Currently living and working in Smithville, Texas, Heather Sundquist Hall is an artist and illustrator heavily influenced by nostalgia. Despite drawing upon personal imagery and narratives from the artist's past, Hall's paintings are universal, reminding us of days gone by as well as the dissipating nature of memories. Intimate in size and scale, her works' detailing and alluring color palettes beckon for viewers to pause for a closer look.
Caleb Bell: When describing your paintings, you've said that their purpose is to "preserve memories like souvenirs." Could you please elaborate on what that means to you?
Heather Sundquist Hall: We generally have photographic proof of important events in our lives like birthdays, vacations, graduations, etc. Often, those are the souvenirs or take aways from the big events. We don't always have tangible items that bring us back to the smaller, more fleeting moments; maybe because we don't realize their significance at the time or, simply, that we can't know how they will transpire. What I enjoy highlighting in my paintings are objects, vehicles, or other familiar objects that I remember from growing up. My hope is to remind the viewer of our connectedness and provide them with an opportunity to recall their own lesser, yet significant experiences. To me, those events feel like "B sides"; but it's those events that play a larger part in our overall story. I also like to reimagine things in a slightly surreal way. I think that is a nod to how our memories shift and our imagination seeps into them over time. Things get fuzzy as we age, and sometimes it's more enjoyable to think about how one wished things actually went and tap into that childlike perspective.
CB: While you are drawing upon these past experiences of the mundane for your artwork, do you think you have developed a greater appreciation for the present everyday?
HSH: Absolutely. I definitely am more fine tuned to noticing the small things and letting seemingly ordinary events wash over me. I take lots of photos and make a lot of notes on my phone when traveling, even when I'm just out taking my dog for a walk. I think too that appreciation dictates the ways I travel. I will generally opt for the backroads or the more scenic routes to get here or there. It's in the meandering when there is opportunity to be inspired. I guess I've had a few ideas here or there while stuck in traffic, but I think the quietness is what really allows the space for me to populate my ideas for work.
CB: Speaking of your love for traveling, I have been thinking about your zine The Key to the Universe, which even features a suggested road trip playlist. Could you share a little about it? Is it the only zine you've made?
HSH: Key to the Universe was my first zine but hopefully not my last, aside from the ones I self published at the age of 7 about my recent trip to Baltimore with my mom. This particular zine came about by Julie Webb of the Webb Gallery giving me a deadline. During the beginning of the pandemic, Julie reached out to me about creating a zine for their upcoming Freedom Zine Fest, which also included work by Martha Rich, Esther Pearl Watson and Jackie Dunn Smith. It was a pretty grim time in the world and this particular zine show was meant to serve as a bit of a pep talk for folks. I was thrilled because sometimes a deadline lights the fire underneath me to not make things so precious and to just experiment. I chose the theme of the road trip because it was the thing I was itching for the most during that time when we were all stuck at home. I used elements of drawings that were previously parts of my paintings like things you'd see on the side of the road, like mailboxes, abandoned couches and billboards. The playlist was a nod to the open road and included folks like Terry Allen, the Breeders, and Guy Clark, to name a few. I listen to music while painting and use a lot of music lyrics as parts of my paintings' titles too. The title of the zine, Key to the Universe, is from the Bruce Springsteen song "Growing Up." The very last page has a road trip bingo sheet that is reminiscent of the one my mom had in her car when I was a kid. My sister and I would play it on road trips. I have some other ideas for zines that involve adventuring that I hope to make in the future; I just need another deadline.
CB: I also can't help but see the influence of travel on your landscapes and the backgrounds where your objects of yesteryear live. Can you speak to where these spaces are coming from?
HSH: They definitely come from traveling and being in the car. I live in a tiny town in Texas and it takes awhile to get places.
I also think it comes from a place of wanderlustwanting to be places that are even quieter than my town, which might be hidden or desolate.
I really love the Southwest scenery. Between the different kinds of cactus, flowers and brush, it all feels so old and soulful. Before moving to Texas, I had a minimal sky view. Once here, I really became fascinated with the multitude of color transitions throughout the day.
My husband and I do a lot of hiking and exploring places too. Sometimes, we've even found some objects from yesteryear along paths tucked away. I think it's really interesting to think about how things arrived at their "resting place." Old, beloved items take on new meaning when they're discarded and covered in ivy or vines. There are likely stories behind all of them and it's fun to create your own narrative.
CB: I sense the quietness in your work. Would you say that the size of your paintings and their color palettes reinforce that idea?
HSH: I think so. I really enjoy the intimacy of smaller work and rarely want things to come on too strongly. I like my work to wash over the viewer like a breeze. I think the colors I choose and the sizes really encourage that opportunity. Gouache is such a delicate medium. I like experimenting with it and pushing the softness. The colors tooI want them to attract the viewer subtly but also be reminiscent of faded memory.
Details are really important to my work, large and small. I always enjoy watching the viewer get really close to the work. I want them to notice different things each time they view pieces, kind of like a hidden pictures hunt from old Highlights magazine for kids.
Heather Sundquist Hall is a painter/illustrator who has lived in the Central Texas area for the last decade. Her work is inspired by memories, nostalgia, dreams and landscapes. Heather paints using gouache on Arches Hot Press paper and focuses on the often overlooked details of her subjects. Heather has shown her work around the country, most recently at the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, Texas, Wrong Marfa in Marfa, Texas, and Nahcotta in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Caleb Bell is a writer and the Curator at the Tyler Museum of Art. Bell's writing and curatorial practices work to expand the conversation around creativity and connect audiences with art.