OSU alumni and Highball Halloween designer shares her post-grad life, triumphant successes, and mom-guilt included.
If you haven’t explored the depths of Columbus yet, then you deserve to know how artistic and alive the city is. With what seems like 20 different themed festivals a month, Columbus has no shortage of culture and fun. This rings true especially at that time of year when all the artists really have the chance to come out and play with their creativity: Halloween.
At costume-festival “Highball Halloween” here in Columbus, you are what you wear. The attendees know how to take a costume from Pinterest-and-party-ready to creatively couture. Known as the nation’s most elaborate Halloween party, the event stretches two days long in the Short North and will feature nine local artists designing elaborate costumes for the show.
One of these fashion designers is Ohio State alumnae Shiree Houf. Houf got her masters of fine arts at Ohio State and her BA in theatre from Miami University, so she’s all too familiar with that post-grad game and just how to play it with an arts background. In standard Ohio State fashion, the university hooked up Shiree and other students in her program with professional opportunities in the city while they were still graduate students.
“One of the organizers of Highball was putting together a student contest, so me and three friends participated and I ended up winning. That was in 2009,” Houf recalled. “We were told to use the theme ‘queens’ and it could be any queen you wanted. I did a Queen Bee/Queen Elizabeth piece.”
Nine years later and Houf is still delivering incredible designs as one of the events’ alumni designers. I asked her about graduation and where she expected to be after finally getting her degree.
“I honestly didn’t know. I figured I’d work at a university in a costume studio and then eventually be a resident designer somewhere,” she shared. “I definitely thought it would be more organized or that I’d need more quote-on-quote ‘professional’ experience. Not that mine is unprofessional, I just need a little more to catch up.”
The comment about her identifying as an unprofessional-professional brought on questions that the anxious senior inside me wanted to know. How could someone whose stunning designs I’ve seen online be this modest about her credibility as a designer? I definitely didn’t expect to talk to an artist nearly as down-to-earth, sweet, approachable, and real as Shiree.
She spoke with an understood frankness, “I chose to have a family [after college] so I didn’t pursue the [career] opportunities that I had right away. I chose to work local and start a family with my husband, to stay home with my daughters, so I don’t take on a lot of projects.”
Her working style is completely up to her, having two evenly prioritized passions at play: her art and her family. She decides for herself what work is worth it to pursue.
We got to talking about how to prioritize adult opportunities after graduation, at a time in life when relationships might matter a lot but you’re also just setting the tone for your new career.
“I think it’s tough for women because they say that your most productive years—the years you’ll make the most strides professionally—are in your late 20’s and early 30’s. That’s so hard because that’s also when our bodies are most inclined to have kids, and it’s biologically easier. A lot of friends of mine waited longer and had a profession before a family. Some chose to adopt and some needed more money for medical intervention, but my husband and I just knew early-on family would be our number one priority.”
They say when choosing a major you should consider multiple things: what you’re good at, what you can make money doing, how you can serve your community, and what you want daily lifestyle to look like. If you know you want to have 10 kids and be present in their lives, something low-commitment or easy to do from home might be your top pick. If you know you won’t be having kids or definitely won’t be the priority parent, maybe you’re okay with giving it your all in the office everyday.
Shiree admitted, “I feel as women we either have to choose or drive ourselves insane trying to do both. I struggle with mom-guilt all the time. If I chose to have a career, I’d feel guilty missing out on my daughters’ lives. Instead I let myself feel bad about not going toward a more professional career.”
Advocating for college students directly, she said, “It’s scary because you come out of college and you’re expected to make that choice right away.”
Shiree uses Highball Halloween to express herself through all the lifestyle changes. I asked her if I could know about her theme for this year’s costume hitting the runway.
“My husband and I just got our first house and it’s been kind of a tough process, so I’ve been thinking about what is home? What makes home? I think it’s kind of important because Columbus is #3 in the country for fashion, so why be in Columbus over NY or LA? Because Columbus is home.”
She was inspired to use quilts and afghans as the costume material. “Anything that feels homespun, handmade, like your mom or grandma would make. I’m actually using some my mamaw and my mom made, and some pieces I’ve made myself.”
Knowing her story would be shared with students at OSU, I asked what advice she had for undergraduates involved in fashion, theatre, or the arts when it came to pursuing a career.
“Be fearless. Easy,” she said. “When you’re a student, that’s the time to take risks and learn from them. If you get a bad grade because you took a risk, that’s very different than not getting paid because you took a risk.”
She looked back fondly on a time in her life when her art subjects were all her own, and described how quickly they could change in the real world outside the university.
“One of the reasons I love Highball is because we get to be as crazy and big as want with very little repercussions. Events like Highball are rare because normally you get paid to make like, a hundred orange dresses and it hurts to repeat the same thing over and over again just because that’s where the money is.”
While her outlook is realistic, her heart and mind are alive with ideas, color, and support for students like her who want to exhibit their passions and live their lives as happily as possible.
“Do that one-of-a-kind crazy thing that really feeds you as a creative person. And do it as a student.”
Highball Halloween takes place from October 26-28 in the Short North. Tickets are available now online at https://highballcolumbus.org/catch-it-live/. Prices will go up after October 12.