Houston Llew...How It Began December 15 2023, 1 Comment

On the eighth day of Hanukkah and with ten days to go until Christmas, this seems like the perfect time for a story about humble beginnings....

A Great Recession began in December of 2007. A week prior, we had opened a little art gallery. We believe that art should be fun. It should be shared. We opened as a gift gallery, a great place to shop for friends and family for any occasion. Our timing could have been better. I had just graduated from college though, so what could one do. "Fake it until you make it" became our mantra. Youthful energy and unabated ambition were our fuel. 

A year later, another business began. It came from the same humble beginning. It too was started by a young man. Having lost a job in the field he pursued in college, he took a trip from his home in Atlanta to visit his mom in New Mexico. She was dating an artist who was highly skilled in an ancient medium. Lucky for our friend Houston Llew, the artist Zingaro was charged by his mentor, Craig Ruwe, to pass on his expertise in order to keep the beauty of Vitreous Enamel alive. Glass on copper has a rich history and few artists working in the field these days. That trip to New Mexico proved to be fateful. Houston soon returned to Atlanta with the idea and drive to begin a new business. 

The first Spiritiles were made in his garage. Firing up a kiln to 1,500 degrees in the heat of a garage in the Southeast was not ideal. Yet, Houston was determined to make art. He was determined to spread joy. He was laser focused on making this his new career. The first Spiritile he ever made still exists. It was a piano. It was done as a horizontal piece. There was no quote on the sides. The copper didn't quite burn right and the color is a little off. The times I've gotten to hold and enjoy it, it was sitting on a shelf in Houston's living room. It has moved from home to home with him, a reminder of a vision and an unsure beginning. Eventually, the design would be reimagined into what we know as "Tickled Ivory." The first Spiritiles were made to be the exact size and weight as the Gutenberg Bible. It is a big part of where the Spiritile name comes from.  Houston is an idealist. The first piece we have all been able to collect as a Spiritile is "Spirit of the Muse." It depicts a detail from perhaps the most iconic work of art ever. Mona Lisa looks back at us with her knowing half smile. Per Houston's and our shared superstition, she always hangs as the highest of all pieces in our Spiritile displays so she can look over and keep an eye on the rest of the collection. She serves as a driving force, a reminder that beauty is always possible.

Houston quickly realized that if making Spiritiles would be his career, a garage was not the place to make it happen. He couldn't afford rent at both his apartment and a studio, however. So he moved out of the apartment. The first studio had a big couch. It was where he would sleep. The microwave would serve as the tool to make his ramen noodles. It's location was not ideal. The west end of Atlanta isn't the safest place. It was perfect for a burgeoning artist, however. If you could get past the desire to pull the car inside overnight so the tires would still be there in the morning and were always willing to put bars up on the windows once people realized how much valuable copper was inside, it was perfect. It had a collection of big kinetic sculptures around the corner that we loved climbing on. One of the neighbors was a woodworker that would make frames for Spiritiles. Inside was where the magic would happen. Where Houston would master the science of color theory and learn that putting certain colors next to each other would never fire right, no matter how hard he tried. Where Spiritiles grew from ideas to real, tangible works of art. 

As Houston began growing his business his mother helped him find art galleries to show and sell his art. In January of 2009 we received a phone call or an email from her every other day. "Show my son's art, show my son's art," she told us again and again. As a gift gallery, what he was making was perfect for us. Yet, we are in Colorado and wanted to focus on local artists. Her persistence paid off when she convinced us to let Houston send us 4 Spiritiles. On consignment. He was opposed to the idea but he figured he didn't have much to lose. We sold all four relatively quickly. So we wanted more. Ten were sent. They too sold. 

In April of that year, we took a trip to Las Vegas to visit an art and design show only open to galleries and interior designers. The impetus was to meet Houston. Booth after booth after booth filled the convention center. Each was filled with art and the place was packed. Eventually, we turned down another aisle and from about thirty yards away I saw a guy standing in the center of the aisle. He was clearly blocking traffic in an effort to direct people into his booth. Having seen his photo, I knew right away it was Houston Llew. More importantly, I knew right away that we were destined to become friends. Something just told me that we are kindred spirits. 

When we got home from Las Vegas we decided to make Spiritiles a focus for our business. Houston didn't like consigning them. We didn't like the paperwork and had faith in him so we started purchasing them. Our display of just ten Spiritiles quickly grew to house every piece he was making. Our sales steadily grew. Explaining the medium, from its history to its process, and sharing the stories behind Houston's art became second nature. The stories would be constantly updated too, as Houston loves skiing so he comes to visit regularly. We would spend days on the mountains and in the gallery meeting people and signing Spiritiles. We would joke that if all else failed, he would make Spiritiles in the storage room, I would sell them on the floor and we would both at least have enough to eat. 

Oh the stories. That's what Spiritiles are all about, right? Every one of them comes from somewhere. Most of them come from the little notebook Houston carries with him everywhere so he can sketch and jot down ideas. The day he lost it, and we eventually found it in my couch cushion, was certainly a memorable one. "Wing It" comes from a trip we were on in Philadelphia. We were standing outside of City Hall and suddenly Houston says, "Hummingbirds! I'm going to make hummingbirds!" There are not many hummingbirds in center city Philadelphia so I figured he was having a serious case of ADD. Go figure, however, that a city bus had just gone by and on it was an ad with two hummingbirds. Inspiration really can strike anywhere for an artist. "Ms." comes from a drawing Houston made at Nordstrom's. His friend at the time was trying on shoes so he was sitting in the women's shoe department. A pair of red high heels were strewn on the floor and he became transfixed by the shape they combined to make, with one shoe forming an M and the other an S. His friend had wandered away, leaving him alone and sketching. A guy alone and drawing in the woman's shoe department was a little awkward. That can be Houston for you. "Sterling" was created as a gift. His older son wanted to give his new, younger brother an elephant. Houston figured let's make him a Spiritile. That too can be Houston for you, completely thoughtful, sweet and giving. 

I still vividly remember a couple of building blocks in our respective career paths. Those towers that you have seen so many Spiritiles displayed on came from a show in our galleries. Having our whole collection displayed on one wall was a challenge that day, as the gallery was packed and people were literally bumping heads trying to read the stories on the sides of each Spiritile. Houston has always been innovative and good with his hands. His eyes lit up, you could almost see the light bulb on the top of his head and he said, "Towers! We need towers!" We all looked at him quizzically but at this point I knew him well enough to realize a great idea had just been born. Not long after, Houston and I were driving up to Breckenridge from the Denver airport. I had big news to share and I had waited to share it in person. We had just had our first month ever in which we sold 100 Spiritiles. It was the first time anyone had ever done so. It was, perhaps, the first time that Houston and I each realized how real our businesses had become and how many people we were able to make smile. 

This brings us to today. A couple of kids in their mid-20's started these art businesses. We weren't quite sure what we were doing. Now each in our 40's, we probably still don't. We do know that we love what we do and that we will keep doing it because it brings people joy and people like you love art, keep collecting it and enable us to keep on going. We had a feeling that the "St. Nick" Spiritile would sell out instantaneously. We were hoping that it wouldn't. We want everyone that wants one to have one. Sadly, as we've grown our businesses, it has become harder and harder to keep up with the desire the world has to own Houston's art. That last word is what makes it special. Art. It is creative. It is made by hand. Every piece is at least a little bit different. 

We are blown away by how many people have fallen in love with Spiritiles. If you told us when Raitman Art Galleries and Houston Llew started working together that we would get to where we are now, Houston and I probably would have said of course we will. We were young. We were inspired. We still are (the latter anyway). At this point, we are grateful. We are all the time. You have made our lives possible. From a tiny gallery and a studio that doubled as an apartment, to three galleries with a team of sales people and a studio filled with artisans making Spiritiles, we have come a long way. Again, we are grateful. Tis the season, right? Thank you for supporting our galleries and Houston's beautiful art. You make it so much fun to spread joy through those shiny little boxes of happiness! 

We hope to see you in the mountains soon! Happy Holidays!!!


If you would like to share this story, please contact us at fineart@raitmanart.com for permission.