We started the Becoming interview series after reading Michelle Obama’s book Becoming in our book club a few years ago. We wanted to hear from women in different walks of life and how they were approaching creativity, mothering, career goals, and more. It’s been amazing to conduct these interviews and get a “behind the scenes” look at so many inspirational women!
Today we’re sharing our interview with Hallie Bateman, whose art, illustrations, and writings are enthralling in their simple, human, tenderness.
Meet Hallie Bateman
Hallie Bateman is a 32-year-old writer and illustrator. She is the author of 3 books, Brave New Work (MoMA, 2016), What To Do When I’m Gone (Bloomsbury, 2018) and Directions (Workman, 2021). She and her husband Jack have a dog named Spinelli.
What do you consider yourself? Example: Artist, designer, illustrator, maker, business person, educator, etc.?
The term I use most is “artist” because it feels most freeing. But I also say “illustwriter” sometimes because it’s silly and accurate.
Where did you grow up? Were there aspects of your childhood that have influenced what you do now?
I grew up on a mountain outside a former gold rush town in Northern California called Sonora. Most people haven’t heard of it unless they went gold panning there on a field trip in 3rd grade.
Growing up on a mountain really rewarded creativity. There weren’t any other kids around, so my brothers and I had to make our own fun. For me, making art was how I played. I wrote, drew, took photos and made movies. My brother and I invented languages and drew comics together.
I still think making art is the most fun way to spend time. It still feels like play.
What did you dream of becoming when you were younger?
I wanted to be a veterinarian for my whole childhood. We had lots of animals (llamas, pigs, emus) and I was obsessed with them. I drew, photographed and wrote about them. But I didn’t enjoy math or science in school, so the veterinarian dream faded.
I was pretty uncertain about what I wanted to be until my junior year of college, when I started drawing more and I realized illustration was a career I could pursue. I’d never known any professional artists so this felt like a wild realization to me at the time.
Is there a person who has been influential in your chosen career path?
Lynda Barry is my north star. I discovered her work around the time I realized I wanted to make comics. Her work totally opened my eyes to what was possible with comics.
The rawness of her work is part of what makes it so powerful. Seeing that made me realize there weren’t any rules, I didn’t need to go to art school to be an artist, and the imperfections in my work could be part of its power.
What inspired you to become an artist?
Even though I didn’t realize I wanted to be an artist until college, looking back, I’ve always been an artist. It doesn’t feel like a choice. It’s who I am. I care about making art more than almost anything else, so I’m going to try to make art for the rest of my life.
What is one piece of work that you are especially proud of and why?
I’m proud of the book I made with my mom, What To Do When I’m Gone. It feels like an unbelievable triumph to have collaborated with my mom the way we did. And we’ve gotten so many messages from so many readers who said the book touched them deeply. So I feel especially proud of that. To have chipped away at human suffering a bit.
Where do you find inspiration for new creations?
I don’t have to look too hard. It usually comes down to just paying attention. A few months ago I was sitting in a hammock in my backyard, and I heard a rustling noise. I looked around and spotted a baby mouse on the ground nearby. He was barely breathing. In his little hand was a bougainvillea flower.
I lost my mind trying to figure out how to help him. I paced the house, googled furiously, but couldn’t figure out how to help or what to do. I sobbed uncontrollably until my husband came home and consoled me. We decided to place the mouse somewhere his mom might find him. I’m almost positive he died, but we couldn’t admit that to ourselves at the time.
Later, I drew the mouse. I had to.
That’s usually how it works.
How do you make social connections in the creative realm?
Again, paying attention! I pay attention to who’s around me, both in virtual and physical spaces. Being an artist is pretty great for making friends, because people are expressing themselves. It feels easier to find friends. Everyone has their little beacon shining.
What books, movies, shows, or music are making you excited these days?
Books: I’m currently reading Sister Helen Prejean’s 1993 book Dead Man Walking. It’s about her experience as a spiritual advisor to men on death row. It’s fascinating and heartbreaking. I’m trying to learn more about the criminal justice system in this country.
Movies: I recently saw The Parking Lot Movie and have been telling everyone to watch it.
Shows: My husband and I are pretty deep into the Up series right now. It’s a British documentary series begun in 1964. The filmmakers follow 10 men and 4 women through their lives, beginning when they’re just 7 years old and checking in with them every 7 years. Right now, the subjects are in their 60s. It’s a mindblowing work of art and I can’t believe it exists. In addition to giving me so much to think about for my own life, it’s given me a deeper understanding of my parents’ generation.
Music: I’m really into Green-House these days. I put it on when I’m drawing or writing and just get in the zone. It’s so soothing and beautiful.
What is a piece of advice that you have carried with you and who is it from? Do you have a personal motto?
My cartoonist pal Corinne Mucha gave me amazing business advice years ago. She said she judges a job by asking herself the following questions:
- Will it be fun?
- Does it pay well?
- Will it advance my career?
If it’s all three, take it. If it’s two out of three, take it. If it’s only one, turn it down.
Nobody likes to talk about it, but can you share any advice regarding financing your business?
My advice would be to really treat it like a business. If you’re like me, that won’t come naturally to you. So ask for all the help you need.
I am fortunate that my older brother Ben pulled me aside in my mid-twenties and very politely told me to get my shit together. And offered to help me do that. At the time, I didn’t treat art like work. I had no boundaries. I planned poorly and pulled all-nighters frequently. I was underpaid and overworked and still treating my job like it was a fluke, and I’d be found out any day. So I hadn’t figured out a lot of logistics.
Ben taught me how to ask for more money, how to organize my finances and to value my own time. He taught me to quote clients accurately. If something was going to take me 8 hours, shouldn’t I be paid more than if it would only take me 3? He taught me how to keep a schedule and (mostly) stick to it.
Since his intervention, I’ve been a lot happier. I still call him frequently with questions. I’ve always been bummed about not having an artist mentor, but I think most artists need business mentors more, anyway. Someone needs to show us how to make money.
Is there anything more you would like to “become?”
Although it kinda terrifies me, I want to become a parent. I hope that’ll happen in the next few years.
What is your long-term goal?
This is a hard question for me to answer right now. For years I’ve obsessed about the future and forced myself to set big, scary, ambitious goals. I’ve pushed myself to run towards what scares me creatively and professionally.
The pandemic has shaken some of that drive out of me. My art is too busy being my coping mechanism for me to ask much more of it.
Plus, I’m a little sick of striving, of never being satisfied with anything because a bigger goal always falls into place. Recently I had to admit I’m currently living the dream my former self worked really hard to make real, and it’s incredible. I work with brilliant people, doing work I truly enjoy doing. I am alive. I am married to someone I adore. We have a cute dog. For once, I’m not planning and plotting.
I want to give this moment its due by actually experiencing it.
Find Hallie Online
You can find more of Hallie Bateman’s work on her website and on her Instagram @hallithbates. Don’t forget to check out her books Brave New Work, What to Do When I’m Gone, Love Voltaire Us Apart, and Directions, as well as other writings.
You can read about more inspiring artists in our Becoming series. If you’re especially interested in reading about artists, check out our interviews of Michelle Franzoni Thorley, Rachel Kiser Smith, Tricia Paoluccio, Lynne Millar, Julie Marabelle, and more!
all images included in this article are courtesy of Hallie Bateman.