Artist Essays

In response to the exhibition statement as well as their own personal artistic practice and experiences, each of the artists wrote an essay.

The essays are words of reflection and summary for the viewers of the exhibition as well as the Houghton community, past, present and future.

If I could consolidate all my experiences with Houghton and life after into one piece of advice, I would say: Always challenge your thoughts and beliefs with an open mind. If they’re worth having, they’ll hold up.

Be curious. Never stop asking questions. Ask why and then ask why again. You must determine your own perspective and understanding of the world around you. This will change over time. Be willing to learn, be wrong and then work to be right. Be brave as your path may lead away from the original steps you were intended to take. Wherever you go next, is exactly where you are supposed to be. Surround yourself with those that encourage your journey and never-ending curiosity. Take comfort and confidence in these relationships especially.

Be creative. My education has instilled in me a deep desire to create as a way of discovering truth. Exploring my artistic abilities is my method for investigating. Create no matter your media, profession, experience, and expertise. Creativity is built into everyone and it is just waiting to be expressed. This way of working, where the conclusion is undetermined at the beginning, is hard and it is messy. Your work may not always lead you to the answer right away—don’t give up. Take chances and work hard, your determination will pay off. Create when it feels right, create when it feels wrong. Make rest a priority but never an excuse. Never stop learning. Use your knowledge, skills, and creativity to fight for others and enact justice.

The fear of making choices for myself is what led me to Houghton College. I came with confidence in a plan I let other people make for me. It took being alone and away from my familiar life to see how much that plan didn’t make sense. I cringe to think that I could have become an accountant or in some office working 9-5. That wasn’t who I was. In my first year, I decided to take the art history trip to Spain and Portugal alone; something that was totally out of character. I was really scared of travelling without any friends. Fortunately for me, I met my lifelong best friend on the bus to the airport and that art history trip might go down as the best trip of my entire life. It felt like a right place, right time kind of moment.

That following year, I declared Art as my major. The environment built in the art department is what led me to understand myself. Creating and working within that space was the only thing that gave me peace. I felt a place for myself in the art community. I was challenged and moved to explore my art further not only by my professors but especially by my friends. I will never forget the influence I felt in creating around and in collaboration with other artists. This power of connection has become an inspiration to make art and love my work.

Even though art was a calming process for me, I was also pushed to broaden my surroundings, to grow and know myself. That type of understanding was something I didn’t have to work through for most of my life. This translates to my daily life as I become more aware of other’s experiences that differ from my own. Houghton has taught me that my reality is one of many and it’s important to recognize that.

Houghton played a big part in how my life looks today. Looking back, it feels like I stumbled through my 4 years. To my first-year self, I would say: Be your own person and do things for yourself. Do the things that interest you. When you do the things that matter, the people you need in life will find you along the way. Say yes to things, but also learn to say no. Saying no does not mean you’ve fallen short of expectations or that you’ve let people down, it means that sometimes you have to put yourself first. Keep in mind that your voice is important  and don’t let the thought of rejection hinder you.

I have to remind myself of those things often- especially when it comes to my art practice. However, I can easily say that my experience at Houghton, and the people I met there, have nurtured and guided me to become who I am today. I developed a new outlook that informs how I choose to live out my life: consciously and sustainably. In teaching us to know ourselves, I believe the Houghton community has instilled a responsibility to then build an awareness of others.

I came to Houghton as a daughter of missionaries who had just experienced the biggest loss of my life by leaving Kenya indefinitely, and who had spent the entire summer in a rage because I didn’t know how to process my grief. I owe a lot to Houghton’s international student/TCK orientation program, and to the college in general for providing a safe space for me to transition into life as an adult in the US. It was at Houghton that I made my first real friends in America, including my best friend, who helped me become self aware.

The art program at Houghton completely transformed me as an artist. I had ability as a painter but needed good training and education in order to become a better artist and find my voice. I benefited greatly from the quality of instruction and genuine care of my professors. It was there that I was introduced to abstract painting, and began to learn to develop my own creative practice. Looking back, I can clearly see that my time at Houghton was an essential stepping stone for my development as an artist and an individual.

Houghton was transformative for me, but it was also a fairly isolated bubble. It wasn’t until I left and entered the ‘real world’ outside of an academic and primarily Christian community that I really began to know and understand myself deeply. Over the past six years, I have had the wonderful and excruciating opportunity to find out who I actually am when all of the support systems I had in place were stripped from me, and the bubble burst. I’ve learned to seek out and create opportunities for myself where there are none or they’re hard to find. I began to be able to recognize what I actually want, and by doing so, found the freedom and courage to say no.

I remember getting so tired of hearing people tell me about how life would be so hard for the first few years out of Houghton when I was a senior. That last year had been a very difficult one for me personally, and I felt ready to leave. I longed to start living ‘real life,’ and was ready to throw myself into the challenge of trying to build a life and a career as an artist.

It was an incredibly difficult transition. I had unreasonably high expectations for what I could achieve and accomplish with almost no real work experience and no connections. Those first few years were very tough while I learned to adjust my expectations, worked a slew of bad part time jobs, and slowly began to build a life from the ground up.

Houghton created conditions that facilitated a specific kind of growth within myself. The past six years of my life since have created conditions that inspired an entirely different kind of growth. Looking back at life at Houghton, and comparing it to my life now, I can’t help but feel like everything has changed. This change has been slower, deeper, and steadier. I have learned that I am the kind of person that can handle setbacks, that can fail, that can have the rug pulled back from under my feet and still find my footing again. I have hit rock bottom and have built myself back up again, and now I know that it’s possible. The thing inside me that fights to survive no matter the conditions I find myself in has pulled me through both of these chapters of my life.

If I could tell my freshman self anything, it would be this: Hang in there. You already have what it takes.  

A 2013 graduate, I somehow find myself seven years out of Houghton. In that time I have completed graduate school, moved to North Carolina, landed my first and second teaching jobs, married, and given birth to a son. And yet amid these changes, so many of the formative ideas and people I encountered at Houghton continue to shape my life and identity, showing up especially in the habits I maintain. I still read good books. I still create artwork (even though my process looks quite a bit different in a corner of our small apartment.) I still grapple with questions of spirituality and community. I still have enriching conversations with thoughtful people. And I still explore the landscapes around me.

For me the most unnerving thing about being in college was knowing that at the end of the four years there waited a great unknown. I imagined myself standing in front of this vast expanse that stretched as far as I could see, not knowing what I would do when I graduated. At the time this produced anxiety. Looking back, I wish I had viewed the unknown as exciting. I wish I had realized how much Houghton was preparing me, even if I couldn’t yet know how. Instead it has taken me time to appreciate the enduring core of beliefs and values that I formed. My hope is that current students reading this will trust in this process--in that one way or another, Houghton will prepare you to thrive in whatever space you end up.

The vocational space where I have ended up is in a classroom. As an art teacher, it is my job to design and facilitate authentic art experiences for the youngest artists in our public education system. I enjoy most aspects of this profession, but most especially I relish the time spent researching artists and works of art to share with my students. I enjoy the fresh perspectives and responses ventured by children, the most uninhibited artistic minds in our world. And from their enthusiasm, I glean creative energy--a celebration of the pure joy of making marks. Admittedly, this is sometimes difficult because I struggle to find time to balance my own art-making with my teaching obligations. Still, I keep a running list of ideas throughout the year to explore during summer breaks.

In the spirit of list-making, I thought a practical list might best serve current Houghton students. So, here goes.

  • Space: Wherever you live, designate a physical space dedicated to art making. (That is, if you wish to continue making art.) Even carving out a small area will eliminate the excuse of not having a space to create new work and store supplies.

  • Habit: Sometimes simply showing up to do the work is the hardest part. I often struggle with this. Creativity takes practice, repetition, and routine, all of which is harder without the structure of a class schedule. Give yourself credit for showing up to your art practice, even if it doesn’t always yield your best work right away.

  • Patience: You don’t have to get a MFA. At least not right away. The option will be there for you in a couple of years if you still think teaching college is your dream. And those years in between can help you decide if full-time art-making and teaching suit the post-Houghton “adult” you.

  • Roam: Don’t be afraid to ditch the medium that was your focus in college. Explore other mediums. Teach yourself and break the rules to achieve what you’re envisioning.

  • Community: Connect with other artists when and where you can. It will inspire and motivate you. Go to their shows. Support their businesses. Buy their work for your walls. Surround yourself with role models.

  • Collect: Start an art book collection. For many reasons looking at work on paper is much better than on an instagram feed. Piles of books build up into a library that you can return to again and again.

  • Trust: Enjoy your time at Houghton, but also be excited for the future. Many exciting, difficult, interesting and adventurous things lie ahead- but you are ready for them!

If you’ve read this far, thanks! Please feel free to reach out to me with questions. I don’t have all the answers. I might at least have some good lists.

During the first few years out of college I was accustomed to thinking that all my work needed to be buttoned up; shiny, with a commercial look and feel. Like you’d find in a magazine. And if it wasn’t that, it wasn’t good enough. I wrestled with the idea of what made a perfect image.

It wasn’t until recently I began to realize the value of raw, human moments in my photographs. As a photographer what I’m constantly looking for is the heart in an image. I’ve found myself drawn to the plain and simple “as is” moments of life. Some of my favorite images were unplanned — not off a shot list or moodboard. I think there’s something to be said about spontaneity. If you’re able to keep spontaneity in your toolbox, you’ll be able to capture some really beautiful moments. To me, it’s one of the most exciting parts of being a photographer. It’s a fleeting moment that can pass in the blink of an eye or linger for a few seconds. It’s up to you to press the shutter and to exist in that moment.

Houghton laid the groundwork for my worldview. I made my first trip west at the end of my freshman year and spent three weeks in Colorado and Utah on an adventure sports Mayterm. After graduation I ended up moving to Colorado to make photos and videos for a variety of brands and organizations. Meeting students at Houghton from around the globe broadened my worldview and built lifelong friendships that exist to this day. It’s a total “small world” moment when I can be in London and have an interaction with a stranger and have them know what or even where Houghton is. During my time at Houghton I had professors who encouraged me to dive deeper into the visual arts. They really pushed me to try different approaches in my work and find what worked well and what needed improvement. To this day I think about the rules of photography that professor Cooley taught. And to quote him, “In order to break the rules, you have to know them.” — this has been a mantra of mine since.

Houghton and the surrounding Allegany County area instilled a minimalistic approach to my work. I have a deep love for natural places — one of my favorites being Letchworth State Park. To this day I find myself always looking for motifs or elements that tie in with the years I spent in Western New York. Sometimes it’s a river, other times it’s a wide open landscape and a friend walking in the distance. Scale is a recurring theme in my work.

Be open to new ideas and different ways of thinking. Work together and collaborate with one another. In doing this you’ll take your ideas further than you could have alone. There’s beauty in allowing everyone involved to contribute and use their skill set to elevate the end product; whatever that may be. I rely heavily on the talents of my friends. It’s such a motivator when you’re not feeling creative to lean on your friends and have them get you out of that rut.

You don’t have to know exactly what you want to do. I didn’t. I still don’t. The best piece of advice I can give you is to chase something that excites you. In doing so you will learn what it is you’re good at, where you’re weak and how you want to grow as an artist. Lastly, pay close attention to your visual diet. It acts similarly to our normal diet. You want to consume art, film and music that fills your soul, much like a home cooked meal after a semester of dining hall food.

Don’t be afraid of being wrong. It’s important to accept when you’re incorrect and to learn from it. There isn’t a direct route to accomplishing something. Experiment. Learn. Repeat.

Since graduating with a BFA in Studio Art from Houghton, My artistic interests have taken me down various avenues: creating bespoke abstract paintings for interior spaces, running a successful business designing and printing letterpress stationery goods, and I am currently finishing up my Master in Fine Art at the University of Chester, England. Looking back, Houghton provided foundations in my artistic practice that I still adhere to this day, echoing a constant familiarity as my artistic values and work continue to evolve. This has helped bridge the gap between areas of transition and translation, especially as I pursue my MFA degree while running a creative business.

I remember when I got engaged a year after graduating. I was working at Houghton as the Assistant Volleyball Coach, and also assisted Professor Jillian Sokso in the print studio in return for the use of the facilities. I decided to design and letterpress my own wedding stationery, as I had the opportunity to do the same for a friend a few months before, fueling my interest in this specific craft. As I was working on my designs, Professor Murphy walked by and said “you could make a business out of this.” not thinking much of it at the time. Fast forward five years, and here I am, running my very own letterpress studio and shopfront in the heart of Chester, England. Since discovering letterpress at Houghton, I have continued to develop a deep appreciation for this unique craft. It is such an exciting time to be in letterpress as part of today’s movement to exercise and protect these mindful, purposeful skills and processes. I feel honored to be part of the conversation in keeping this craft alive and relevant in times of change.

Running a business and being creative is hard. Stationery itself is a very saturated market, to stand out you need to find various ways to diversify yourself. Your artistic aesthetic is a very important element to that diversification, but, it does not mean it will always separate you from the bunch. In today’s retail world, if you can offer a unique product, a service, and a memorable experience, you are one step ahead of the rest. I am certainly not a business built person. However, I found if you can embrace those three elements within your business, and do it well, people will keep coming back. We as a business strive to meet all three categories by creating timeless and unique designs for our paper goods, offering services such as printing for other businesses, and creating an experience through various forms whether that be unboxing your order, or offering letterpress workshops for our customers. Not only does this add an advantage to your business model, it also adds various revenue streams essential to your turnover and profit margins. There has been much trial and error while building my stationery business, and I want you to know that good things take time, research, and constant refining.

The journey to starting and running my own business using my creative drive recently unearthed an area in my artistic practice which I discovered a hunger for again; making non-representational, abstract compositions. My final exhibition at Houghton consisted of abstract oil paintings, and I wanted to continue that journey once again. I always knew I wanted to pursue a Master in Fine Art after my undergraduate degree, and with an established business and still season of life, I felt it was the right time.

Fine Artists make things not fit, but work, and I have found this to be my agenda through collage, which has been a big part of my work throughout my MFA course, and have submitted three collage pieces for the Alumni Exhibition. Houghton gave me the studio foundations and techniques of how to use different mediums as a vehicle to represent and express my work. This has been vital throughout my MFA as I have transitioned to a course that is very self-guiding in your practice and heavily research based, rather than in-class studio based much like Houghton. I graduate from the University of Chester this Fall (2020), and I am currently translating the smaller collage pieces into large, oil painted works; treating the collages as a still life and playing with the notion of scale, challenging the viewer to question the relationship of the collage to the larger painting for my final MFA exhibition.

I was a freshman at Houghton College in 2011. The person I was then is as unrecognizable to me as I’d be to her today. She’d probably look at me in scandalized horror. Reflecting on the nearly ten years between these two iterations of myself, full of change, loss, deconstruction, and reinvention, makes me wonder if I’d be able to explain to “past me” just how she ended up here.

Many Houghton students would find my background familiar. I never knew a day of my life in which my fundamentalist evangelical christian faith didn’t permeate every aspect of existence. Although there wasn’t another option, I was a willing and engaged participant. I fit every mold with which I was presented: I was a white, feminine-presenting, cisgendered woman. I learned how to be quiet, to block my pain with cheer. I went on missions trips. I believed the unquestionable idea that the only truth was to be found in fundamentalism while the rest of the world lived with a veil over their eyes. That is, until I began to notice my own veil: I realized the “truth” being fed to me was in opposition to the truth of my own experience. I was being lied to.

I can list some examples. I grew into adulthood in an environment that told me my humanness meant I was at once grossly abhorrent to an all-powerful deity, and able to be best friends - even, in some confusing instances, a lover - with him. The truth is, I was never able to reconcile the great fear and anxiety that has scarred my psyche because of the teachings about this god with the great love he allegedly had for me.

I was told from prepubescence onward that my womanhood made me a stumbling block, a dangerous trap, the origin of evil, but also made me precious, submissive, nurturing. I’ve had to undo a lifetime of tweaking my personality to fit these traits. The truth? As a mostly cynical control-freak, I am neither precious nor submissive. I’ll nurture you if I like you.

I signed Houghton’s “community covenant” and student guidelines, both of which egregiously single out members of the LGBTQ+ community by including their relationships under “sexual misconduct.” The truth presented to me and other students was that those identifying as LGBTQ+ were welcome to pursue an education at Houghton, but I’ve witnessed how my friends and fellow students have suffered within this discriminatory environment, and how the school’s administration perpetuates it. One of the last remaining shreds of the veil covering my eyes was torn off most recently when Houghton College signed an amicus brief stating employees should not be protected from discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act based on sexuality or transgender identity. Part of Houghton’s mission statement is to equip students “to lead and labor as scholar-servants,” but had this hoped-for ruling come to pass, some of those same scholar-servants would be adversely affected by the discrimination it would allow. I continue to pay off loans from attending a college that will accept your dollars to prepare you for a workforce it wants the right to keep you out of.

I could go on. I say all of this because first-year me didn’t have the vocabulary or permission to call out specific things that have harmed her and her peers, all of which I’m giving myself now. Instead of seeing my own experiences as reality, I listened when I was told they couldn’t be trusted. When I try to pinpoint exact moments of disenchantment, there are some that stand out, but the view is mostly hazy. The last ten years of searching have looked less like lifting the veil and more like slowly tearing my way out of it.

How do I explain something like that to my past self? To someone dedicated in mind, body, and spirit to a system that only ever gives countless, traumatizing dualities, I’ll give the truth: you’re going to leave. You’re going to be terrified, and profoundly sad. Eventually, that grief will widen your capacity to create a life in which you can trust and celebrate yourself. Your world gets so much more expansive when you give up something like your entire way of existing. You’ll find more good within yourself than you ever did within your faith. It’ll be as painful as it’ll be rewarding. You will, ultimately, let go of your cherished and deeply held beliefs and step into something, somehow, more infinite.