Pigs eating cornbread muffins. Boer goats modeling twee sweaters. Roadrunners in love.
To step into artist Eli Halpin's studio within the East Austin Springdale General development is to discover a color-drenched world of whimsy where animals are capable of just about anything.
During her 17 years as a professional artist (and in her nonprofessional years before that), 43-year-old Halpin has amassed an enthusiastic following drawn to her unique style that includes thick globs of paint, unexpected mixed media and, yes, those captivating animals. In addition to her original pieces, her work has been replicated on countless products, from journals to tea towels, that have been sold everywhere from Barnes & Noble to Anthropologie.
We recently sat down with Halpin, who will be among the artists featured in the East Austin Studio Tour this weekend and next, to chat about everything from her Alaska roots to what it means to be an artist in Austin.
American-Statesman: You grew up in Alaska. How did that impact your art?
Eli Halpin: I think definitely with the wildlife. In my family, fishing was our thing. We lived in Anchorage, but we were always on the Kenai River. We spent most of our time there — every weekend of spring, summer and fall we were driving three hours to the river and camping.
What sort of art did you do as a kid?
Anything creative. If there was an art class at school, I felt capable. It was like the only time I really felt capable and interested and passionate. Math was really hard for me. But anything creative. I did a lot of arts and crafts at my house and watercolors and pencils and crayons.
Did you always know you wanted to be a professional artist?
Yeah, I always felt like that's exactly what I would do. My parents were worried.
When did you start painting full time?
I started painting full time in Portland, Ore. I moved there when I was 19. I was working in restaurants and snowboarding and welding and doing any other kind of art. I figured I better choose something, because it was a little crazy — I was doing glass blowing and I was taking a lot of drawing and ceramics and sculpture classes as well. I started focusing just on painting and putting work up in coffee shops and restaurants everywhere. Portland is such a good place for artists to work full time because the culture there nourishes that. (The shops) just let you put your pieces up and sell them.
What was it like when you started selling a lot of pieces?
It was encouraging, but it was also really hard work and scary. I quit working in restaurants and started selling paintings, so I just wanted to keep up with the demand. This was a long time ago. I didn't have the internet or a cellphone or a website. I had an answering machine and roommates and a typewriter, and I made little labels for the wall with my typewriter for price tags and made business cards with my typewriter. I'd go to the restaurant, take the painting off the wall, put another one that I had been already working on, on the wall and meet buyers at my art studio. I was just making enough to get by, so every month it was a little scary. It was like that for years and years and years and years, and then I learned to slowly raise my prices a little so that I can eat.
How do you describe your work?
It's bright and messy and funny. I think it's funny. A lot of times it makes me laugh. I think people with a sense of humor are drawn to it.
Do you wake up thinking, "Today I'm going to draw rabbits eating tea cakes"?
Sometimes. Most of the time though I'm trying to finish a painting I started months ago. It's much rarer but way more fun to start a painting. It's easy and very enjoyable to think of what to paint and get the inspiration and get the ideas, I love getting them drawn on and having the canvas being built and getting it all primed and ready to go. But the hours and hours between then and the finish point, sometimes I'm like, "What did I get myself into?"
Your paintings are also on products ranging from mugs to tea towels that are sold across the country. What's that like?
It's really exciting. It's a whole different part of the business. It's the licensing part, and there's legal contracts and attorneys and a publishing company that makes the products. I feel like I have this big team of people helping me and all the retailers helping me. It's a huge support system. And my husband works with me full time. His jobs have changed over the years, too. He started out building canvases and cleaning paintbrushes. Now he does a lot of the e-commerce, puts new products up, deals with image organization and contracts and legal paperwork and records.
After Portland you lived in Baltimore for several years and then moved to Austin about a decade ago. Why Austin?
My husband, Michael, is from Houston. We had a friend's wedding here and we were like, "What if we just went (to Austin) and never came back?" So we did. It was warm and clean and healthy. People were jogging and there were juice bars. We had a dog at the time, and it was really dog friendly. I never expected to move to Texas, but I love it here. It's beautiful. And it's really fun to collaborate with other artists here.
Do you have any famous fans?
Brené Brown did comment on my Instagram that she likes my paintings. I thought that was really special. I was so honored. My aunties were all texting me, "Did you see that she liked your work?!"
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What's the hardest part about your job?
It's probably the same for most entrepreneurs: self-discipline. I'm pretty good at it, but organizing your life so you have a good flow of work and rest. It's easy to just fill it all up with work out of fear. Relaxing might be the hardest part.
What's your favorite painting that you’ve done?
I usually just love the most recent one I'm working on. Right now, the most recent one is "Mama Bear." It's probably the most me painting I've ever made. It's all the flowers I grew up with and the river I grew up on and the same kind of fish that we fished. Grizzly bears (which the painting features) are a big theme in my life because they were everywhere when I was little. I'm really scared of them.
What are your favorite animals?
I really like rats. They're really smart. I wouldn't touch a wild rat, but I've had pet rats before. I love my cat, I'm obsessed with her. I love llamas. They're super fluffy. I went to a llama farm and the girl handed me a huge baby llama. She was like, "They want to be rocked and patted." It was so heavy and so cute. I love sheep. My grandpa sheared sheep, so I was in a lot of sheep barns taking photos of them. I have photos of so many sheep with their eyes glowing, hundreds of them.
What animals haven't you featured in your art?
There's so many animals I haven't painted. Kangaroos, koalas, panda bears, Highland cows. There's so many different types of insects and little rodents and weird underappreciated animals. There isn't an animal I don't love. I just think they're all allowed to be here.
You spend so much time painting animals. Do you consider yourself an animal advocate?
A lot people ask, "Are you animal advocate?" and I think I am, but that's up for interpretation. I definitely only want animals to be treated with 100% respect and care.
What theme is common in your work?
Health and food is really a big theme, even though it might be a little more hidden. People will misunderstand sometimes, if I paint wolves eating bunnies they think, "Oh, it's violent." But what about the wolves? It's actually a really perfect food for them. It's probably the most beautiful, perfect food they can get. Maybe not for me, maybe I don't really want to eat that, but I think we're all different.
How has your painting style changed over the years?
I've incorporated a lot more mixed media — glass, gemstones, fabric and pearls and lace and sand. My textures are thicker.
Who are your favorite artists?
Gustav Klimt. That's probably my favorite artist of all time. I like Janet Hill. Katie Daisy. There are so many local artists that I love. And my sister, Kate Halpin. She's a great artist. She's very, very talented.
Have you ever given up on a piece?
It's an easy thing to do. I usually draw it out and I've got a plan. Drawing is a really big part of painting. I took a lot of drawing classes, and it kind of just bursts out of me sometimes. In the past I've done a lot of commissions. I don't do them anymore, but I'm really grateful for it because it made me have to make my hands do what I told them to do. There wasn't room for, "Oh, I'll just change it." No, this is what they asked me to do. It was very rigid, and it was very good for me.
What's your current inspiration?
We went to Hawaii recently, and I fell in love with pineapples. There's white pineapples in Hawaii. They're delicious. I just fell in love with pineapples, and all the fruit there was falling into the streets, a lot of fruit I've never eaten before. That's why I'm working on these tropical pieces right now.
What's your ultimate goal?
I hope that everything stays as good as it is now. Things have progressed so much, and I just want to build on that.
What advice would you give to aspiring professional artists?
Listen to yourself. People are always buying art. People need people to make art. The more art you make, the stronger your art will become, so you might as well produce a lot of artwork. But also take some business classes. And floss your teeth and drink lots of water. Take care of your body and your mind. And get lots of sleep.