APPALACHIAN ARTIST CRUSH is a series of interviews with artists from around the East Tennessee region, whose work I admire and who I want to share with the world.
Liz Layton is a versatile and wide-ranging artist and educator. Simultaneously serious and playful, strong and vulnerable, she opens up new thoughts on where to draw inspiration and how vast and wide the landscape of collaboration can be.
Tell us about your creative beginnings. What was your earliest experience of artmaking, and what drew you in? Was creativity encouraged in your early years?
I consciously became active in art-making when I started painting during high school, over the summer I turned 16. I would first paint with inexpensive craft-based acrylics that I found in a closet, and I mostly made sloppy reproductions of favorite musical artists, like Beck or Thom Yorke.
I did not call myself an artist, though, until I was in my third year of college, at age 20. That was when the conceptual strength of my work initially took hold. My childhood was intensely centered around art, but I was more of a curator or an observer, and I did not realize how unique my artistic surroundings of my childhood was until I was much older.
I hardly made any art as a kid, and my family did not ever attend art galleries or museums. However, my mother was constantly making things, including hand-sewn and beaded Halloween costumes, original board games, personalized birthday decorations, and many, many illustrations featured in cards and gifts that she made specially for my siblings and I.
Art was part of the wrapping of our school lunches, and found within pretend movie tickets to our living room movie days during the weekends. Growing up in Los Angeles, we spent most of our time outside as we had near-constant amazing weather, as well as the proximity to many beautiful outdoor sites like Griffith Park, as well as local deserts and beaches where we often camped.
A large amount of our time was also spent at various amusement parks, which obtusely influenced my visual language. My favorite things to observe were the cake decorators at Knott’s Berry Farm, or “The Electrical Parade of Disneyland,” and, even seeing their nightly fireworks display from my backyard during the summers.
Tell us about your creative process--what makes it unique? How do you create your best work? What do you love most about your process?
My creative process has changed drastically over the past few years since becoming a mother, and also, from being a full time elementary art educator. As a student, I was always jumping ahead to the experimentation part of art making, but without ever making the thumbnail sketches, mock-ups or models, or tests with new art materials and pigments, unlike what my art professors encouraged me to do. I was prolific with my art production, but I stubbornly burned through a lot of materials and time that way too, as I made a lot of just plain awful and boring art with that lazy approach!
Out of necessity of both time and money, I finally became practical with my art process after my son, Strummer, was born. I cannot always produce art objects or physically paint or sew whenever I want to, but, I can very easily write down ideas or sketch simple studies a they come to me (usually!), which I then later elaborate on and fully expand. I now spend much more time planning the overall construction of a piece (conceptual themes, choice of medium and materials, general measurements, cost) so that when I am able to be in my art studio (or, sometimes it’s the living room or dining room or porch) I am able to make better use of my time, and, make artwork that is more successful, visually.
One of the newer ways I have been making better work, is through the use of keeping a “Process Book.” I had only before kept sketchbooks or loosely written notebooks, but upon taking the Digital Imaging on Fibers course from Patricia Mink, I was required to keep a portfolio of my samples, studies, class notes, fabric and material swatches, etc, all in one place. It sounds very simple but has made a powerful impact on my art process. For my book, I use a large portfolio holder I buy from the craft store (I am on my third one right now) and each book is comprised of a simple black, hardcover binding, consisting of clear plastic sleeves sturdily attached inside. It is easy to curate and reconfigure the pages, as needed. I often still use a sketchbook and whatever small notepads, sticky notes, etc that I have on hand, to write down ideas throughout the day.
When I am ready, I xerox my good ideas and findings, and collage them together onto cardstock, which I then slip into a sleeve of my Process Book. The end result is a physical moodboard that contains all of the evidence of my research and processes, in a way that is organized, and, super fun to reflect and learn from!
What has been a habit or focus you've had that's integral to your art practice?
An essential habit that is invaluable to my art practice is the act of research in the form of listening to a lot of music and podcasts, reading books, and some personal writing and sketchbooking. My first official teaching position was an hour and a half away (one-way) and that was the auspicious time that I happily discovered podcasts -- in the fall, I teach a methods course on art education (SUPER META!) at our university here, so, on those long drives between schools, I would get intensely personable art teaching advice thanks to “The Art of Ed: Radio” podcast.
However, I do have two all-time favorite podcasts that, much like a close friend, I can not imagine my life without. The first one is, “Women of the Hour”, produced and hosted by Lena Dunham. The tone of it is similar to NPR’s This American Life, though the majority (basically 99%) of the stories, interviews, jokes, and anecdotes are presented by women-identifying individuals, from all over the world, and of many different cultures and backgrounds. I heard coming-of-age stories as a transgender young woman, from Janet Mock. I heard a powerful interview on grief and politics, with Geneva Reed-Veal on the loss and legacy of her daughter, Sandra Bland. And, I heard a countless amount of stories and testaments from women who defied the odds of their chosen careers, found love in unexpected places, and survived illness, loss, and even kidnappings. It is fascinating, and at times, hilarious, and I always learn so much with each episode.
My other favorite podcast is the fairly new “Rookie”, produced by the eponymous online magazine, both created by the scathingly brilliant Tavi Gevinson. The episode I just listened to (Episode 4, talking with writer Durga Chew-Bose) is something I will listen to repeatedly, but next time with pen in hand so that I can write down my favorite quotes from the ideas that were shared. I have followed Tavi’s career ever since I found her writing while I was living in Iceland; and I have followed her essays, interviews, and publications ever since. Through her magazine, I have found other young female artists who I later connected with online. Eleanor Hardwick is a photographer and musician who I have followed from her largely narrative photography on Rookie, to her experimental pop music under the name Moonbow. Tara Violet Niami is another artist I found in the same way, who I later friended on Facebook, and she inspires me DAILY. Niami currently lives amongst my childhood Los Angeles neighborhoods, and her film knowledge is absolutely incredible in its depth. Every cinematic recommendation she has made ends up being very influential to my own work. We are potentially collaborating, in the form of me creating an art object to be featured within a music video she is directing of her own music, which would be a huge honor for me!
In book-land, I recently (finally) discovered the multiplicity that is Joan Didion, and I am currently reading her memoir on her family and loss, called The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion was personally recommended to me by the prolific writer Hilton Als, whom I also highly recommend reading. He has a book called “White Girls” I am planning to read next, and each of his many film and art essays for The New Yorker are literary gold.
Tell me about a hurdle you've had to overcome in your artmaking or art career.
What myself (and, others) thought would be hurdles to my artmaking, have actually been the most bountiful aspects of where my art now comes from. My mom was my best friend growing up, and when she passed away, it was three months before I became a mom, myself. The act of parenting as a new mother, on top of navigating all of the logistical parts of death that took me over three years to complete (being her chief/sole executor, handling a complicated estate, testifying at numerous court dates, learning real estate processes, etc) on top of trying to push through to my actual beginning of the grief process, was overtly intense and is still something I am affected by.
However, because I find ways to create art on a daily basis, as well as my seeking treatment from a super perceptive therapist, I have found lots of refuge, and I have been able to remain productive while taking care of myself, which are both important things to me.
Other than those big life changes, the only other times I have witnessed something trying to be a hurdle (though again, I turn those things into fuel for art-making) are the near-daily words I hear from political pundits, acquaintances, co-workers, strangers, etc, who either disregard the importance of art or those who make overtly simplistic assumptions on my personhood, solely based on the fact that I am an “Artist.” This is where a quote from one of my favorite musicians, Christine & the Queens, comes in: “Every insult I hear back, darkens into a beauty mark…!”
What is your educational background, and how does it influence your creative work, if at all?
I have a B.F.A. Painting degree from East Tennessee State University, and those initial 5 years I spent at that art college, primarily in Ball Hall, were SO magical. Art school has been completely integral to my developing knowledge of art making, academic language, and also, “real life” artist experiences, including my working in various art galleries and exploring artist residencies. My education allowed for me to focus on the importance of craftsmanship, to which I definitely would have been oblivious and ignorant to, otherwise! Perhaps most importantly, though, is that I learned how to critique the work of my own and others, in a way that is multifaceted. This has also led me to become an effective public speaker, which has especially been useful for my work as an elementary art teacher!
My Masters is in “The Art of Teaching”, and I obtained that degree so that I could become licensed in K-12 art education. Honestly, the most beneficial part of that particular college experience was my decision to take multiple studio art classes for fun, while I worked through my ”teacher” classes. In particular, the course I took from artist Vanessa Mayoraz, entitled “Time, Sound, & Performance,” allowed me to delve into my video work again (which I had not done much of, since my living in Iceland for a residency). I merged film with sound and performance through the creation of a music video I shot, against an original song I wrote and produced. The end product was rudimentary, but the installation I created as the “film set”, as well as my experience in learning new software and synth programming helped to build up my confidence for the more elaborate music project I am currently developing!
I now work part time at the university as an adjunct professor during the fall semesters, and I am exceptionally fortunate to have found so many creative and supportive friends and colleagues here, because of art school.
What are you most excited about in your creative landscape in the moment?
Though it is definitely a hugely daunting undertaking, I am extremely excited and happy to be working on music, to which I am planning to create both a visual album in the form of videos, as well as a live performance to be seen by small audiences. I have experimented very lightly with playing music in the past, but I am currently putting together a series of songs to which I am producing and collaborating with other musicians (and dancers!) in order to create an album and live performance that features proper pop/dance music, which is the music I love and listen to the most. My very favorite artists, including Grimes, Kate Bush, Bjork, and the aforementioned Christine & the Queens, have each created a visual identity that is strongly correlated with their musical sound and voice.
Part of my prior hesitation with creating sound-based art, was repeated negative commentary or mimicry of my speaking voice. Because singing is already an elevated form of vulnerability, I found myself shying away from singing in the proximity of anyone, since I spent many years trying not to even use just my speaking voice around others. I eventually got over the bullying of my talking voice, yet I still needed that extra “push” to accept myself displaying my vocals, within my art. Part of what has helped me with this, is the idea of using a moniker to kind of create a bigger persona or character, for me to better perform under (my working musician name is Liz the Prophetess.)
Something else that completely bolstered away any residual voice embarrassment I had, was when I met my contemporary pop idol ,Claire Boucher (Grimes), following a concert of hers. She was meeting fans outside, and it was a super cold, wintry night. I was extremely nervous to meet her, and I did not recognize her immediately, as she was bundled beneath a giant coat. When Grimes turned around after hearing me speak with a fellow fan that was waiting to meet her, she immediately pulled me aside and exclaimed, “YOUR voice! Your voice, it’s, exceptional!” So, I officially (and happily) no longer have any excuses.
Share your favorite local hangout & or another hidden gem.
Like most of my local artist, writer, and student friends, I love eating quiche and drinking iced coffee at The Willow Tree! My husband works there on the weekends, and my son likes to visit, though he calls it “The Cookie Place” thanks to the famous Zoë Dosher baked goods. It is an amazing place to relax, but also is great for doing independent work or research, while hanging out in their bookstore, The Word in the Willow, created by my BESTIE and fellow local artist, Jaime Santos-Prowse.
My favorite place to view art in town is Tipton Gallery, but an equal place of ingenious art viewing, though definitely more hidden, is The SUBmarine Gallery, at ETSU. It is an intimate and somewhat untraditional gallery space, inside of the Campus Center Building of our university, and the last time I visited (about a month ago) my son and I were transported to a technicolored room filled with overlapping patterns, complete with handmade 3-D glasses, and a mylar floor that we were instructed to walk barefoot on. The gallery hours are limited and the receptions are brief, which just adds to this place is being special and otherworldly!
A somewhat hidden gem here that is my absolute favorite place for food, is Red Meze Mediterranean Garden. It is also a great place to visit alone with work, or with a family, they have incredible traditional Turkish tile paintings and tapestries to view, and OMG their DOLMA IS TO DIE. And, try their Turkish coffee and baklava. Another favorite place, for their multitudes of offerings, is our women’s center, Shakti in the Mountains. I have had multiple art shows there, and have also taken a variety of super enriching classes there, from prenatal yoga to a workshop on intuition. They support so many important social causes too, and in turn, they are an incredible place of refuge.
Where can we find you on the interwebs?