Written by: Francesco Vincenzo Iacono
Houston Llew is a man with southern roots and all the charm to prove it. Houston’s kind heart, wit, and warmth emanate from his masterful Spiritile Collection. He took a circuitous route to the birth of Spiritiles.
As a graduate of Auburn University, Houston began a career in the corporate world. In 2008, he found himself unemployed in the middle of the great recession. Through fortuitous circumstances, Houston met the master enamelist Zingaro and followed him around, shadowing the artist around his studio until he gave Houston the keys to enameling that would later evolve into his first work – Spiritiles.
For months, Houston spent every waking hour over a kiln, experimenting and sketching. This tenacity kept him going so that when one thing wouldn’t work, he would step back, retool, and try a new path. He is infamous for “spitballing” ideas and trying seemingly crazy things just to see if they work. By harnessing that constant experimentation, his artistry evolved from enameled imagery to a combined image and story design. From the beginning, what pushed Houston forward was his uplifting thoughts and musings. This became the cornerstone of his work – create art that inspires, uplifts, and brings a hopeful connection to life.
Houston’s work in enameling is based on his belief that meaningful art is about emotion. Thus, every Spiritile created reflects a piece of our story. These icons stretch our memory and bring to mind the people we love, the things we cherish, and the passions we pursue. When Houston first started his artistic journey, he sought a medium to animate this inspiration. Vitreous enamel, the art of glass heat-fused to metal, is as ancient as Mesopotamia, with infamous historical artworks in royal jewelry and imperial treasures. It is an illustrious but little-known medium that Houston cast in a new form. With its metallic base as canvas and its myriad glass colors as “paint”, what makes this work unique is the story wrapped around the sides of each piece. Some Spiritiles quote authors and poets, other philosophers, and fellow artists, but every piece is designed to speak to our life and reach our emotive self.
In this edition of The Creative Spotlight, we caught up with Houston Llew and we asked him a few questions about his artistic influences, his career as an artist, his unique Spiritiles, as well as his marketing approach to reaching his collectors.
The Creative Spotlight: How and when did you decide to embark in your profession and who or what influenced you to become an artist?
Houston Llew: I started enameling in a poorly constructed leaning garage in Atlanta, Georgia. In the middle of the great recession, during a record-breaking hot summer, I found myself unemployed. Through fortuitous circumstances, I befriended the master enamellist Zingaro. I shadowed the artist around his studio until he finally gave me the keys to enameling. This would later evolve into my first works ─ Spiritiles.
For months, I spent every waking hour over a kiln, experimenting, sketching, living on only “Ramen Noodles and Beer”. The only reason my art exists today is because I had no other option ─ no job to fall back on, no security other than what I could create myself. Tenacity keeps me going. When one thing doesn’t work, step back, retool, and try a new path.
TCS: What is a Spiritile?
HL: Spiritiles are enameled artworks that create happiness, spark joy and brings hope to each person who encounters them.
Each piece is made by hand with a copper canvas and colorful glass. The enameled image is enhanced by the natural “crazing” which magnifies the luminescence of the glass. This image is coupled with an uplifting story that wraps around the edges; each Spiritile is as unique as its collector.
TCS: What three words best describes your specific style of artwork?
HL: The three best words would be:
TCS: How do you make a Spiritile?
HL: First by laying powdered glass, or “frit,” onto a perfectly cut copper canvas, using a series of stencils for each layer of color, playing cards, and hand sifters to carve out the design. Once delicately aligned and layered, the glass and metal is carefully placed in the red-hot kiln.
TCS: Is there one specific thing that makes Spiritiles meaningful?
HL: I believe that meaningful art is about emotion. Thus, every Spiritile created reflects a piece of our story. These icons stretch our memory and bring to mind the people we love, the things we cherish, and the passions we pursue.
TCS: What do you feel makes them a unique piece of artwork?
Spiritiles offer community – a tangible, familiar image paired with a beautiful sentiment. When collected, Spiritiles become a montage of moments that make us smile, laugh, remember, and dare to dream. As gifts, they share brilliant moments with the people you love or admire. Whether it’s commemorating an important milestone like a big birthday, wedding, a graduation, first home, or even a sales goal exceeded, Spiritiles are the perfect way to honor the moment.
TCS: What are the cracks in an enameled piece?
HL: When the enameled piece is removed from the kiln it’s cooled under a planchet. The natural “CRAZING” occurs in enamel. It increases the luminescence of the glass.
By rolling a pin over the surface of each piece after cooling, the light refraction in the glass increases and the enamel becomes malleable enough to frame.
TCS: How do you hang a Spiritile on a wall?
HL: Typically, you can use 1.25″ drywall screws. The hole in the back is at a slight angle, so the weight will pull it to the wall.
The ideal spacing is 2″ between tiles. This puts screws at 7.25″ apart horizontally and 10.5″ apart Vertically.
TCS: What provides you with ideas and inspires you to create such beautiful tiles?
HL: Neither image nor story come first.
Before any of that there is that raw emotion. Every piece is designed to speak to our life and reach our emotive self. The imagery & medium are very engaging, but the story is where I’m able to gain access to the emotional connection. I spend great care crafting how I want each syllable to make you feel. Stealing & bending the words from others to create my own sentiments.
TCS: Over the course of your career, what is your favorite Spiritile?
HL: It’s always the one I’m currently working on! So, by the time you see it… it’ll be something else. I sort of live in the moment when it comes to my favorite art.
Picking a favorite would be like picking between your children. I’m proud of all of them equally (most of the time)!
TCS: How do you market your Spiritiles and do you participate in any public appearances?
HL: We only sell through our select Retail Partners who have brick and mortar storefronts. Human interaction is what Spiritiles are all about. We used to attend Markets around the country but more recently we’ve been fortunate enough now to have Retailers hear about us from seeing us in other partner shops during their own travels. So, essentially, we’ve been operating mainly by word-of-mouth!
In the past, I have done shows with our Partners in which I would visit and sign Spiritiles for collectors who attended, but when our first son was born, they became less and less frequent. Equally, we were then all stuck at home for a while due to the pandemic, so travel was severely diminished over regulations. So, the short answer is, it’s always a possibility. Additionally, it’s a great reason to have the opportunity to meet with collectors from all over the country!
TCS: What do you say are the best and worst parts of being an artist?
HL: The best thing is being able to see the smile and joy that I can bring to collectors. Seeing their personal connection to Spiritiles is exactly why I wanted to create them in the first place.
The worst thing is perfectionism. In every Spiritile, I can always see just one more week one more color change. I always feel just one more thing could have made it just a little tiny bit better. I don’t know when to stop getting lost in the trees for the forest so it’s necessary to have a team that tells me to step back and take a view from further out.
TCS: Every artist has at least one important tool that they can’t live without, so what’s the most indispensable item in your studio?
HL: The people. The team I work with makes everything possible that you see at Houston Llew!
TCS: What advice do you have for young artists who want to make a living through their art?
HL: My advice for young artists is for them to go to business school and study business.
About Francesco Vincenzo Iacono
Since 2012, Francesco Vincenzo Iacono has served as the President and CEO of The Creative Spotlight, the ultimate destination for unearthing a wealth of undiscovered musical talent, reading exciting interviews, releasing new music and sharing exclusive videos.
Every good story needs a good storyteller. And, The Creative Spotlight has truly provided a quality forum for revealing those great stories. Through the years, the online publication has featured national and local musicians such as Ash Costello from New Years Day, Williams Honor, Stacey David Blades, Screaming For Silence, Ages Apart, Roxy Petrucci, Peter Beckett, We The Kings, Everything Falls, Rod Black, Derek Crider, Daniel Mason Band, The Rockin’ Krolik, Michelle Leigh, Jessie G., Karen Mansfield and Hillbilly Vegas.
Additionally, The Creative Spotlight has also focused on historic Pennsylvania-based paranormal venues such as the Eastern State Penitentiary, Pennhurst State School and Hospital, Paranormal investigator Kitsie Duncan, Spirit Medium Tiffany Rice, the Bates Motel & Haunted Hayride, well-known actors and actresses, published authors, professional artists, local businesses, consultants, trainers, speakers and more…
Francesco earned a BA degree in English/Communications and Marketing from Cabrini College, and he also received a Webmaster Certification from Penn State Great Valley.