Heather Chontos is an internationally recognized abstract painter and newly minted sculptor currently living and working in Berlin. I first met Heather in my role as Director of the Corey Daniels gallery in Wells, Maine. Soon after, we became fast friends. Heather’s fearlessness has always impressed me – both in her work, and in the way she designs her life as a creative act. Her work has recently graced the covers of Harper’s Bazaar and Bentley Magazine. She has been invited to collaborate with folks from French fashion icons to Kate Spade. She is represented in New York and London and travels the world making life and work, all while balancing the challenges of being a single mom. From the outside, Heather is a stunning success. But there is an immense amount of effort and juggling she undertakes to make it all happen. I reached out to her with the Maine Arts Journal’s current emphasis on Balance to get a sense of how the hell she does it.
How do you make, find, and sustain the time for your art?
It’s a complete and utter juggling act of responsibility and time and space allowance. I work whenever I can, but also whenever I need to, which is every day. I move furniture around, I bring a kid to school, I drop a dog at the dog-sitter, sometimes. I get up at 5 a.m. to prepare so that I can also make breakfast for my daughter, pack her snack, pay some bills, mix some colors etc.…
What do you give up?
It feels like I give up everything that is “me” outside of my daily life as a parent, caregiver, and support system, but I wouldn’t know, really. I have known nothing else. It has always been just me making it all work.
How do you navigate the various webs an artist moves through as you negotiate responsibilities to your family or community?
I navigate like a bulldozer! I have to weed through the most important parts of my life and make sure I show up for those that matter the most. There is a lot of demand for social media now, which eats up a lot of time and attention. It feels like a constant effort. I am on my own with my youngest daughter, and I am her only source of parenting and family right now. It’s intense to be that person and also want to be the selfish artist that I also am. It’s all a big compromise. It often feels impossible to find a true balance here. I make sure my family is good, and then the rest falls into place around that.
How do you shift from your personal to more public relationships?
I shift with caution.
I think that most people are shitty these days. The human race is rather disappointing a lot of the time. I don’t have a lot of time for bullshit, so I try to keep that perspective to myself when I need to make public appearances. Otherwise, I keep to myself, and the small handful of people I love. I am lucky enough to have some really amazing people in my life. I don’t do small talk and false connections with people. It’s not worth my time.
This balancing act that a life as an artist demands is different for each individual. How do you see yourself, or, how might you be seen, by your family, or your friends?
The truth is that people have very strange ideas about what being a living/working/functioning money-earning artist actually means. My parents still often ask me when will I get a real job and what I might want to do with my life. This, I find strange, being that I am 40 and have raised two daughters alone. 🙂
My true friends understand the intensity of the work that needs to be done in order to keep everything going, and the constant physical and emotional toll that this sort of work takes on an artist who is really committed. It’s such a personal thing that you are sharing with everyone and then there is the physical work, and then the admin part of it all.
When I tell people I meet that I am a working artist, they presume I have a rich uncle somewhere or a sugar daddy paying my way. Oh how I wish this was true, but it is not and I am not starving, either. I think it is amazing how little awareness there is in the world about what it ACTUALLY means to be an artist.
A lot of artists that find great success spend a lot of time doing residencies all over the world and going to art openings and events. They meet a lot of people, which is key. I have been fortunate enough to be able to take part in some of this, but because I have a family, I am not able or allowed to do a lot of residencies, as you often cannot bring children. As a truly single parent, I cannot leave my daughter for any extended period of time, so my options are slim. There need to be more opportunities for women artists to be able to take part and not have to worry about leaving kids behind.
Most days, I want to just live and breathe my work. I want to wake up and just exist inside my own head in a space where I can create, but that is not reality for me, at all. I have a smallish loft- style apartment in Berlin where we are spending a few years. I am painting here, too. I need a bigger space to work in, but it’s all so expensive. I have to be home with my daughter, so I can’t just take off when I want to paint. I have to work from home.
I move around a lot of furniture and am always cleaning the floor because I paint big and I have to put my paintings on the floor to make it work for me. I barely have room to hang up my work. I do “live and breathe” my work, but it can be a little suffocating at times. Now, with the sculptures, I need a workshop, so I rent time in one where I have access to tools, etc. It’s all just a never-ending shit show half of the time, but I am happy doing what I love and the adventure of it all is worth it.
Is there an artist who is a model for you as a mentor or a warning?
Joan Mitchell. “They call me savage.” I would like to have known her. Her work is amazing and her attitude is even better.
Share with us the toll taken or benefits received by your lifestyle in the arts.
Major benefits: I can be home when I need to for my family, which is a major benefit. This has been the number one reason, alongside the fact that I can’t imagine doing anything else, that I am certain this is what I am meant to do.
The toll taken: I feel like a selfish asshole a lot of the time, and narcissistic. I am mostly alone working in my space, not talking to others. It is lonely sometimes.
Image at top of page: Heather Chontos, Naratore, Oil, oil stick and acrylic on jute, 62” x 84”, 2018