Words and images by Isabella Sheehan.
Calhan Hale is a Texas-born painter and stylist based in East Austin. With artistic roots stretching back to Saturday mornings spent comparing notes with Calvin and Hobbes at age nine, Calhan embodies the spirit of a creative–one that sees the magic in found objects and experiences and uses her encounters to produce a distinct body of work. Whether she’s using canvas or cloth as her mode of expression, there’s a humor and loudness that prevails. Bright pigments, exaggerated Texas iconography, and pop-culture influences form the backbone of an ideology that emphasizes play. As a painter early in her career, Calhan operates on pure gut feeling and speaks of working through times of fear and self-doubt. It is a tangible sense of gratitude and mild obsession with Quinacridone Opera oil paint that keeps her showing up to the easel day after day.
I first met Calhan at a gathering hosted by mutual friends, Foster ATX, and was immediately drawn to her warm, all-encompassing personality. We’ve been best of friends ever since, and she was the first person that came to mind when thinking of who to feature for Ruta Maya's Coffee is Connection series. The intention behind this new series is to pass the mic to the larger Ruta Maya community, sharing the stories of those feverishly pursuing their ideas–be them artists, entrepreneurs, activists, or academics–and spreading positivity by virtue of their craft. Calhan does this effortlessly. On this joyous occasion, we pop open a couple of cold brews and get a behind-the-scenes look at the artist's studio digs.
How do you take your coffee?
Oh, man. Cold and black. Seriously, that’s it. Cold brew.
When did you first realize you wanted to paint?
I’ve been drawing and making things my entire life. The real game-changer with painting came in high school when I did a summer painting intensive at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. That was my first introduction to oil painting, and color as this thing. I was like, “woah, this is really exciting for me.” It was really about material and color.
What was the lead up to this? Were you in art classes prior?
Yeah! I had been in art classes most of my life. One day I just felt like I should go to art school. I think my mom suggested it. I thought, “well, I need a portfolio.” So I figured this intensive would be a good place to start.
What drew you to the art world at this point?
I didn’t know that I wanted to take part in the art world. Even when I was in school, I didn’t think a future in studio art was possible. I went to art school because I knew a creative education would inform a creative life, but I couldn’t have anticipated that making art would become so important to me.
Were you supported in pursuing art growing up?
Totally, my parents were really creative in different ways. My mom’s background is in fashion and that was an important part of my upbringing–it’s how I learned to express myself from day one. My dad has a sense of wonder about life that he instilled in me early on. Both of them have always encouraged me to own all of the various parts of myself. Not a day goes by where I don’t feel grateful for their support. They’re like, “yo, you have one life.” (Laughs.) They knew I was an artist before I did.
Do you have any early creative memories?
I drew cartoons when I was young. It’s funny because earlier we were talking about having an artistic identity crisis, and I remember crying to my dad at 9 or 10 years old, saying something like, “ugh, dad, I don’t have a definitive style as a cartoonist. Like Calvin and Hobbes, it all looks like it was drawn by the same hand.” My dad said, “hey, you’re probably going to figure it out, you’re like 10.”
Tell me about your studio space. Does working alongside other female creatives influence your work in any way?
Working in the studio with Isabel (Soul Matter Studio) and Megan (Maya Blu) has been the most special experience. We’re able to support and encourage each other in a way that we sometimes can’t do for ourselves. We could have a whole separate interview about how much they mean to me. They’ve defined this chapter.
How did you three come together to find this space?
In the most insane way. Megan and I had been splitting a backhouse studio in Travis Heights which eventually got sold. Right at that time, I ran into Isabel at Brew and Brew—we first met in the art department at The University of Texas. She was looking for a ceramics space and had a connection to the warehouse we’re sitting in now.
Is there a collective group? It looks like a massive woodworking compound.
Everyone is an independent artist. Lots of people making furniture and working with wood and metal. The collective group is the Splinter Group. Everyone is so kind, it has been the biggest blessing.
Texas iconography is littered across your paintings; checkered cowgirl hats, glittering spokes, neon cacti, and so on. What’s your definition of home, and how does the idea of “place” inform the visuals you produce?
Texas is home. My grandparents live on a ranch in South Texas, so that setting–cowboy hats, boots, denim, big belt buckles–is in the fabric of my sense of home. My mom’s family has been in Texas for over 100 years. I love Texas and it’s part of who I am, but it’s not all of who I am. A big part of my work is exploring how this upbringing coexists with other influences that feel true to me. The paintings have become this space where those elements can live together in a new, individualized context.
Can you walk me through the piece we’re looking at now? Do you have any creative rituals?
I’ve got my process down; this cycle of genesis to completion. Every painting I’ve done in the last three years has had the same process. I usually start by digitally collaging; pulling references from the things I’ve encountered along my journey. I’ll move into mapping a concept out on canvas, measuring, and blocking things in. There’s not a lot of pressure at this point. I’m just making sure the proportions are right and spacing is good. Usually, I’m like, “hell yeah, I’m so excited for this to exist.” And then. When I get past the design phase, I’m basically having an artistic identity crisis throughout the whole latter half. This is where growth happens. After a season of showing up despite self-doubt, I’ll hit a point where I know that if I keep going it’ll be OK. Not too long after that, it’s just done.
How do you want people to feel when they look at your work?
I want people to see it and feel charged. I want there to be a sense of urgency. Enthusiasm. Joy. It’s this idea of being self-aware and owning your truth while accepting that it’s normal to have fears and anxieties about how we’re perceived by the world.
For example, the loop-de-loop was groundbreaking in my work. It has become this idea of releasing control and inviting in play. It’s the afterthought. You have this “perfected” piece and then…"the loop-de-loop went in there.” I want people to see it and feel that.
A visual reminder to let go.
When the loop-de-loop first happened, I was so amped I texted 5 people.
You have a great sense of personal style. How has fashion influenced your painting, or vice versa, painting influenced your fashion?
Thank you! It feels more about style than fashion. The way I dress gives me an opportunity to say something about who I am before other people can. Similar to my paintings, it’s about recontextualization. Pulling separate pieces collected over a lifetime to exist in one outfit. For example, my grandmother’s cowboy hat paired with a streetwear tee and these men’s pants I found at a thrift store, and maybe my dad’s boots–to add to the ridiculousness of it all.
And stacks of statement jewelry. That’s a Calhan special.
Everything with everything, baby.
People should know that you are also a stylist with experience working on photoshoots and music videos. How does your creative process differ when applied to other mediums?
Bringing together contrasting elements is the through-line in a lot of my work. If I’m styling, I wouldn’t choose to source everything from one place, just like I wouldn’t want elements of a painting to be uniformly sourced. I steer towards tension and juxtaposition.
What are you working on now? Painting, styling, or otherwise?
I’m working on a few paintings for EAST Austin Studio Tour in November, along with a ceramics collaboration I’m doing with my studio mate Isabel. I’m also styling a shoot with a local photographer I really admire, and I’ll be out in Marfa for a few weeks at the end of September into early October to assist with the Marfa Open Art festival. In between it all, I’ll continue my part-time work with Wildsam Field Guides. I owe so much to the Wildsam family and feel constant gratitude for how my time there has shaped the course of my life.
Describe your dream art show.
I love the idea of a small, West Texas drive-thru town. Nothing trendy. An old Sinclair gas station that has been abandoned for 20 years. White walls, original dinosaur sign out front, glass facade. You’d DJ and spin house music or something rad. Something super out of context.
...Families rolling by wide-eyed in their vans.
It’s a destination that only exists temporarily. I like the idea of people consciously putting themselves in the way of this experience. It’s not a “drop by for 30 minutes on a Friday night” kind of art show.
What’s your idea of a perfect morning in Austin?
I’m more of an evening person.
What’s your idea of a perfect evening in Austin?
A long run around Town Lake between 7:30-8:15 p.m. while listening to The Suburbs by Arcade Fire. That album has made a huge resurgence in my life recently. Then on to Barton Springs right at that time when the sky is the softest gradient. On my way home, I’ll pick up tacos from my neighborhood food truck, Las Trancas. Chef’s choice. Or Salsa Verde plantain chips and a tall boy Modelo from The Bread Basket. From there, I’m either at a dive bar, seeing a show at C-Boy’s, or dancing at Sahara Lounge with amazing friends.
When do you feel most “connected,” or rooted in the present moment?
Painting. When I lose myself in a piece I get out of my own way. It’s the most intentional form of meditation for me. And dancing (laughs).
See Calhan's work at www.calhanhale.com and on Instagram @calpaca.