Heather Chontos’ studio on Brackett Street is called Milk Farm Road. It’s a collection of projects in various stages of completion: A painted couch, both huge and tiny abstract paintings, a collage of ideas on paper, and a textile design in progress. Two thick books of tear sheets from styling for clients like Cooking Light, the GAP, Anthropologie, Coach, Travel and Leisure, Bon Apetit, etc. Even the little red rain boots by the door feel intentionally and artistically placed, but they belong to one of Heather’s two daughters.
There’s a sense of fun and warmth in Heather’s work. Despite the coldness and the paleness of a Maine winter, Heather’s paintings this season are primarily bright magenta and a range of turquoise hues. Her compulsion to make things is innate and unbounded – after we chat for a while, she grabs a brush and dabs paint on a canvas, her eyes bright and focused.
TELL ME ABOUT HOW YOU ENDED UP IN MAINE.
We had been living in Montana trying out life in the mountains while I traveled for work between California, Chicago, and New York City. I needed to get back to the East Coast and one of my best friends, Michele Michael of Elephant Ceramics, lives in Dresden, Maine. She made it very easy for me to fall in love with Portland when she showed me around one time visiting. It was a quick intro, but I decided that being closer to New York would be best for me and for my work; needing less travel. With all the beauty of Maine, Portland was just too hard to say “no” too. I feel very at home here and so do my girls.
HAS MAINE INFLUENCED YOUR CREATIVE PERSPECTIVE?
I feel like I am more confident in my art here. I’m not sure why, but I feel like I can trust myself better. It might be where I live, a combination of surroundings and progression of my age… I have lost the need to mold myself around or to something. I am just doing my art and hoping that people like it. I guess Maine has created a sort of peace for me. It just feels simpler to navigate life here.
DESCRIBE YOUR WORK AND THE MANY FORMS IT HAS TAKEN.
I started as a painter, but studied art history and anthropology. I worked my way through furniture design, painting, prop styling, illustration, art direction, interior design, and now textile and rug design. I know it sounds like a lot of different stuff, but it all relates and fits nicely together. They sort of feed each other with creativity and inspiration; all taking on the relationships of form and color and the balance that each medium needs to be it’s best.
YOUR WORK IS OFTEN ABSTRACT. HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN IT IS FINISHED? OR, MORE IMPORTANTLY, HOW DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU KNOW WHEN IT IS YOURS?
You just know. And it is important to know when to stop in abstraction. If you take it too far, it gets yucky fast. It loses its form, its balance, its color, its beauty, and it becomes a mess. Abstraction is just as hard as painting a beautiful realistic portrait of a woman sitting in a chair. There is a balance. As far as knowing it is “yours,” I just can not stop until I am sure it is mine. It makes me crazy when things are left unfinished. It makes for some very late nights.
YOU’VE WORKED WITH SO MANY HUGE CLIENTS, STYLING FOR PUBLICATIONS LIKE MARTHA STEWART AND BON APETIT. WHAT IS THE CREATIVE DIFFERENCE WHEN WORKING WITH YOURSELF OR FOR OTHERS?
There are always different demands from clients on that level. But the beauty of doing this as long as I have, is that they know what to expect from me and I always try to live up to or exceed their expectations. I think I have a very fluid, very high level of creativity and the art directors and photo editors that I work with know this. They like to give me challenges, which I really appreciate. I like to create and make my own props for shoots, making sure that it is nothing anyone has ever seen before. I like to build sets that speak to a great world of fantasy or aspiration. I don’t always get to do this, but I love to tell the story visually. I try to do the same for myself. I have really high expectations for myself, which is hard to live by at times, but it keeps me on my toes. I like to make things that speak to the rest of the world through beauty and creativity whether it is for myself or for a client.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE AN ARTIST AT THE BEGINNING OF HER CAREER? OR, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE YOURSELF WHEN YOU WERE JUST STARTING OUT?
Go with your instincts and never try to be something that someone else expects of you. I tell this to my daughters all the time: That as hard as it may be to deal with the reaction that you get when being honest it is always better than trying to wiggle out of something false. It is the same with your work. It is easy to be influenced and things can inspire, but always make it your own. “Own it” is such a great statement and it goes for everything in life. So just go ahead and “own it.”
TELL ME ABOUT A MOMENT OF CLARITY IN YOUR LIFE
I recently came to the conclusion that I have nothing to prove. I always do the best I can, I know what I want and try to go for it. If I fail, it’s okay because I have nothing to prove. “Take it or leave it” is kind of where I am at in life. It’s pretty comfortable to feel that way. It leaves a lot of room to just be me.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Keeping my family together without losing myself in the process. I want my girls to have the best life and learn and experience all that they can, but I also think it is really important for me to not lose sight of who I am in the process. I am still, at the core of my responsibilities and priorities, just a girl who has a passion for life and for seeing it all through a fresh perspective whenever possible. I hope I never lose that. It really keeps life going for me.
RIGHT NOW, WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT IN YOUR LIFE?
That I have the opportunity to be a mother. It is a true gift, sometimes a curse, but most of the time it’s a gift.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST STRUGGLE?
Avoiding chaos. I wish that I could steer clear of chaos, but it’s hard to navigate at the best of times with life being so full all the time.
WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
If I make something new every day that I love, that I feel is great in my open eyes, then I am pleased and feel like it has been a good day.