Radio Maine Episode 42: Julie Houck

 

12/26/2021

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello, I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine. Today, we have with us in the studio, artist Julie Houck.  Thanks for coming in today.


 

Julie Houck:

It's nice to be here.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You've brought with you a lovely piece that is very autumnal in color and tone, of course, we are recording this in the autumn so it fits the season. Tell me about this painting.


 

Julie Houck:

Well, this is one of those landscapes that you see all over Maine this time of year; a field or marshy scene and the clouds and the light. The colors in this painting reflect what happens to the fields, especially around the marshlands. They all alternate into these colors of sepia and ochre. I'm very captivated by that palette. To me, this is the time of year that is the most beautiful. 

And so, of course, hillsides and trees are always a part of this sort of landscape. So this scene is inspired by that. It's not at any particular place in general, but it's a compilation of many places I've seen. 

When I work on a painting like this, it's usually from studies in places I have seen where I have references. Then in the studio where this was painted, I put something together that works for the painting and also the actual scene I want to represent.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

There's also this lightness with the cloud,  I don't know if it's fading light at the top of the piece, and it contrasts with the green that's still in the field at the bottom of the piece. It's very much evidence of this transition that you're describing that we're changing the time of day or we're changing the time of season. Is that something that you incorporate into your pieces a lot?


 

Julie Houck:

It wasn't an obvious metaphor, but it is a beautiful metaphor for what's happening in this painting. My landscapes are always inspired by light and you'll also see a lot of clouds, a lot of things happening in the sky. 

So this is a backlit scene so you see the rim light and you see the light coming from behind the clouds. And then also spilling over, I’ve got the back of the trees and it's sort of giving you that feeling of the light moving across the field. So it's the directionality of the light in the painting that creates that effect and knowing where to put your light and knowing that what's in the sky affects what's below and what's around it is how this painting is actually working. So the light is seeing if you have to look at here, you know, that the sun is somewhere behind that cloud over there. Okay.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

What's the name of this piece for those of us who are listening to the podcast and like to look it up on the website.


 

Julie Houck:

Across the Marsh.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Across the Marsh. So people who are listening to this podcast and would like to look it up on the Portland Art Gallery website, you can find it there. You do a fair amount of cycling. They go by marshes, I'm assuming?


 

Julie Houck:

Yes. A lot of marshes, a lot of rolling hills. I live in Cumberland, so there's great biking out there.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

When you are out, are you consciously thinking about “this might be a nice scene to paint.” Are you letting things flow by as you're going and kind of subconsciously imprinting these images? How does this work for you?


 

Julie Houck:

Well, I used to be a professional photographer. So when I'm cycling, I actually do do that. I'll see a scene and I'll take a mental picture. I'll go climb and like a visual record and I'll remember it. And then I'll have these favorite scenes that I remember. My favorite routes, and what I often do is when I go back home, I will commit a sketch in the studio to something that I've seen or something had happened in the sky. Or I have an iPhone with me, always. I might get a reference photo from something and say, I like the movement in the sky, or I liked that directionality, or I like that scene. And that's a reference. So I can also go back and do a study in the field of something that I really want to study more in depth, but that photographic memory is really invaluable. So it's a conscious process and it's kind of a win-win to be on the bike and doing research for my art at the same time





 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

What you transitioned from being a photographer to painting


 

Julie Houck:

Well. Originally I was going to art school at night and working in the photo studio during the day, this was back in Boston and that was my day job. It got to the point where it was such an intense schedule that I had to decide where I wanted to put my energy. So, I dropped out of art school to focus on photography. And of course this was back in the eighties, it was all about the money and this and that. Everybody said, there's no money in art. Well, that's the time I made the decision to go into photography. So I did that for 17 years professionally and  was a location photographer, which has fed into my work with landscapes, but I started breaking away from that. It was a very stressful and intense career. I was always on airplanes. I was flying all the time. I mean, it sounded glamorous, but it was really hard after almost 20 years of doing it, sitting on airplanes all the time. And you know, you get to Paris and you go right to the job site and you haven't slept all night. And, you know, then photography started changing and in a different format and no one was shooting film anymore and they were shooting digital. So I then redirected my life and then I returned to art. So I retired from professional photography and I went back to art school and I studied in the Academy of Art in San Francisco, studied in private ateliers. I wanted to learn about light. So I went to a classical atelier in France. So I revisited that career in my mid forties. And now here we are.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I'm interested in so many things you just said, but I'm going to start with this idea of being a location photographer for those of us who just don't know, like me, tell me what that means.


 

Julie Houck:

Well, it means that instead of shooting in the studio, like a still life or a setup or a food shot or a model,  I'm out in the field. And I worked for corporations and did annual reports. I did a lot of work for editorial publications, like Business Week, Newsweek, Forbes, New Yorker,  US News. I did a lot of executive corporate portraiture or stocks, and a lot of high level executives over the years. I was always flying. We went doing it, something in the field. So you'd go out into a location. You go to a corporation or you'd go to a clean room for a biotech company, or you'd go to a manufacturing plant. So you were doing the shot outside somewhere in another environment.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So then the corporation would take the work that you produced and use it probably more internally for themselves.




 

Julie Houck:

No, they were for promotional marketing materials, like annual reports back in the days when they used to print annual reports, they were big marketing materials, corporate collateral. The editorial was always the magazines. So it would be an article and I'd be illustrating an article. And since I did so much corporate work, I was usually working for the business magazines. I didn't do fashion photography. I didn't do food photography. I did people, but specialty, people in location. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So if your specialty was people in location, how has the people element is, is that in any way incorporated into the work that you do?


 

Julie Houck:

Not really. I don't do figurative work. I'm sort of drawn to the natural landscape. In fact, when I was in art school, we had to do the models, the figure, gesture studies, and still life. But when we were done, I went out in the field and I painted the landscape. I was just drawn to what was happening in the natural world rather than what was in the inanimate world.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So you learned the skills you needed to be a good photographer and do the portrait work, but it really wasn't something that spoke to you?


 

Julie Houck:

I was really good at it. Technically, I was excellent at it and it was good. I had a good rapport with people and they'd always send me in to shoot the CEO, CFO, because I could always get them to relax. So that was also an interesting thing about being a photographer at that time, because there were no women in photography, it was a male dominated field. So they'd send me in. They would think that I was the marketing person, and my assistant, who was often a male, was the photographer and we'd have to re-educate them. But then they were always, I could always get them to relax at that point. You know? So the people skills I think were in place and I enjoyed it, but I really felt that moving back to art was what was in my heart. And because it became where you're only doing it for the money and not doing it because it was really coming from something inside you. Whereas the art definitely comes from something deep in me that I really love.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Was there a moment that you were on a plane or on location or doing a portrait shoot where you just thought, okay, I think I'm done with this part of my life. And I, and I, I think I have now made this decision that I want to go back to art school and pick up where I left off.


 

Julie Houck:

Definitely. And I remember there was a shoe that I was making for a company called Millennium in Boston and Cambridge. And it was one of those days where the art director kept changing his mind and we'd set the whole room up. And we sh and that's the deck in the days when you did Polaroids to show people what things look like? So he was shooting a Polaroid, letting him see what it looked like. And then he ended up having us relight the room, like five times in order to decide what he wanted and you know, what he decided to do back to the first one that we did. And I came out of that, just like so burned out.


 

Julie Houck:

And I went home and I just had this sort of heart to heart with myself. And I just said, you know, this is not what I want to be doing. And so we had an attic room upstairs, and so I went upstairs and I got a bunch of art materials and I started just painting and drawing up there. So interestingly enough, my first work that I did was figurative. And so I was all out of my head and they were dancers and I still have a lot of that early work. And I think what I was painting was the joy inside me at that time, the dance of my spirit.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Do you think that the landscape work that you do now somehow continues to reflect that joy?


 

Julie Houck:

Absolutely. You know, nature is infinite. It's always changing. You know, I could go back to a scene and every day it's different. The composition and the skills that I learned as a photographer have helped me in terms of being able to assess a situation very quickly. Compositionally wise the school in the art art training school taught me how to do blue light on form, which you'll see in all my paintings. And that to me is transformative. What is your connection to Maine? I know that you have a Hawaii connection. You talked about living in Boston. Where, where did Maine come in for you? I used to live in Maine, actually in Portland, back in the nineties. I lived here for three years and it was back before it started changing. I remember when street and company was like the first restaurant that started the whole food scene and it was like a major event.


 

Julie Houck:

And so I was up here, my husband and I moved out of Boston to be in Maine. He was originally from Maine. They had a camp on Thompson lake, which we spent a lot of time there. So we moved to Portland. And then what happened was there was the crash recession of the early nineties. Everything became very challenging. We decided to move back to Boston because I was on the road a lot for my photography and driving back and forth to Boston, to shoot for clients. And it was just too much, you know, so we moved back to the Boston area. So when I then moved to Hawaii and I wanted to move my artwork forward, and this was fast forward, like 20 years, I wanted to get my work on the mainland and I wanted to sort of grow my business and grow my market.


 

Julie Houck:

So I knew that I needed a place on the main London order to come to. So I went to a lot of different cities, checking things out. And so I ended up doing a retreat of Thomaston one summer, and I also taught a workshop up there. And when I was there, the lights went off the bells and whistles. It was like, this is it. And so then what happened was I sent it, I saw a magazine, Maine home and design on the table of where I was renting. And I went, oh, this is nice. And I saw Portland art gallery and I went, oh, this is nice. And so I sent a query or email and they interviewed me and then I was with the gallery. So that was back in 2016. And so here we are, I ended up buying a place in Maine where I spent a good part of the year and to go back to Hawaii in the winter. So that's, that's a story of how I ended up here. Just everything I've followed, the signposts said, this is the place. So what signposts then brought you out to Hawaii originally?


 

Julie Houck:

So I had been out to Hawaii for photographic assignment work. I was hired by a design firm in Honolulu to photograph four continental Micronesian airlines. Who's no longer with us to go to Micronesia and photograph all the islands for their in-flight magazines and for some corporate collateral. So I went out to Honolulu and loved it. It went to the Micronesia course. This was in the dead of winter in Boston. So it was the perfect solution for January. So I was in Micronesia for three weeks, photographing a short list of different places that they wanted me to shoot and came back to Honolulu. And then I had to stay two weeks to edit the film and deliver the job. Cause that was back when you shot film, and all those slides had to be gone through. Of course I, you know, it was on Polynesian times.


 

Julie Houck:

So I took my time, you know, it was no rush to come back to Boston. So I ended up making a major lifestyle change in about the next year. And I took two months off in the middle of annual report season and went home, set out for a friend out in Honolulu and gave myself a chance to step back. And that was when I made the decision to move forward with it, with the big change. And so then that fall, I moved out to Hawaii. I had had two friends that had gone through other transitions that were from Boston and they had moved out to Hawaii and it seemed like this just felt right. So I did, and I moved with my cat, two cats and my horse. I flew my horse. I was a dressage rider. I flew my horse to Hawaii, sold all the furniture.


 

Julie Houck:

Nobody said, sell the horse, don't sell the furniture. And I said, no, I'm going to take the animals. I don't care about the furniture. So I actually flew them all out to Hawaii and I continued writing. And of course, you know started very slowly working my way up to making you know, when learning about the art community in Hawaii. And then I ended up leaving Hawaii, going back to art school. So, and then returning to Hawaii, how does one fly a horse to Hawaii? Well, first you have to transport it across the country in a special order. They're special companies and vans that do this and move animals around, especially large animals. So I moved, he was shipped out to the LA area. Then you spend a week on a ranch or some facility that sort of is a place where people are shipping animals because horses are shipped all over the world for various reasons as our dogs and cats.


 

Julie Houck:

And then I ended up flying him on a special transport that only flew animals. So they had pigs, they had sheep, they had horses, they had dogs and cats. And so he flew over on a special plane. There was a vet on board. He had a stall, the whole thing. So I met him at three in the morning at the Honolulu airport. And so he came off the plane rearing by the way, rearing, rearing, rearing at the top of the doorway to the plane, wouldn't come down the ramp. So he was probably just a little tired of all these transitions himself, well fed up. And then his mom stepped in and the poor handler was terrified. Cause he was a 17 hand thoroughbred. And I went in there and I grabbed the lead and I just said, “look”, she said, “oh, there's mom”, thank God feet on the ground, walked down like a little lamb.


 

Julie Houck:

It's like, you know, like mother is here. So I had Rio for another five years. Then I ended up selling him because I was moving over to France to study art. And so a friend of mine purchased him and he went on to do his thing. And I went on to do my thing. It's interesting that you have such a close relationship with him that it was important that he come with you to this next stage of your life. It was. And so were my cats. I brought the cats, the cats have transitioned on, but there's now a new cat. At the time it was like the living things in my life made more meaning to me than the material things. In fact, when I moved to Hawaii, I lived in Honolulu for a year with a friend.


 

Julie Houck:

We shared an apartment. Then I moved over to Maui. And when I lived in Maui, I was sitting there looking for a place to rent and I was over there. I'm looking. And I saw this ad in the local paper, artists studio, loft retreat for rent $650 a month. And I went, oh, I'm going to follow. I'm going to go out and look at it. Well, it turned out to be a yurt. It was a yurt on stilts. It was 3,500 feet up the mountain. It had an outdoor bathroom and an outdoor shower and a kitchen, no heat. And it had a 180 degree view of the valley and the west Maui and the ocean. So that was where I rented for like three years and lived there. And it was just as far away as that Austin material lifestyle that I was in.


 

Julie Houck:

It took me right down to the very simple part of living. And, you know, I hear the cattle in the morning, I'd hear birds. I would hear the wind. It was sort of, I was very close to the ground. It was very important that time to sort of be in that space with myself. And then of course I was surrounded by landscape and nature. And my horse was in the field across the street. I had a friend that lived two fields over, and had a big dressage arena. We used to divide our horses right up the mountain. And you know, it was it was a good place to land and to sort of gather myself.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Did you grow up in the Boston area?


 

Julie Houck:

No, I grew up in the Midwest.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well now I just feel like all these layers, Julie. I mean, I should say for those of you who are watching, I've known Julie for a little while. I've actually written about her previously and for another publication, not the ones that she's mentioned, but now I'm just hearing all these different iterations of Julie. So, where did you grow up?


 

Julie Houck:

Well, I was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then we moved quite a bit. My father was in sales and so we lived in Minneapolis. I've lived in Buffalo, moved back to Ann Arbor, lived in salt lake city. Ended up back in Indianapolis where I went to high school, went to college in Bloomington at ICU. And my cycling vocation started or inspiration started when I was four years old where I got on my tricycle and rode down. We lived in Minneapolis at the time and I rode away from the house. We lived in the lake of the Isles. I started riding around the lake. I was just like happy as a clam and to sun started to set and I just could care less, I guess, kept riding. So these people found me, I remember getting in their car, which of course these days would be like parents were terrified because they thought, what is this four year old doing on a tricycle when the sun is setting, riding around the lake. And so they put me in their car and I showed them where my home was. My mother was of course horrified, but I've been on the road ever since. Okay. Since, you know, in terms of travel and that I think the biking and also the wanting to explore new worlds as part of my even getting into photography. So definitely a Midwestern girl, cornfield, tractors, pigs.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I mean, this is also interesting to me because I have a, I come from a large family. One of my younger brothers actually did the same thing. He got on a little what we used to call it as a broom broom car. He would get on his little plastic broom, broom car and ride around the street. And he wrote up several roads away and people kind of picked him up and brought him. And then you happen to know my family. And we came from a big family, and they brought them back to our family. And this brother also I think continues to have, and has always had this sort of internal drive to be on the move. So it's interesting to hear that you had this at the age of four and you kind of even knew this about yourself, but did you also know that you wanted to engage in art?


 

Julie Houck:

Well, this is a very interesting question to answer because when I was in grade school, I loved art and the art station was one of those stations that you got to go to if you did all your little coursework, you know, so I would do all my little English or reading assignment, whatever it was. And I would want to go over to the art station where they had the easels and the tempera paint. And I just loved it, but my art classes in grade school were always, I always got seasoned art. And the teacher remembered the comment on mine. This was back when report cards had written comments and mine was Julie, always painting things the wrong color, because back then art was, this is the example the teacher is giving you and you have to do it exactly like. So I remember painting things with purple horses and you know, all these orange skies.


 

Julie Houck:

And of course that wasn't realistic. But to me it was, I was seeing things differently from a very early age. So I never thought I was good at art. And I grew up thinking I wasn't good at it. And so I didn't really pursue art until much later. And I remember in college cause I had a degree in social psychology and education taking art classes and just loving my art history classes. I loved everything to do with the art classes we had to take, you know, just ACE them. It was always felt that I was in my element, but I didn't feel that I was good at it, necessarily a trust that inner sense of that in voice enough to follow it until much later in life.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So there are many interesting things about what you just told me. Not the least of which is that art is somehow something that is done kind of as dessert, the main courses, the real topics, the real subjects. But if you get your real work done, then you can do art for your classes. But also this idea that if you need, if you're going to do art, you need to do it in a way that we tell you to, because that's, that's the way art is done. You cannot paint purple horses and cows. But, perhaps the most interesting thing for me, I think, is that despite this, I mean, you kind of still agreed to let these people influence your perception of yourself as an artist. Okay. Well, I guess I'm not good at art, but you still did anyway, but you still had, you still had the internal wherewithal to kind of dig deep and say, but I, I still really like this. I still really want to do this. And not only did you become a photographer, but you came back around to being an actual, different painter.


 

Julie Houck:

I did. And I mean, you have to understand that, that when I was in grade school, that these were the days when we all did duck and cover, okay. We all stood in lines. Our ducks were all in little rows. You had to raise your hand. I mean, there was the boys line and the girls line, there were safety patrols. We had to line up and everything was like in rows, everything, we were very, this was how things were structured and that's how education was structured back then. And that was, it's made a lot of changes now in terms of the fluidity of the classroom and the autonomy the children have in their learning. However, that was the time. And that was the context in which I grew up. So of course, again, the same situation with being an art school and being a young photographer, working in a studio, photography took over.


 

Julie Houck:

It was the eighties. Okay. It was a time, you know what I'm saying? It was all about the money back then. All right. So I gave up our school, even though I loved it because I said, well, I've got to make a living. I mean, I was working weekends at Anthony's pier four in Boston wearing a little Pilgrim outfit, serving lobsters to tourists. Right. I really wanted to not be doing that the rest of my life. Right. I'd been an elementary school teacher for four years and I didn't want to do that anymore. So I realized, you know, getting into photography was my first, you know, entrance in. When I was a teacher, there's another layer you're going to mail one-on-one now, but I did teach overseas in Rome for a few years at an international school. And of course, if you live in Rome and you're in your twenties, you have an Italian boyfriend. So the Italian boyfriend was a photographer. So he put a camera in my hand and I used to go out on shoots with him. And he bought me my first camera, which was a hot Miranda camera. He bought a Piazza in Rome for me. He had two lenses, a 50 and a 35 and I started taking photographs. So that was how I ended up moving into photography. It was like a first segue into art. And, but you could also make a living at it.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So you've had this very simultaneously, this very practical side make a living, follow the rules, do what I'm supposed to do, but kind of secretly like, you know, thinking about joyful ballerinas and light in the sky and kind of getting back to that original four-year-old on the bike, like out in the world, doing what you, what you really want to do. Yes.


 

Julie Houck:

Following your dreams.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And do you feel like you now have landed in a place that feels good to you?


 

Julie Houck:

I do. I feel that everything in my life is working in concert and I really believe the reason, the reason why that's happening is because I have stopped listening to the logical side of my brain, as much as I'm listening.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

More to that intuitive side of what feels right, what resonates following your heart, not being, not being without discernment. But I'm saying that following that inner guidance system and trusting that enough to follow it and live it. And I have to say that I am well, I am very happy that you are doing that because clearly you are creating beautiful pieces that we have enjoyed. We actually have one in our house. I think, you know, I know which we find, which I find just lovely to look at. So I appreciate the opportunity to have enjoyed your art over the years, to get to know you a little bit and to get to know you a little bit better today.


 

Julie Houck:

Thank you, Lisa.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I've been speaking with artist Julie Houk. You can see her art at the Portland Art Gallery or on the Portland Art Gallery website. I encourage you to get to know a little bit more about her. She's just like her art. She's a multi- layered individual and the layers are quite wonderful to understand more about.  Julie, thank you for being here today.


 

Julie Houck:

Thank you for having me.