I have been a fan of Counsel Langley for quite some time now and so when she agreed to let me interview her, I was thrilled! With an inexhaustible creative drive and a penchant for experimentation, Counsel is a force to be reckoned with. Enjoy!
Where in the world are you located? What is it like being an artist there?
I live in Port Townsend, WA. It is small and pretty; I like the simplicity of living here, 5 minutes to groceries, beach, friends’ homes, and all that—it is good for keeping stress down. I did grow up here, never expected to return, so there are a few too many ghosts, but that is balanced out by layers of gorgeous memories—I’ve got that 1980s childhood nostalgia thing going strong.
The best thing about being an artist here is the stunning good looks of the Pacific Northwest, with its water and light, frequently changing weather and a pulsing undercurrent of mystery—all that feeds themes in my work.
Counsel says "This was taken during this time we had a skylight and everyday when the sun stream straight down onto this little wooden table I would set up these plastic animals and get lost in the way the light shone, filtered through, made shadows; this was when I learned the words "transparent" and "opaque."
I think, for a lot of artists, there’s a tension between feeling called to be an artist and the pull to have a “sensible” career. Have you always known that you’re an artist? How has your art career evolved?
I have always thought of myself as an artist, but as a little kid, I was pretty certain I’d have a stint as an astronaut (with a side hustle of dancing in music videos :), later studying Marine Biology at the U of W tempted me. But there came a point where I wanted to study art more seriously, so needed to make some choices about which direction to take. There was no tension for me, I felt that I could take all my interests with me to influence my work.
For better or worse I’ve pretty much failed at being sensible about income, so that variable never really figured in my thinking. I am grateful every day to be doing work that I love, to be doing something that puts me in a place of continually learning, change and growth, it is, however, challenging living without security.
Since making the active choice to study art at a more focused level, my career has evolved from that point mostly in terms of medium, drawing has always been fundamental to my work, but I have cycled through metalsmithing, painting, into mixed media 2-dimensional work and currently, my focus is illustration and writing.
Can you talk a bit about your process? What are you working on right now? What’s new or different about it?
I continue to explore a mixed media painting technique that has been my focus for the past decade. This work grew directly out of the plans and patterns I’d been making as a metalsmith. I had noticed that the I was more drawn to those than the eventually 3D piece made from them. I somehow lost something poignant and mysterious in the 3D, it was nice and all but just kinda sat there, looking a little self-conscious. Meanwhile, the 2D plans were nuanced, clear yet not obvious, they drew me in and I began to flesh them out with color and more elaborate compositions.
The work I do now grew directly out of that into a form of collage, based on acrylic paint, which I love for its quick drying surfaces that can be drawn on, as well as the way it functions as a glue. I collage in dust, glitter, fabric, recycled materials, but primarily paper images. One of my favorite things to do is take detail photos of a work in progress, manipulate those images in Photoshop—making repeating patterns and symmetry—that can then be printed and collaged back into the piece.
That path has been pretty linear from my work as an undergrad. What is truly new and different right now, is I been intensely studying of illustration, writing, and what story means to the brain. All of my mixed media paintings have some storyline behind them that helps hold them together, guides my choices of palette and formal elements, and emotion I want to put in there. I want to take my love and natural inclination toward story making and build an illustration portfolio—this is all happening FROM SCRATCH, and I am at the early stages, still trying to find my voice as an illustrator, I am moving forward, but it is slow, it is not easy, self-doubt keeps knocking on my door. I am also working on several manuscripts, young adult novels, and picture books—even more than the illustration learning the craft of writing has been some deeply vulnerable territory. I really love it. I love learning new things and being in unknown territory makes me feel alive.
Are there certain themes that show up in your work over and over again?
Oh yes! WOOHOO! Does this lady ever LOVE her themes! Over and over its lost highways, space travel, outer space, rock n roll, water, weather, how we interact with the natural world, sci-fi and fairy tales, cities in collapse, lighthouses, icy lands, fierce animals, nebulas, grids, geometric forms, powerful ladies who appear to be performing strange rites, and the deep woods. I love glowing and sparkling things. I seek out wonder that moves us beyond happiness, hints at dangerous, but is empowering and invigorating.
What is your studio practice like? Do you have any rituals or routines that help you get into the creative zone? Do you ever get creative blocks? How do you get unstuck?
Music is the one thing that I must have. Without fail music makes me want to make stuff. Plus, it clarifies the emotion I’m aiming for, lifts any fog (self-doubt, exhaustion, not feeling it, etc) that may have snuck in.
Aside from that, for me it is better to keep rituals to a minimum and just get to work, with so much else going on, the simpler I keep getting to work the more likely I will do it. I am fortunate that making stuff is the thing that makes me feel good—keeps me steady and solid so that when I’ve been working regularly I am better at all the other parts of my life.
I do set of specific projects and follow a rule of spending at least 15 minutes per day on each of those projects. By doing that I’m checking in daily which keeps the work fresh and moving forward, and since 15 minutes is short it always feels doable, so I always get started--once I’ve gotten started it is easy to work for a much longer stretch most times.
I don’t get creative blocks. I always have multiple projects and ideas that I want to make (my issue is feeling like I am doing a lousy job at making these things). Not surprising having children has put me in a place of never stopping at a good stopping point, interruptions are the norm and I am left always wanting more more more studio time. What I didn’t see coming is a cool upshot of being interrupted, when I have the opportunity to get back to work I am always super ready to dive in and I’ve been thinking about the project the entire time I am away, so that next steps are clear and specific, just ready to go.
So, all that and I am a very consistent coffee haver.
I really love your Combustible Fairy Tales series. Can you talk a bit about what that series means to you?
I see fairy tales as our collective recurring dreams/nightmares. When I make a piece that belongs to Combustible Fairy Tales I feel like I am rolling up images, themes, symbols, colors, numbers, symbols and patterns that come up in fairy tales again and again--nature, young death, curses, silver cups, silver pools, clouded waters, pins, poison, beauty, monsters, the rule of three, tasks, challenges, seven mountain peaks . . . Then I reprocess these and bunch them together into a mass of abstraction, with super massive black hole gravity which collapses and explodes reborn, remade, in new combinations.
Or, sometimes it feels much quieter, as if fairy tales are a vast field through which I am wandering and plucking images as if they are wild flowers and arranging them into a bouquet.
Are you a full-time artist or do you also have a day job/side hustle? If you do have a day job does it tie in with your art practice?
I am a full-time artist in terms of how I spend my time, but I do have a side hustle for the income/survival stuff. To help support my household financially I am part owner in my husband’s commercial fishing business – day to day this looks like being the company’s bookkeeper and office manager, sometimes helping with boat maintenance, moral support, and during certain seasons of the year I make over 200 sandwiches to feed crew :)
I would love for my art career to bring in enough of a second income and am working towards that.
Let’s talk about work/life balance. How do you balance family life, studio time, business and time for yourself?
I have to check in regularly with my priorities and make sure I am, on a daily basis, doing specific things that attend to that priorities in meaningful ways.I am really strict with myself about actually doing more than I talk about doing. Honestly, I am feeling a bit of a time crunch, life has never felt like something that lasts all that long, even as a child I felt that way, and I want to use my time as well as a flawed human with limited resources can.
Some specific things that help me balance it all are keeping a simple bullet journal and setting daily goals. The journal helps me keep track and have a realistic view of how my past actions are adding up, and if they reflect attention to my priorities. With three kids and the fishing business, it can be really chaotic and the schedule is always changing. I have to work pretty hard to keep my creative work as one of my priorities and get some work in daily.
What does being an artist mean to you?
For me, it is a daily practice of skill, technique, and craft so that I can better communicate ideas. Daily practice which brings incremental change, growth, and improvement. I always want to get better at what I do. When pre-eminent cellist Pablo Casals was asked (at the age of 93) why he continued to practice the cello three hours a day, he replied 'I’m beginning to notice some improvement.' I feel that. It is just a way to spend a lifetime.
If you could give you 20-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Draw and write every day. Hush and do it, you can go out afterwards.
To support organizations that are doing good and difficult work, Counsel is donating a portion of profits from any artwork sale during July to ACLU and NW Immigrant Rights Project.