Interview with Houston Artist and Activist Maria-Elisa Heg
Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States, and the largest city in Texas, is home to many creative types. If you are part of the art scene here, then you probably already know this. However, to anyone unfamiliar with the Bayou City’s artistic community, this might come as a surprise since Houston is constantly promoted as an oil and gas town to outsiders.
Today I’d like to introduce you to someone who is working hard to create collaboration between different communities in Houston through an event called Countercrawl, and who wears many hats as a collaborator herself, whether she is acting as a photo editor, designer, illustrator, comic artist, curator or activist. Her name is Maria-Elisa Heg and she is really awesome. Read on to learn more about what inspires her, the Countercrawl event, and the reasons why she likes living and working in Houston. For more information, check out her Tumblr.
Stacy Kirages for Fyeahwomenartists: Tell us a little bit about yourself Maria!
Maria Heg: I’m a frantic freckled female fighting furiously for the future! I also love alliteration. When I’m not on the clock as a freelance photo editor and designer, I am at various times an illustrator, a comic artist, a curator, and an activist. At other times, I follow my cats around for hugs and feel personally offended when they run away.
FY: Where did you grow up and why did you decide to move to Houston?
MH: I grew up in a place I like to call World Town (Facebook does not yet recognize this hometown) - growing up in a diplomatic household I moved frequently, about every 2-4 years. While it was hard in terms of building long term relationships with people, it was invaluable in the experiences I had and the exposure to different cultures. I’ve lived in France, Turkey, England, Mexico, and have traveled many places in between.
I ended up in Houston sort of accidentally, having come here to attend Rice University, from which I graduated in 2009. Predictably, I hated Houston intensely when I first arrived, but with the passage of time I realized what an absolute treasure this place is. I’d call it a diamond in the rough, but it’s really more like a diamond in the rough covered in a tar ball that’s coated in crude oil with a sprinkle of lean on top.
The Tale of the House, 2012, Ink on vellum
FY: What do you enjoy about living and working in Houston?
MH: Houston is a unique place where deeply residential neighborhoods butt up against industrial sectors - but somehow do not seem as disjointed as one would expect. It’s cheap to live, neighborhoods are vibrant, and there generally seems to be an extremely strong sense of identity amongst those who live here. Unlike many of the older cities of western Europe I’ve been to, Houston has an unformed quality to it. This lends itself obviously to grave failures in planning and often exploitation can go unnoticed, but also lends itself to transformative change in communities that become the basis for more fundamental changes in the city. And change happens quickly! Just to offer one example, since I arrived in Houston in 2005, bicycle ridership has gone up 60% and the city just dedicated many millions of dollars to enhancing public byways. What a change from the oil-drenched car city I thought I had arrived in seven years ago!
Three Spirits, 2011, Ink, acrylic and gouache on paper encased in acrylic
FY: What kinds of artists influence you? Any other influences - cultural, musical, social, etc.?
MH: A student of art history, I take many cues from medieval art. Although no artist put his (or her) name on his (or her) work, there is a language of symbolic representation that I can look at and fall into as if in a dream. El Greco is a Mannerist favorite, and the artists of the Vienna Secession (Egon Schiele, Klimt, Koloman Moser, et al) have always inspired me in their combination of distinct styles, the heavily graphic element they brought to their work, and their conscious rejection of ‘The Academy’.
Illustrators like Tadahiro Uesugi, Jillian Tamaki, Kali Ciesmer, and the legendary Space Coyote really inspire me (and also intimidate me till I’m hiding under the bed crying into a beer) to be more mindful of composition and color. They are so wonderful, all of them.
I also grew up reading comics like crazy. Some of the ones that most impacted me were Don Rosa’s incredible ‘Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck,’ Naoko Takeuchi’s ‘Sailor Moon’ series, CLAMP - particularly ‘Magic Knight Rayearth,’ and the genre of self-referential comics a la Jeffrey Brown and Lynda Barry. But the thing that really made the biggest impact on me was the discovery of webcomics and self-publishing online. So many comics I discovered and styles I copped from that it’d take pages to list them all. But a few of my current favorites are Meredith Gran’s ‘Octopus Pie’, Dylan Meconis’ ‘Family Man,’ Evan Dahm’s expansive world that began with the epic ‘Rice Boy,’ and ‘Darwin Carmichael is Dead,’ which I love not only because it’s awesome, but because it was created by Jenn Jordan, a medievalist (like me in my undergraduate years), and Sophie Goldstein, a great artist currently attending the Center for Cartoon Studies, which in my secret dreams I think about attending.
Tracker, 2012, Digital
FY: You’ve helped organized a local event called CounterCrawl about three times now, which is super awesome! Can you explain the event for anyone not familiar with it? What other kinds of communities in Houston benefit from this event besides the artistic community?
MH: Thanks! Countercrawl just celebrated its one year anniversary this past July, which was very fun and very gratifying for all of us in the CounterCollectiveCollectiveCollective. To put it as succinctly as I can, Countercrawl is a multi-stop, all day, all free event that takes place once every three months. The emphasis in terms of the ‘crawl’ is to encourage cycling and helping those who many not usually see Houston by bike to do so safely in a group environment. The spots we choose are different every crawl, but each one contributes to the growing community of people seeking Another Way in some form or fashion. Artist run spaces, community gardens, neighborhood centers, and otherwise abandoned lots are where we make our Counterhome.
Artistically, we strive to push the boundary of creating art and experiencing art, to make a synthesis between those who participate in Countercrawl as artists, and those who attend the event. A big pillar of our philosophy is the conscious exclusion of money in the event and, as much as is possible, in the planning of the event. Because so much of the art scene in Houston (and at large) centers around wealthy patrons picking and choosing what art is ‘worthy’ of their support, we in the CounterCollectiveCollectiveCollective decided to provide an alternative. In essence, this is an event by and for artists, but because we place no strict definition on what the boundary between art, artist, and viewer is, we’ve ended up with some wonderfully liminal moments where a piece may encompass everyone viewing it.
We try to use the event to raise awareness for venues that provide support for their local communities. A couple of examples are Last Organic Outpost, an incredibly beautiful urban art farm in the 5th ward that provides much needed sustenance in what is otherwise a food desert. Joe Icet is the man behind the farm, and he works hard as heck! They always need volunteers! Another spot is The Compound, a community space run by the electric Veon McReynolds. He provides bikes and bike repairs for the Third Ward, often giving people what becomes their main mode of transportation. He also leads the Tour de Hood, a family-oriented bike ride around the Third Ward. There’s also East Side Social Center, formerly Sedition Books, which provides radical outreach and wonderful free workshops.
To wit, Countercrawl is an organically formed event and is always open for new ideas, new energy, and new enthusiasm. We love Houston!
Photo by Giovanni Paz from Countercrawl V
FY: Are there any other organizations or events that you are involved with?
MH: Right now I’m helping put together the Montrose Rock Revel, an event showcasing local music and art. It’ll take place at Rudyards Pub in the Montrose area on August 25th. Then in October I’ll be participating in Houston Zinefest, where I’ll hopefully have an armload of new comics and drawings to show off and sell to anyone who’s interested! And there are many more plans and ideas in the works! Stay tuned.
FY: Describe the room that you are in right now.
MH: Oh God, I wish I had done this a few days ago. I could have told you about my workspace, and all the drawings and art clippings that are on my green wall, and the big heavy desk I work at. My tablet would be in front of me, and my little cats would be sleeping somewhere nearby.
Instead though, I’m out of town and it came to pass that the only wifi I could access is at a McDonalds in Cuero. Well, the walls are of some strange reedy texture. Abstracted, grainy prints of flowers and leaves are on the wall around me, as well as plaques from the Cuero Little League teams thanking the restaurant for providing them with gift certificates. The woman I ordered a coffee from was very friendly, and it came out that this is her first day on the job. There are also brightly colored advertisements for favorites under 400 calories.
Untitled, 2012, Sharpie on butcher paper
FY: What do you like to do in your spare time?
MH: I love to tend to my garden. We recently harvested the our first okra, and we have some eggplant coming in as well. I’m hoping when I get back the watermelons will have sprouted as well! I also love to read - currently I’m on Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I also love to ride bikes and enjoy delicious Texas beers.
FY: Any upcoming projects that you would like to share with our readers?
MH: Countercrawl VI is in the works, as well as my projects for Houston Zinefest (October 6 at Super Happy Fun Land). The Montrose Rock Revel will be a fun time as well, lots of cool art, music, and performance. Otherwise, I’m just getting on my grind. I recently began a collaboration with a good friend of mine and a wonderful writer, Alex Crompton. I hope it will bear much fruit in the months to come.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your work, Maria!