Interview: Athena Pelton

A little over two years ago, I stumbled upon the genius talent that is Athena Pelton and was instantly drawn in by her insane levels of creativity, apparent badassery and tough, cool girl exterior. In addition to the motorcycle driving, whiskey drinking, tattoo wearing and sailor level swearing, Athena is the embodiment of community over competition fiercely supporting and motivating other female creatives. She shares her own journey as a woman, creative, wife, & mother with a raw truth and vulnerability that is unflinching and utterly inspiring.

Athena’s many talents range from photography to writing with the overarching theme of authentic storytelling and in any of her work, it is easy to see the gift she has for illuminating the beauty of life. Her photography ranges from ethereal to gritty and her writing always has the perfect dose of gut punch that is so rare in the online world.

I worried that meeting Athena in person would shatter the image I had fangirled over for nearly two years, but instead it left me deeply curious how such an immense force of nature could be stuffed into such a diminutive form and I hoped she would let me in on at least a few of her secrets.

Grace: Athena, you are so creative it is damn near breathtaking and seem to make everything you touch, whether it is photography, hand lettering, writing or even an Instagram caption, complete magic. Have you always been multi-passionate?

Athena: You mean have I always wanted to do anything and everything usually all at once? Haha. Yep. That pretty much sums me up. In all seriousness though, my mother was very much a hippie and I grew up listening to her remind me that I could do or be whatever I wanted. She’d insist that there was no limit to how big I could - or should - dream and that it was important to keep chasing after whatever it was that I most wanted. Unfortunately (or fortunately?!) I never learned how to streamline my goals or pick just one thing and maybe get really good at that. I kept trying my hand at everything.

Grace: Did you grow up in a household that fostered creativity?

Athena: My mom is a poet, though she’d likely deny it if asked, and my adoptive father restored old motorcycles and wrote often, as well, so yes, I did. My parents were both wildly supportive of my brother and my doing whatever it was that brought us joy and for me that was drawing and singing and reading and writing and playing in the band (3rd chair flautist, thankyouverymuch).

Grace: Some time ago I read you lost your job in corporate America, do you think you would have taken the leap to full-time creative entrepreneur without that? Did you have a plan to?  How did that job loss change your plans?

Athena: I had to plan to leave yes, but no I don’t think I would have on my own. To have a job doing something I enjoyed, with a flexible schedule, a steady paycheck, and someone else (i.e. a giant corporation) to fund part of my family’s healthcare costs was nice. Plus, let’s be honest, I was afraid. I convinced myself that if I left the safety of my steady job I wouldn’t find work, wouldn’t make money, wouldn’t be able to financially provide for my family. I let fear - and societal standards for what we are supposed to do with or want from our lives - convince me that I needed the 9-5 even though it was taking so much from me emotionally and mentally. I was stressed to the max and didn’t have any time for anything fun or relaxing. The layoff was the push I needed. It was the Universe finally doing for me what I was too afraid to do for myself.

Grace: How do you describe what you do for a living to other people?

Athena: I am a storyteller. I tell stories through images, through words, through experiences. My business cards include the phrase “do-it-all-er” and I’d say that pretty much sums it up. I do a lot of things, and have a wide array of talents. I may not be the best at anything, but I’m pretty damn good at a lot of stuff.

Grace: I’m doubting there is an “average day”, but relatively speaking what does an average day in the life of Athena Pelton look like?

Athena: I almost always wake up to coffee (my husby is the best and lets me sleep in since the first decade or so of our relationship saw me getting up way earlier) and then make myself breakfast. I love breakfast. It’s generally my biggest meal of the day. I try to make it to Alchemy - the most incredible gym in MPLS! - at least 3 days during the week, and then am shooting or sitting at my computer working until about 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Some days I don’t leave the computer until bedtime, but those are (thankfully!) not terribly often. Being self employed is a lesson in extremes, for sure. It’s either sink or swim. Ice or fire. I’m either swimming in a shitstorm of crazy or desperate for something-anything-please-god-let-someone-hire-me work. I try really hard not to work on the weekends, unless I’m shooting a wedding, or after 5:00 on weeknights so that I can spend time with my family. We have dinner together and hang out. After the wombfruits go to bed, the husby and I usually watch something on Netflix or HBO Go. We’re currently devouring Stranger Things. SO GOOD!

Grace: I think I first came to know of you from Instagram and fell in love with your wedding photography. As a photographer, what type of images are your favorite to take?

Athena: I love telling honest stories in an authentic way. It sounds cliche or like a tag-line, but I mean it. Truly. I adore making images of people who truly let me in to their experience. Who trust me enough to be themselves and be vulnerable in front of my lens. I especially love making images of people in their stories. In places or doing things that matter to them. Not something they’re doing because they think it looks good in a photograph, but because it’s truly who they are. I love hanging out with people who have a unique sense of their own individual style and, of course, I love being outdoors.

Grace: I saw you also have partnered with another photographer, Nicole Feest, to form &Helen. I have to admit whenever I think of boudoir photography, I think of overly sexualized images that serve little purpose. I honestly have never really understood the motivation behind why someone would want to capture an unrealistic, never attainable in actual real life photoshopped version of themselves. But, looking on your boudoir photography site &Helen, I don’t see any images like that. Tell me about your vision and mission for & Helen.

Athena: Our vision and mission stemmed from feeling the same way you did. That boudoir wasn’t for us and we wanted it to be. We didn’t want to photoshop women or make them out to look any different than they normally do, but rather to simply make images of them as they are; Inherently flawed and exceptionally beautiful. We like to think of our boudoir sessions as fine art portraiture, clothing optional.

Grace: I understand you and your business partner Nicole took boudoir photos of each other. Tell me about your experience. How did you feel on the other side of the lens? What surprised you?

Athena: I was surprised by how unencumbered by my appearance I became. I was nervous leading up to the shoot, that I wasn’t thin or fit enough, that I wouldn’t like any of the images because I wouldn’t be able to see past my flaws. I felt the same way probably every woman - any woman - would feel before a boudoir session; SCARED. But when we started shooting I realized that I am who I am and look like what I look like and my body is strong and healthy and beautiful and alive.

That those things are enough. They are more than enough. So I let go and trusted Nicole and succumbed to the amazingness of the experience and was rewarded with some of my most favorite images of myself ever. Stretch marks and not-so-taut belly and all.

Grace: Not to make sweeping generalizations, but who are your boudoir clients? And, can I ask a weird question? What do they do with the images? (I think with traditional boudoir, I’ve always thought what the hell would I do with these pictures? Hide them under the bed? I was raised by a repressed Catholic, so bear in mind, this whole idea terrifies me:))

Athena: Who are our clients? Easy. Any woman, every woman. ;) But more so our clients are women who understand that they are beautiful right here, right now. That as we age we change, all of us, and that to do a boudoir session is to remember ourselves as we are at whatever stage in life we may be at currently. It grants us permission to love ourselves. To truly see ourselves in a way that is different than simply looking at our reflection. That is transformative. It’s powerful.

As to what they do with them? I never really ask, haha! Some women make albums (which we do for them as an add on to a session) and gift them to a spouse or significant other. Others keep the images for themselves, as I’ve done, and look at them whenever they need a reminder of their tenacity, their beauty, their strength and resilience and kickass-ness.

Grace: From your boudoir business, your personal writing, and social media presence, you seem incredibly body positive. Have you always been that way? Were you raised by body positive people?

Athena: I don’t remember hating my body until I was out of high school. I was always thin, nearly waif-like as a teenager until birth control pills gave me a softer appearance and then olympic style weight training (and a teenager’s diet of doritos and fried foods) softened me even further. I moved to Chicago right after high school and started getting more into fashion and began taking ballet and pointe classes. I think that’s when I realized I was “overweight,” that my body didn’t fit what society (or ballet) showed me was beautiful, and when I began to be self-conscious about my appearance. I lost the soft edges through some not-so-great tactics and flirted with an eating disorder for a few years (which led to a decade of disordered eating). I gained weight with my pregnancies and have yet to get back to my pre-baby weight.

So in some ways I think it’s a fake-it-till-you-make it kind of endeavor. I yearn to be 100% accepting of my body, but I don’t know if that’s a realistic goal. I’m probably never going to weigh what I did when I was 25, before I had kids or turned 30, but I’ve come a long way in the last couple of years in learning to love myself for what my body can do instead of what it looks like or how much it weighs.

I didn’t want my daughters to grow up hearing me talk negatively about myself or watching me cringe at my appearance in the mirror, so I forced myself to say only nice things about and have positive reactions toward my reflection. Slowly those positive words began to take root and I started believing them. Naturally. I no longer had a booming voice inside me telling me that, thought I was fit and strong, my body was too round or too squishy or too insert-something-hurtful-here. That voice has grown very quiet and, most often, I can shut it out completely which feels a lot like winning. Also, I stopped weighing myself about six months ago and it’s done wonders for my self esteem. I know it seems like such a small thing but it was huge for me. I couldn't not define myself by that number and now that I don’t know what it is, I don’t care what it is. It’s been so goddamn freeing, it’s crazy. I recommend it for all of us. Scales be damned!

Grace: Why do you think it is easy for women to see the beauty in other women, but so painfully difficult for them to see it in themselves?

Athena: This is a difficult question to answer but I think the simplest explanation is because we see other people both for who they are and what they look like so it’s easier to focus less on someone else’s appearance because we have other context that (naturally) matters more. When it comes to ourselves however, we seem to only judge our worth based on what the mirror (or a fucking scale) says. We forget all of the other things about ourselves that make us well, OURSELVES.

But also, I think it’s because we aren’t kind to other women. Especially as young women, we are ruthless to each other. We dissect women’s appearances and cut them down instantly if they don’t meet some standard of generally-accepted-beauty and, naturally, we grow insecure ourselves. If we’re so quick to judge another woman it’s logical to conclude that other women are judging us. It’s a vicious cycle that’s nearly impossible to get out of, especially given mainstream media, celebrity and gossip culture, and every magazine on the planet.  

Grace: When I look at you, both your body of work and having spent some time with you, you seem fearless AF? Where does that come from (and can I get some:))?

Athena: It comes from learning the hard way that no one is ever going to love me - or what I say or do or am - just because I want them to (or because I change myself for them). This past year and a half has been so transformative for me as a human, as a woman, as Athena. It’s created my fearlessness or, at the very least, finally allowed it to surface. I am an incredible human who is gracious and kind and hardworking and a warrior for love in all. of. the. ways. And that’s not going to be for everyone. No matter how badly I want it to be. And that’s okay.

Fearlessness comes like a Janis Joplin song; it’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

Grace: Who inspires you? How do you stay inspired?

Athena: I’m inspired by kindness. By curiosity. By art and music and people and life. I’ve been hugely inspired by my friend Anda Marie. Her imagery is stunningly authentic and beautifully raw and she tells stories in the most profound way. I’ve followed her work for nearly five years now and feel so lucky to have her in my corner. I’m inspired by literature and art. By people chasing after their dreams with ferociousness. I’m inspired by the Wombfruits. By their inquisitiveness and kindness, their zest for sunshine and summer air and friendship and home.

Grace: What are your favorite books, podcasts, shows?

Athena: Seriously loving Stranger Things right now. I also watch Bill Maher and VICE every Friday night and try to catch the Savage Love and XOXOJK podcasts whenever they come out. I’m on a literary fiction kick right now and just finished All The Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale, both of which were wonderful. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff was spellbindingly beautiful and Kafka on The Shore by Murakami left me breathless.

Grace: Who are people you think are “getting it right” in social media?

Athena: For wedding imagery, I can always count on @anda_marie and @theshalomimaginative to blow me away. @brandonwerth is a FORCE and I love seeing his wedding work. I am currently obsessed with @thewildmorning and highly recommend checking them out.

Grace: Our current issue is about self-discovery, what have you learned about yourself as a creative individual, a mother, a wife, and an all around badass?

Athena: I’ve learned that I’m an all-around badass. ;)

I’ve learned that what Conan O’Brien said is true: if you work hard, and are kind, amazing things will happen.

And I’ve learned that you can swear and still get work.

Grace: What lessons do you hope your children learn from you?

Athena: I hope they learn to believe in themselves. To be kind to others, no matter what. That hard work doesn’t always equal success, but that it’s important to always give it your all. That failure doesn’t mean not succeeding, but rather failing to even try. And I hope they learn how to apply winged eyeliner, because I think every girl should be able to do that (And yes, I can be a feminist and still love makeup) but that certainly won’t be from me. (Seriously. Someone come teach me.)

To find more of Athena online, visit her site Athena Pelton, her boudoir photography &Helen, or visit her on Instagram.


Cover image provided by Anda Marie.  All other images care of Athena Pelton.