I think we all need those reminders every now and again.