Interview: Meghan Howland Discusses Her Moody Oil Paintings

by Nathan SpoorPosted on

Meghan Howland is an oil painter currently working from her studio in Portland, Maine. With a pragmatic approach to creating, Howland shares with Hi-Fructose that painting allows her to express herself in ways that words simply cannot. While painting, she reflects on human spirituality and nature by studying the relationship of humanity to other organisms. Howland’s work exemplifies what she calls an enlightening and horrific struggle for balance – meaning that the intention for her work is that it functions as complex emotional portraits of our condition. She calls it a “beautiful struggle to once again exist more harmoniously with our world.” The artist will take part in a group exhibition titled “Les Petit Fours” at Friends of Leon Gallery in Sydney, Australia this October. Join us now as we get an exclusive look into Meghan Howland’s latest paintings, as well as a few of her thoughts about them.

HF: Tell us more about yourself as an artist and a person. To start, where is your studio located?

MH: I grew up in a small town in southern New Hampshire called Kingston. My family traveled to Maine a lot in the summer and I’d always felt a huge draw to live there. Currently I am living and working in the small but eccentric coastal city of Portland, ME. The city’s motto is Resurgam, which is Latin for “I will rise again”, I think because of the city having burned down so many times and being rebuilt. It isn’t why I moved here, but it seems fitting. For me it was the perfect place for exploring creative ideas and building up a sense of community around those ideas, be it visual art or music. It’s so supportive yet I find people here to be refreshingly honest and to the point about things. I like being so invested in those communities here. It’s also nice geographically because you can be close to nature without being isolated from the city.

HF: How did you begin creating art?

MH: My first experiences making art that I can remember were essentially creating animations. I used to make little flip books of animals and people morphing into other things and then back into them. I don’t really know if there was ever a clear moment as a child when I decided to “become an artist” I was just always making things and it gave me more joy than anything else. I definitely remember the first feeling of validation though, when I received a hand written response from Disney after I had written to them, declaring I would one day work for them if they would have me. I think I must have been about six years old. Back then it served as both an escape and a way to entertain myself and my friends; and as I grew older it became more of a way to communicate and express viewpoint in ways you can’t with just words.

HF: Were there any important life moments or mentors who assisted you along the way?

MH: I’ve been really fortunate to have a very supportive family, as well as mentors both in and out of school. One that stands out to me is Allen Taylor, who was one of my high school art teachers, and an artist in his own right. He is the one who saw potential right away and really challenged me to question what I was doing and why, experiment with materials, and to find my own voice within art. High school was a pretty big bummer for me, but with all of their encouragement and support, I gained some understanding and confidence, and chose the path that eventually led to art school.

HF: When you create your paintings, do you consider them as individual works unto themselves, or do they belong to a larger group of works?

MH: I work in groups of ideas, but I like to keep them open and see how they morph and change as the years go on. I believe each piece has its own life force, its own mood, but they all identify with each other in one way or another.

HF: Is there a lot of preliminary thought or research, perhaps locating models or lighting, or do you simply allow the images to appear on their own?

MH: Actually, a little of both. It all starts with a drawing that is entirely out of my head. I use close friends and family for models and essentially pose them as close as I can to my sketch, always remaining open to changes. I like to sketch people from life if it’s a possibility, and later refer to a photograph if I need to. Other elements are collaged or projected somehow onto the figure, basically with photographs I’ve found or taken. But a painting can change a lot from the original intention. Sometimes I paint over entire areas or create spaces that were never planned. I like the idea of leaving that open and letting the painting tell me what to do a little bit. I like not knowing exactly how it will look in the end, but I don’t think I would start a painting without some kind of general plan.

HF: Your recent work appears to be based on the human figure, while also beautifully incorporating flowers and birds. What themes do you see yourself focusing on, and how do those manifest?

MH: I’ve rarely ever used strict metaphors and themes as a starting point, and instead let images come to me more organically. For me painting is about taking in information and creating a visual reaction to it. When making my work, I reflect a lot on human spirituality and nature, and I study a lot about our relationship to other organisms, both enlightening and horrific. There is always this struggle for balance. I read both poetry and scientific journals quite a lot, and listen to a lot of podcasts. The ennui or mild unease that’s there in the work is a reaction to some of the more ridiculousness aspects of our current society. I want them to function as complex emotional portraits of our condition as it is right now, which in many ways is a beautiful struggle to once again exist more harmoniously with our world.

HF: What obstacles have you found as an artist, and what were you able to do toovercome or navigate those to become stronger or more effective as a painter?

MH: Well, there are many obstacles as an artist, both practical as well as existential, as
there are with most worthy endeavors. I sometimes struggle with balancing painting time with everything else. Sometimes the day needs to be spent on the computer, or even working at something somewhat unrelated out of necessity. I have a pretty structured schedule now so that for the time is well spent, and yet still leaves room for flexibility if something really creatively exciting happens and needs to take over. On a more personal level though, I, like most human beings, have struggled with doubt. I think the cure for that is just persistence and hard work.

HF: Most often, there is a complexity and balance that is often difficult to achieve in your paintings. Is this the way they appear in your mind, or is there some degree of coaxing or allowing the scene to unfold that goes on as you create?

MH: It depends. Sometimes I see it in my head and the finished piece is actually pretty close. Other times it’s a complete struggle and the image is slowly coaxed out from the darkness. It really is about finding that balance. It can’t be calculated or planned really, but you know it and feel it when you see it. When I think of what I’m painting, it makes sense to me that the physical act of making them involved such a back and forth as well, that struggle to make it all work and coexist in one space.

HF: Do you spend time doing many sketches or preliminary studies before you embark on a journey towards a painting, or series of paintings?

MH: I do a lot of drawing and writing before I start a body of work, but they are only sketches that I understand, mostly to remind myself of what’s in my head when I go back to actually create it. If someone opened my sketchbook it would probably look like insane nonsense. I also do a lot of small paintings to better understand something. For instance I’ve been painting these series of little Light Studies to understand what the old masters understood. It definitely shows in the work when I do this sort of obsessive practicing.

HF: You’ve mentioned that structure is important in your creative momentum. Tell us about your time in the studio. What time of day or night do you find yourself most productive?

MH: I’ve noticed the best painting happens either in the afternoon or in the middle of the night, so I usually start my day with computer work over coffee and begin painting after that. It’s really easy for me to get in that headspace where you lose track of time, and then forget other normal things like email and laundry. Right now I am balancing between getting work ready for two group shows, doing a light study painting a day, and working out ideas for a solo show coming up next year.

HF: Do you have any advice or insight to pass on to other artists or young artists-in-training out there?

MH: Every circumstance is so different when you’re just starting out as an artist, and there’s so much out there to aid in whatever facet you feel you are lacking in. I think the best advice I’ve heard is pretty simple; be in the art world as you are in your life. That is, be kind and treat others the way you would expect to be treated. The other best advice, it’s really all about being persistent. If you believe what you are doing is great, or could be great, just keep at it and show it anywhere you can. I had one of my first art shows at an art collective/punk house in Boston called The Cloud Club. We threw a big party and so many people came, and we had a lot of great conversations with people who saw our art. One thing always leads to another, and there is no correct way. So I think everyone just has to start at his or her own beginning and not try to live someone else’s.

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