Conversation with Liz Powell, Australia

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I’m an Australian artist working in Byron Shire, NSW. After graduating from the National Art School in 1978 I have been teaching and exhibiting regularly in galleries around Australia and overseas. I describe myself as a mixed media fibre artist as I use a broad range of techniques including etching, relief printing, 3D design and construction, stitching, dyeing, drawing and bookmaking. A great deal of this happens on silk and handmade paper As a tutor for many years I have continued to teach a broad range of art practices, encouraging participants to unleash the inner creative beast whilst having fun.
Liz Powell will be teaching for Fibre Arts Australia in 2015. Go here for more information.

CONVERSATION WITH THE MAKERS (CWTM) Did you always envision a life as an artist?
LIZ POWELL (LP) No, I first considered being an astronaut. But even while entertaining this idea at the age of 11 or so art was always a major part of my life and I was constantly making something. I never contemplated a time in the future when I wouldn’t be doing so.
CWTM What was your first experience with making art?
LP I can’t remember. I began constructing, painting and drawing long before I went to school. My long suffering mother would set me up at the dining table with my paints, food colouring, crayons and whatever could be found. I built roads and cities in the dirt next to the chook pen. Collage was heaven on a stick particularly around Easter with lots of coloured foils cadged off everyone in the family.
I do remember getting a large tin of watercolour paints for Christmas when I was perhaps 4 years old and everybody got a portrait and if they were lucky a knitted scarf about a foot long and looking more like crochet.
CWTM Do you have a dedicated studio?
LP Yes

CWTM Can you describe a typical day?
LP My working day can be seasonal but usually I breakfast early and am in the studio by 7am. In winter this can be a bit later but where I live heat and humidity are the usual issues so I like to work before it gets too hot, and I am definitely a morning person.
I turn on the radio (permanently set on Classic FM) and sit at my work bench and think about aims for the morning and plan the order of the day. In other words have a meeting with myself.
Depending on what techniques I am working with I usually gulp a cup of tea every couple of hours. If I’m making paper or doing a print run I don’t take breaks, you have to keep going till you are finished.
I usually wrap up in the studio by about 1.30pm, though if I am paper making I will be back again in the late afternoon, pulling down dried sheets and unpacking the next press load to dry, cleaning equipment to do more tomorrow. Papermaking is often a constant rolling process which will go on for over a week as I use up the bank of fibre I have soaking in buckets, hibernating in the fridge, or hanging in a raw state from the studio veranda rafters. I go into this mode about every 2 months.
I still have to find time after lunch to deal with the business side of being an artist. This usually means at least a couple of hours on the computer keeping up to date with publications and art sites, emailing, planning workshops and doing research connected to whatever theme I am working on. Research is an ongoing constant and doesn’t really follow a timetable.
After computer stuff is out of the way I lie down with a book which might be related reading to the work I’m doing or a completely trashy murder mystery, then it’s time for yoga or a walk up the beach. Then I talk to my husband.
CWTM Would you consider your art making to be more about the process than the outcome?
LP I consider the two to be so closely linked in my work that they are inseparable. Process for me means combining idea with technique and materials, and I don’t feel the idea is ‘cooked’ or developed until I have researched thoroughly and experimented with potential forms and allowed myself to stew a bit. Without a strong idea supported by good technique I don’t think the work ultimately succeeds. Unless I am working towards putting the idea into a body of work I don’t have the boundaries I need for resolution.

CWTM Do you agree that a small element of uncertainty about the finished look is what makes the process of creating so enticing?
LP Definitely. I usually have a strong image in my head to start with, like a compass. But if you are not prepared to let the materials and the idea to interact to make the magic then there seems little point in making anything.

CWTM Any indispensable tools or equipment?
LP Working with a wide range of media means that I have a number of tool boxes, but I always have handy a craft scalpel with a box of new blades, my bone folders, a steel ruler, glue, pencils, watercolours and paper. With that I can go anywhere.

CWTM Do your pieces start with a planned course of action or are they more spontaneous?
LP I plan and research quite closely. My work is anchored in the development of a theme, often based around something I have come across in historical or scientific texts. That being said I think you have to be prepared to allow the spontaneous to happen as you work. That’s the ‘wow’ moment when something unexpected shows up with a confluence of ideas or a juxtaposition of techniques.

CWTM How do you know when to “stop” – when do you consider a piece actually finished?
LP That is one of the toughest things for an artist and it varies. Sometimes I know I’m on the right track when I feel a ‘zing’ in my head, I call it the tuning fork moment. Sometimes it takes a friend saying ‘Step away from the easel!”

CWTM Your greatest source of inspiration is….
LP Reading
CWTM Favourite quote?
LP Too many to name

CWTM When do you do your best creative thinking?
LP Usually when I am alone in the studio, but sometimes good ideas strike when I am doing something mindless. If I am mid-stream with a work and I feel I have to leave it for a while to get around a problem the solution can be burbling away in the back of my brain. It might emerge when I am gardening or sitting on the veranda just gazing into space.
CWTM What do you enjoy most about your work?
LP The tuning fork moment, when I know I have done something that feels right.

CWTM Best advice you’ve ever received?
LP Learn Patience, said by one of my sculpture teachers Inge King, at art school
(still trying).
CWTM Worst advice you’ve ever received?
LP I don’t remember any! I’ve been lucky.
CWTM Best part of your day?
LP In the morning when I walk down to the studio through my jungle with the keys in my hand.
CWTM Who would be 6 people that you would invite to dinner?
LP Billy Connelly and Barbara Kruger, because a sense of the absurd is important and I love the way Kruger uses this visually; Bill Bryson, because of his history books rather than his travel writing (though I enjoy those too); Simon Schama, his book Landscape and Memory is one of the most influential works I have read; Mona Hessing, a great post-modern story teller in her photographs and installations; Germaine Greer so we can have a lively discussion about just about anything

CWTM What inspires your creativity?
LP The odd thing that catches the eye and teases the brain, a sideways look at the world, juxtapositions of ideas, libraries and museums, stories strange and possibly true, actually a lot of things!
CWTM What are you excited about right now in the world of textile art?
LP Fibre artists seem to be prepared to take more risks than those who are pursuing more ‘mainstream’ art forms. This risk is possibly related to experimenting more with diverse materials and techniques that lend themselves to broader and more adventurous approaches to making.

CWTM You’d be lost without…
LP My hands
CWTM What would you do with a few extra hours each day?
LP Keep working! Keep reading!
CWTM Your favourite luxury in life?
LP Going out for lunch (I’m easily pleased but it does seem decadent.)

CWTM Has the advancement of computers and technology impacted your work?
LP Unless you are living under a rock I think that is true of everyone, even the most hermit like. I use computer editing programs to manipulate text and images I may be using directly or working from in a print or drawing, I print my digital photographs on different papers and fabrics to hand colour and collage. I use materials that are not possible without technology like foam core and water based etching inks that behave like oils. I use the Internet for research, but still use books as well. Having said that, the nature of papermaking and print-making is essentially the same as it has been for a thousand years.
I like the balance of old and new.
CWTM What do you enjoy most about your work?
LP The excitement of an idea sizzling as I begin to work my way into a new body of work and the sigh of relief when it is finished. Generally speaking, just doing it.

CWTM Is it important for us to be recognized by the art world and if so, how can we help affect that change?
LP If ‘recognised by the art’ world means do textile and fibre artists deserve to be shown in galleries? If the work is good and stands on its own then of course it deserves to be treated the same way as all visual arts.
Keep pushing the envelope!

CWTM What is next for you?
LP I intend to keep pushing towards new ideas combining whatever techniques are necessary to communicate them.
2014 will be occupied with working with ideas generated by researching Carl Linnaeus and his binomial system of classification of plants and animals. This has meant turning to drawing more, both as a preliminary to other work and as an end in itself. A great deal of paper is going to be made, and I have a lot of teaching to do.
I like to be busy.

Liz Powell Australia