New collection melds her love of art, fashion

For JoAnn Houle, the combination of art and fashion was a natural.

“When I was 10, I decided I wanted to be an artist when I grew up,” she says. “And I literally stuck with it my whole life.” That’s about the same time she fell in love with fashion.

She played with Barbie paper dolls while growing up. “I would draw-make-cut my own tabbed paper clothes for them,” she says “I liked to play dress-up; one friend had a bunch of her mom’s old dresses, so her house was the best.”

Those two loves mesh perfectly in her new collection of charcoal and pastel drawings on display through Sept. 30 at the gallery at Saks Fifth Avenue in Plaza Frontenac.

Houle graduated from the University of North Dakota in 2004 with a bachelor of fine arts degree. “College was possible for me through art scholarships and through Native American scholarships,” she says. “I’m the first in my family to go to college.” A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians tribe, Houle grew up in North Dakota, not far from the reservation her father grew up on.

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She continued her art, married and was about to have a baby when she and her now-ex husband decided to move to the St. Louis area. “His family was from here.” Initially, she was a stay-at-home mom as her art career took a bit of a backseat. Then she applied to be a cashier at Lowe’s. “When they found out I had an art degree, they stopped and asked me to design kitchens.”

It was a job she was good at. And through the years and her divorce she kept working there, eventually meeting her current husband. “He owned a shirt company in St. Peters and came in and asked me to design his front desk,” she says. “I asked if he was hiring, and we’ve been sharing the same office there ever since.”

She spent days working at the shirt company, and nights creating art. “I’m always making something,” she says. “I’m always working on something.”

Houle says she goes through phases with her art. “If you look at my Instagram, which goes back 10 years, you can see the changes in what I do.” And indeed, a peek at @joannhoule shows pastel cartoon figures, line drawings with words built in, gothic looks and a Picasso-like touch to some of her works.

“I’m in it for mastery and growth because it’s my life-long journey,” she says.

That growth led to her current show. “It’s been a challenge to learn how to draw certain fabrics, to make fur look like fur and to draw these little shoes.”

The show at Saks came about when she and her husband were walking through the department store in December and spotted the lower-level art gallery. “My husband suggested it would be a perfect place for me to show my work and said, ‘Let’s go find someone,'” she remembers. “I’m shy, but we found the office manager and gave her a sticker with my handle. In February, the visual arts director contacted me and loved my art.” From there she got selected for a show.

“I wanted to show new work, just for them. I knew I needed 40 to 50 pieces to max out the space,” she says. “And then I came across a photo of a lady with lipstick and a butter knife.”

Houle turned that photo into her first drawing, naming the collection “Butter Knife Girl.” “Once I had her done, I knew I could continue in a fashion direction.”

She works from images she’s seen in fashion magazines or books, giving each glam shot her own unique style.

“I didn’t have a set era or theme — not all ’60s or ’90s, for example — I was open to all years of fashion history, looking through photos that clicked with me.”

She counts among her inspiration Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and a German graffiti artist who goes by Hera of Herakut. “I love her style. I have spray paint, but I’ve never learned how to do it. But it’s definitely on my bucket list to spray paint a mural.”

For now, though, she’s hoping to take “Butter Knife Girl” on the road.

“It would be fun to keep this going. I could see myself doing a pop-up travel show in other cities. It would be fun to do it even in Saks Fifth Avenue stores in other cities.

“I think staying in a fashion lane is a good idea. Maybe I’ll get better at drawing background. I want to see where this goes from here. My art always grows and changes. I’m open to trying new things and not to box myself in.”

Amy Bertrand • 314-340-8284 @abertrand on Twitter [email protected]

Family• Husband, Andy Rudman; son, Lucas, 17

What she makes• Currently, she’s making figurative drawings with charcoal and pastels on newsprint.

Where to buy• Her website,, notes upcoming shows and contact information for commission work. You can also purchase the pieces from her Saks Fifth Avenue show there. The exhibit is open to the public noon to 6 p.m. every day through Sept. 30 at Saks Fifth Avenue, Plaza Frontenac.

How much• Each 24-inch-by-36inch drawing in the collection is $850.

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