By Karon Warren | Photography courtesy of Houston Llew
With subjects ranging from music to the moon and back, Spiritiles are collectibles that combine beautiful art with meaningful quotes.
Houston Llew didn’t plan to become a full-time artist. Creating was something he enjoyed as a hobby. He actually graduated from Auburn University with a business degree. However, like many others in the 2008 recession, Llew found himself unemployed and needed a way to pay the bills.
“I liked tinkering with stuff, playing with things, writing, but I had no formal art training,” Llew says.
Even so, he decided to go for it, and started making art. He learned enameling from master enamellist Zingaro and applied what he learned to create what would become his signature format: Spiritiles. These rectangle pieces are composed of vitreous enamel, or glass heat-fused to metal, and copper.
To create a Spiritile, Llew draws his image, which he prints out on a manila folder. He then cuts out the design to create a graffiti stencil. Next, he takes a clean, thin sheet of copper, and applies a base coat of finely ground glass that serves as a foundation or background. Then he places the stencil over the initial layer of glass, and adds additional glass using the colors he wants to bring out the design. Once complete, the piece goes in the kiln. Once it’s done, you have glass fused with the metal.
“It’s a lot like doing cloisonné jewelry without the wires to hold the glass together,” Llew says.
Along with the image, Spiritiles contain a quote or saying, which Llew calls stories.
“They tell different stories,” he says. “Sometimes you start with a story and work with an image until I find an image that goes with the motive of the story. And vice versa.”
On occasion, his mother, Wanda Spencer, a writer, helps him with the quotes.
“A lot of times I’ll run into a block where I’m just like, ‘Hey, I need something that really hits home on this particular motive or inspiration,’ and she helps me quite a bit walking through a lot of that stuff,” Llew says.
Llew is continually creating new pieces, and releases new collections three or four times a year. Primarily, those collections usually are grouped together based on their release date rather than a specific theme. He does have six or seven pieces that make up a group of music Spiritiles.
Although his favorite Spiritile is usually the one he’s currently working on, he does like his GTO Spiritile, which was released in February 2011, and features an image of a Pontiac GTO. The accompanying quote is a song lyric from Bruce Springsteen: “Tramps like us, baby we were born to run.”
“That one is pretty cool,” Llew says. “I like that one a lot. At the time, that was the car that I always wanted.” Sadly, for the rest of us, that piece was retired in January 2015. In fact, Llew retires pieces two or three times a year to keep the current offerings down to approximately 74 pieces.
Two of his current musical Spiritiles include “In Tune” featuring a guitar and a Johnny Cash quote, “Life and love go on. Let the music play,” and “Euphony” with a violin and the anonymous quote, “Art is how you enrich your space. Music is how you enrich your time.”
One of his most recent creations, though, celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. Llew designed the Summer Limited Edition Spiritile to celebrate the men and women who made this extraordinary feat of American ingenuity possible. The colorful scene is surrounded with a quote from NASA on the sides that says, “Pioneer the future for the benefit of all.” He is donating the profit of each “Apollo” Spiritile to the National Math & Science Initiative, which is dedicated to advancing science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.
So why choose this particular format for his artwork?
“I was trying to find something that would fit in one hand and have a collectible feeling [to it],” he says.
Initially, he began making Spiritiles for friends because he didn’t have money to buy them gifts.
“People liked it,” Llew says. “I started selling them. I’ve been working on it ever since. It became a full-time job rather quickly.”
Llew reached out to home furnishing stores, retail shops and art galleries, anyone who would give him the time of day, he says.
Today, his work can be found in stores around the country including Embellish Interiors by Alisa in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Kademi in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Alisa Herron, owner of Embellish Interiors by Alisa, says she loves how unique Spiritiles are. “They do such a beautiful job of choosing meaningful quotes and combining them with gorgeous artwork,” she says. “They speak to the heart and soul.”
At Kademi, owner and buyer Dawn Lea Chalmers seconds Herron’s sentiments, saying how the artwork and quotes bring people together.
“People converse and explain when they buy one,” she says. “The art binds us all together with feel-good stories of human interaction, emotion and thoughtfulness. I love selling Houston Llew’s Spiritiles because I love for someone to feel good about what they buy. That’s what buying a gift should feel like, like you’ve just found the perfect thing.”
And that is exactly why Llew does what he does.
“[Spiritiles] are happy, cheerful and uplifting,” he says. “The artwork is just a medium for me to sell what I really sell. I make and sell happiness. That’s my goal. That’s my product.”
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