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Interview: Libby Saylor's Tools for Healing

Interview: Libby Saylor's Tools for Healing

Tell us about yourself, how did you become an artist?

I was always creating, ever since I was very young, always drawn to bright colors. It seemed like a no-brainer to go to art school, and I have just always continued my practice. It's what I know how to do at an intuitive level, and for me, making art has always been a tool for healing. So, I kind of can't live without it.

What is your background? and how did it inform the focus of your creative exploration or the medium you're currently working with?

I studied Illustration in art school, not really knowing why, and I took my first photography course as an elective. I became absolutely obsessed with photography (this was back when we still used chemicals and dark rooms and old school processes). My illustration courses felt so oppressive and very commercial-oriented, so I switched my major to photo. However, I always had that love of painting, so even as I was making photos, I was always trying find ways to add paint, or make the images themselves more painterly in some way (hence, my attraction to abstract photography). Then one day in a photo class, they had a woman come in and show us an image transfer technique (transferring a color Xerox onto a surface using matte medium). Again, obsession. I began doing collage work in my spare time using this technique, not showing my professors, but doing it for myself, working on very personal material about my mother and our relationship. And for my senior year, I showed my professors and they flipped out (in a good way). It's a medium that really seems to suit my needs, creatively and emotionally, and I've been working with it ever since then.

What ideas interested you in the beginning of your practice, which ideas have you continued to explore, and where have they led you?

I definitely seem to prefer to create things associated with darkness, pain, childhood, nostalgia, the past, homes, memories, etc. However, recently, my work has become much more abstract and even I don't exactly know what I'm creating or why. When my mother passed in 2017, I made a collage series that was very obviously about her, using a lot of portraiture. And that served a purpose in terms of healing. But my most recent work is much more about play and aesthetics. I let myself off the hook with trying to have to create something with some kind of specific context, and just kind of leaned into the idea of making something beautiful. And to me, those crossovers when things are blurry for a moment and then become crisp, and then go back into blur, are just stunning. You see this in photography, in nature, and in dreams, and my recent work is an attempt to perhaps recreate those moments of exquisite awe.

Idris Murphy, Fork Tree, Fowlers Gap, 2011

Who were and are the biggest sources of your inspiration?

Oh boy, so many. I'm incredibly drawn to outsider art and folk art, and you can see my attraction to it in my own painting and drawing style. I love how this kind of art can be both raw and innocent in the same breath. I think I could describe myself that way, actually. I also love photographers like Keith Carter, who have the dream vibe on lock down. And I truly love so many painters. I am a bit jealous and always wanted to be a painter. But it doesn't come as naturally to me, so I just fan girl on everyone who is doing it the way I wish I could do it. So many painters, but right now, I am loving Aubrey Leventhal and Idris Murphy. I also love ancient ink and watercolor paintings from India. With their flat and graphic layers and character depictions, their attention to small details, I can't help but think they were some of the original folk artists. I also love anything from Cavin-Morris Gallery in NYC. I follow them on Instagram and am obsessed.

Aubrey Levinthal, Double Mirrors, 2018, oil on panel, 30×24 inches

Where do you find inspiration?

I would say nature would be number one. But also, in a weird way, myself. I find as I get older that I am fascinated by my own emotions, and now that I have more control over them (that took years of work), I am really aware when they are more intense. And when they are, it's almost like a gift because the creativity just flows when I'm in an emotional place. I've been trying to remember that when I'm feeling angry or depressed, and will just start making something in the moment. And what comes out then, compared to if I tried to create when I was feeling more even keel, is totally incomparable. My dark emotions really fuel my art and I find my creativity to be this stabilizing factor. I get the gunk out on paper and then move on with my day. It's a gift, truly, and I'm lucky I can access this at any time.


"The Death of King Dasharatha, the Father of Rama," Folio from a Ramayana. Date: ca. 1605. Attributed to India. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Is there are a single work, project, or series that is pivotal in your current trajectory?

Is there are a single work, project, or series that is pivotal in your current trajectory? I currently am working on a series of drawings (I typically hate to draw) that explore each chakra. I began this series as a way to manage my emotions and anxiety, at the suggestion of my therapist, actually. And it started to feel really good to, again, just get the gunk out. And they just felt so me, like my style, my vibe, my soul, all seemed to come out in a few lines of graphite. I think with these drawings I’m definitely tapping into something I haven’t before. When I’m creating abstract photographs, and dreamy collages, I may be hiding a bit of myself. A person looks at the work, but can get easily lost in it, which is what I actually wanted. But these drawings are much more exposed, much more straightforward, and yet still very expressive. I feel like I’m really sharing my own personal voice through these, even though it makes me feel much more vulnerable. So, I’m very excited and a bit scared, to see where this takes me.

How did it begin? and how did it evolve?

I was feeling some anxiety over hypochondria type stressors. I would become obsessed with an ailment, and then when that ailment subsided, I would move onto the next, not realizing how nuts it was making me (and my loved ones). So, my therapist suggested drawing out my feelings, but I really resisted and truly thought it was a lame idea. But I tried it and what came out was really wild and I surprised myself. With each one, I have been fine tuning the compositions a bit more, and rather than just vomiting emotionally all over the page, I'm trying to course correct, as all artists do, and keep the important parts, while eliminating what's not needed. I have always felt like the greatest artists know how to edit, and it's also one of the hardest things to do. But I do think it just makes for better art.

What were important lessons in the process that you’ve carried forward with you?

I think it's important not to think about your audience when you're creating. It's important to let the raw fuel spill onto the page first, and worry about the audience later. Otherwise, I don't think the artist is doing the audience justice. The world wants to see a person's soul through their art, so they don't feel so alone with their own soul. And so I think an artist has to be brave about that, even if it's uncomfortable. I think I have been trying to do that much more with these drawings.

What are you working on now?

Since I have only just begun this series, I am mostly just focusing on these drawings. I can tell they are beginning to merge into much more self-portrait based work, even though they were initially reminiscent of simple doodles.

Third Eye Chakra, 2020, graphite on paper, 11" x 15"

Throat Chakra, 2020, graphite on paper, 11" x 15"

If you could go back in time to the very beginning of your art practice and give your younger self a single piece of advice what would it be?

It’s strange, but I’m thinking back through all of my stages, and I feel super proud of my progress. I can’t think of any major mishaps that I regret, and I also can’t think of anything I would have done differently. I’m also kind of still in it. It’s not like I have finally achieved the kind of success I want and can look back and bask in the journey. I really feel like I’m on it right now, and everything I did leading up to this, I think I would probably do again. Hopefully whatever I’m doing is working and will take me where I want to go. But the older I get, the more forgiving I try to be with my younger self. I would 100% give her dating advice that I wish she would have figured out earlier, but as for art making, I feel supportive of her instincts and choices. I’d go back and say, “Good job, Lib, you’re right where you need to be with this, just keep going.”

About the Artist

Based in Wayne, Pennsylvania

Libby Saylor has created art her entire life. She received her BFA in Photography from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2002, and utilizes this medium as the fundamental basis for all of her work. She has exhibited her work in galleries and competitions for the last 18 years. Her highest awards include First Place, Best in Show, and a Griffith’s Printing Company Award for her photograph in the exhibition, “Abstractions” at Main Line Art Center in Haverford, PA, curated by Charlotta Kotik, former curator of contemporary art, Brooklyn Museum. Saylor lives, works, and creates in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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