Every once in a while I come across a young artist whose creativity, vision and talent elicit a compelling and audible “wow” from me. Liz Robb is one of those artists.
A friend of mine introduced me to her work and I was immediately intrigued. Clearly, I needed to learn her story first hand.
A fiber artist, Liz began her career as a fashion designer, and is now charting a new path as a fine artist. She holds a BFA in Fashion Design from the University of Cincinnati (UC), and a MFA in Fibers from Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). In between the two she worked in fashion in New York and Wisconsin. Last fall I was in San Francisco, where she now lives and works, and had the opportunity to visit her studio. We talked about her chosen career path, her influences along the way, how she’s making it work as a fine artist, and suggestions she has for future artists. Here is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Art.College.Life.: You were drawn to textiles at a young age. How did it all start?
Liz: Sewing was always part of my childhood. My mom taught me, and in high school I made my own dresses for dances, which kind of sprung into going to school for fashion design. My ruling out criteria for colleges was I wanted someplace where I could take it from sketching to finish. That was important to me; a big part of my ethos was to actually make. Now, instead of just thinking and ideating and sketching I can actually execute a finished product.
ACL: Tell me about your shift from clothing design to fine arts.
Liz: I knew that I wanted to go back to school because I wanted to teach someday. I knew I had to get my masters if I wanted to be a professor. I didn’t think I’d need one in fashion design but I wanted to diversify. Since I was always knitting sweaters it kind of opened my eyes to building from the fiber up instead of just the fabric.
It was a personal challenge to move away from design into fine art. That was at the core of what I loved about making and creating, being more conceptual and art related instead of practical. Of course I got a lot of push back from my parents at first.
ACL: Let’s change threads here (sorry!). You’ve got a wonderful indigo theme. What inspired you?
Liz: While at SCAD I spent two months at their Lacoste, France campus. Denise Lambert, the master Woad (French indigo) dyer of France came to study with us. I was able to work intensely and it changed what I was working on and thinking about. I started dyeing linen and papers, and making impressions, which was a big shift for me. I made my first big weaving.
After returning from France I visited a friend in New Orleans. They have an art walk there every month, and I ended up doing a group show with five people. I dipped tassels, dipping and rewrapping, constructing and deconstructing, mostly working in indigo. Later on I tried plaster and then encaustic. I wanted to push it further. It was uncomfortable, and it was hard to put paint on something I had just woven.
ACL: What have been some of the biggest hurdles you’ve had to face?
Liz: The scariest part for me was doing it; just starting. For applying for fashion design too, just thinking what do I want to do? Luckily, through the co-ops [at UC] I was able to rule out the things I didn’t want to do. The internships there helped me weed it down.
Choosing to go back to school was a big decision. I knew I had some dream schools, and I visited the ones I wanted to go to. It helped me a ton, visiting them and meeting the people and understanding the energy and culture there. That was a big influence for me.
ACL: So now, looking to your future, what are your goals? And what type of marketing and networking tools are you employing to reach those goals?
Liz: I’m looking for gallery representation in three cities, and globally. My big cities I love are SF, NY, and Berlin or Tokyo. The Japanese market I think is really special.
I have a one-year business plan and a five-year plan. SCAD has a professional practice class – for undergrads too – where you work on your website, business cards, all your marketing materials, and business plan. I’d thought about it but didn’t know what it meant. Now I have it, and reference it often.
I’ve also got a few books that have helped me, from people who’ve done it themselves. Art, Inc., tells how to properly submit to galleries, what sort of paperwork you need, etc. I need to focus on the fact that I’m creating a body of work. I need to photograph it well. I’ve set up a website, and use social media to create multiple touch points where my audience can go to get to know me. I can be really shy and not want to market myself. I don’t like being in the spotlight, promoting myself so hard, but you have to. So I’m learning how to do that gracefully.
ACL: How do you support yourself?
Liz: I want to focus on my work. I know it doesn’t make enough money. I’ve saved a lot from working and have been supporting myself, kind of living like I was in school. To replenish it I’ve been thinking, do I want to work in an artistic field or completely unrelated? I’ve seen and heard both ways. I’ve looked at being a studio helper or installing shows, which is great for networking too. I actually just signed up to be a Lyft driver, which is part-time work that you can choose whenever you want to work. I figure if I do that Monday through Friday morning I can cover my rent and materials, and focus the rest of the day on me. It’s actually a great way to do it.
ACL: If you could do it all over again what kind of advice would you have given yourself in high school?
Liz: Everything I feel sounds like a cliché. I guess, just understand yourself. Write things down. What do you want to see happen for yourself next? Think outside of what you think is supposed to happen. For me, travel and especially volunteering helped me see outside myself, and my small world. I have friends who want to be the top if their field. Others want to move in different ways like philanthropy or work with non-profits. You need to be humbled; especially at that age, because everything has been so “you, you, me focused” It’s the nature of being a teenager, but you need to get outside yourself.
I respect people who can take a year off and find themselves, as opposed to forcing themselves into a program that they’re not interested in. Although I think you have to trust yourself; some people need that push to get to know what they want to do. It really depends on the person.
ACL: Any other words of wisdom to younger aspiring artists?
Liz: Stay authentic. Be authentic. That’s always what’s going to come through in the end.
You can see Liz’s fiber art at Art Works Downtown in San Rafael, CA, January 9 – February 27, and at the International Textile Biennial in Haacht, Belgium in February and March. In May she’ll debut a new line of fabrics for P&B Textiles at the Minneapolis Quilt Market.