Elizabeth Foley taught the visual arts at the middle and high school level for twenty years whilst sustaining a co-op and her studio practice. Elizabeth received her undergraduate degree from Washington University and her MA and MFA from Ohio University. Upon graduating, she taught middle school and became a member of Tigerlily Press. Upon moving to Lexington, Kentucky she taught and made art as the Director and founding member of the Bluegrass Printmakers' Cooperative. Elizabeth was Director of the group for ten years before buying her own press (from Mary Mark in Cincinnati, who helped found Tigerlily in the 1970's). Last spring Elizabeth moved to Louisville and thought it was the perfect opportunity to pursue her studio work full-time. She is now busy establishing her business and working to get involved in the local art scene.
Elizabeth's work is process driven. Using relief, monoprint, and collagraph techniques together she makes images from the same plates without becoming redundant. Varying plate order, orientation, and color transparency creates altered states of an idea. Rather than print editions, each print is unique. Working in this manner reflects her thought process: a stream of consciousness and an embrace of chance. This links her disparate ideas in a logical way. Reworking the plates and thinking of the each print as an individual thought allows her to experiment with achieving a balance between intuitive and intentional decisions. Principally, the evolution of her ideas rely on process. Being in the studio and making decisions through the act of printing is critical to the resolution of the image. In this manner, making the work becomes a journey of balance in and of itself.
Five-Dots: How long have you been in this studio?
Elizabeth Foley: Well, we moved into this house during the summer of this year. When we were on the search for the house our criteria became two things: a yard for the dogs and a space for the two thousand pound press [laughs]. When you don’t know a city, it’s hard to navigate finding a studio; so I had reached out to the guys at Hound Dog Press and they just said, "if you can make it work in your home, then just do that", and that's what we did! I didn't fully get moved into this studio until the end of August, so I’m still learning how to flex the space to what the needs are for the moment. I’m starting to learn where I naturally use space the most, and what materials I'm using on a more regular basis. That way I can box up and minimize some of the tools I use only on occasion.
F-D: How long did it take you to get everything moved in and settled?
EF: We purchased the house in April, but I was still teaching and so I had to finish out the school year and remained in Lexington until June. We had some incidents arise and so I ended up driving to and from Lexington a couple of days a week to go to the studio. It was interesting to watch how that forced a change in my studio practice. If you’re driving an hour and a half somewhere, you’re not going to just hop in the studio for an hour. It has to be a substantial chunk of time. That was a change for me. I had been so accustomed to just going in for an hour or two a day during the school year. So that was a nice transition. I was finally able, fully and one hundred percent, to print by September.
F-D: When you moved in here, did you have an idea for how you wanted to lay it out or did it develop organically?
EF: I’m a list maker. Before we began setting everything up I made a very detailed list as to where I wanted everything to go—down to the coffee maker—and that was really helpful when it came down to the nitty-gritty. It alleviated a lotl of the stress of moving a studio. My husband is an architect, so he put up the walls for me and he did all of the lighting. We installed light fixtures, but we also have a good amount of natural light. We’re planning on extending the studio and installing a drawing space beyond beyond the maroon curtain here once we get a garage or a shed. My husband enjoys drawing and he’d like to be able to have some space for figure drawing. So we look at this area (where we are seated) as a flexible space and then down by the press is where we store and utilize all of the inks and things. I feel as if I planned out this space but then within the plan it just happened organically. I specifically planned my number of footsteps and pivot steps from the inking table to the press and I was trying to think about my habits when printing. It’s funny, when we were reassembling the press, I placed the handle on the opposite side of my inking station so that I wouldn’t bump into it and now I have to learn this new habit of inking, putting the block on the press, and walking around the press to print. That small procedure was something I hadn’t considered. But figuring out where I wanted the ink and where I wanted the press to stay was pretty central. We also installed a sink station down here, which was hugely beneficial.
F-D: Has the location of the studio (i.e the neighborhood, city, building etc) influenced your work in any way? How has moving to Louisville effected your work?
EF: Louisville has been great. This city has been so welcoming; it’s more metropolitan than Lexington and so there is more going on. There are pockets and different groups, of course, and obviously I don’t know them all, but people have just been so willing to introduce me to others and allow me to be a part of things. I’m one of the Hadley Creatives this year and I feel really lucky to be given the opportunity to have six months where I can learn and push myself to be comfortable saying, “I’m an artist, and I have some work I want you to see”. That, for the longest time, has been incredibly scary for me to say to people. It’s very intimidating to proclaim yourself as something and then expect people to be interested.
F-D: Can you describe a typical day for yourself, inside the studio and out?
EF: Every day is different. I’ve loved getting to make coffee and pour it into a mug and not a travel thermos. I usually get up and get coffee, get my husband out the door, and then come down here for a couple of hours. I’ll take a break mid day and walk the dogs and then work some more. The day becomes about getting things done but not having a strict routine. Being one of the Hadley Creatives has been wonderful even if just for the opportunity to meet fourteen other artists; but more importantly, they’ve asked us to recalibrate and reevaluate how we manage our time. For years I was breaking down my day into tons of tiny chunks of time, thinking that I had to get a little bit done everyday in order to be productive. When in fact it isn't all that productive because you spend so much mental energy just switching gears. I have began using a Google Calendar in addition to my paper calendar, so that I can see how I’m managing my time in large chunks (for example, what a week looks like in relation to the rest of the month) in addition to my daily to-do lists. It’s given me the skill set to schedule in experimentation and bigger ideas within my practice that I wasn’t able to focus in on when I was just planning day by day or week by week.
Working with smaller time frames in mind always created a bit of a hectic work / life balance and since changing how I manage my time I have seen that I’m less panicked. I noticed that I was calm, getting work done, and everything was fine as I was getting ready for this interview because I had changed my process to accommodate large chunks of time to focus. It felt great to not have that gasp of anxiety and still get things accomplished. Now I’m trying to settle into that idea of, “alright, I have the schedule, now let’s just get it done and then whatever happens, happens”. I’m working to trust that.
I feel like I’m spending a lot of time performing the entrepreneurial tasks. I read an article the other day that stated that artists are no more, they are entrepreneurs. Though I disagreed with the sentiment; it’s true to some degree. That process of finding a patron and having them support you doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Gallery representation within this region doesn’t seem to exist. Having an entrepreneurial process is necessary for you to facilitate a business but you have to remember what you want to get out of it.
F-D: How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
EF: I think in shape and color. I doodle shapes and patterns and things like that and I always have. In relation to that though, I do see the compositions relating to where I am in my life at any given moment. When I was in graduate school one of my siblings got sick with cancer. I was creating landscapes and I was really romanced by the midwest and recreating those fields and flying overhead and seeing the grids and patterns in the landscape. Then my sister got sick. She was a year younger than me. I began to notice that there was an arch that began surfacing in my work. As she got sicker, the arch became bigger. When she passed, it became this idea of me being at one point of the arch and she being at another. The arches slowly became ovals. She passed away in 2000, and then my mother passed in 2010 of Alzheimer's. Those two events—basically my thirties—became book ends for that decade. I began creating the circles when my mother passed. I say all of this, but I don’t ever expect a viewer to see those things. For me I know the work, visually, is about form, shape, and color, but it’s also about all of this other stuff. My question becomes, “do I share all of this other information? Or do I just let it be about form?" Perhaps I’m at a place where I’m questioning if the viewer is someone I explain the narrative to, or the someone I just explain the work as “form” studies to.
I want happy art. I know sometimes my colors get muddy; but I want people to have a break in their day when they look at my prints. I want them to become absorbed in the shape and color and just have a moment to pause. I went to graduate school in the mid-nineties during the trend that implied that everything had to be about some personal trauma and be dark and brooding; and I’ve just never been about that. I’m not going to share that with people that way. I’m never going to share that. Just take a moment and get to have a breath.
F-D: What mediums do you work with?
EF: I’m a printmaker. I work with oil-based inks. Rives BFK, Mulberry, and rice paper. With printmaking, you have all of these rules and structures that you need in order to make work. After you’re familiar with that process, why not throw it all away? Why do I have to be limited by those rules? I love teaching and making at the same time because it forces you to listen to your own instruction and lessons. I would always tell my students that if you weren’t taking a risk in the classroom, where on earth were you going to? Which is a lesson I sometimes have to remind myself. With that freedom, I also gain the flexibility to reuse prints that don’t work. They can be broken apart and used in a collage or something and there's a lot of flexibility.
F-D: Can you tell us about your process and how it has evolved?
EF: While I’m a printmaker, I don’t edition work. I stopped editioning because I didn’t have time to do the editioning and keep up with my thoughts. Not that I’ve gotten much better at keeping up with them [laughs]. At the time I felt that I only had a small window of time in the studio and I didn’t want to spend that time making sure that everything looked the same. I have a library of plates and I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like I’ve got a visual vocabulary that’s established and I rearrange that vocabulary to create a variety of images. The plates are all one of a kind but the printmaking allows me to make that mark again. I am very rule bound, but my question for myself is always, "how do I take myself out of that?" I prefer to print wet ink on dry ink because I know how the color will set when I print that way. It turns to mud when I print wet on wet. After three or four layers I begin pinning the work up and thinking about orientation, direction, or color requirements. Is there a shape that I want to experiment with on top of shapes already present? That sort of thing. . . I’ll usually have several plates going and one or two colors of ink. I work on ten or twenty images at a time. So the work tends to feel like a series to me, or perhaps like a family.
F-D: Do you work with any narratives, plot, or progressing ideas?
EF: I would say not really. I’ve been very fortunate in that my teaching provided me the opportunity to travel and I've collected images of circles from everywhere that I've traveled. I don’t believe my work has a narrative per say.
F-D: Do you consider your work to be autobiographical at all; does personal history work its way into your making?
EF: My father was a printmaker as well and I see some of his marks in my work. I usually see references to imagery or patterns from my past; but it takes a lot of time in between myself and the thing that I’m noticing before I can notice it. A little bit ago one of my old professors from Ohio University was retiring and I was invited to do a symposium on teaching and the arts. Whilst I was there I found an old photo of my studio during graduate school and there was a small collage pinned up on the wall. I just thought to myself, “My god, that was 1996 and that’s exactly what I’m doing right now!” What I’m doing now is what I was trying to achieve then. So there is a sense of time but it’s not evident, at least to me, most of the time.
F-D: What influences outside the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to making work?
EF: Beginning my yoga practice fourteen years ago changed things. It slowed me down. I don’t meditate but the idea of the breath and evening it out made me re-focus. My family is really important to me. I don’t speak to all of my siblings regularly, but I am really bonded to the fact that I am one of eight children. I think a lot about interpersonal relationships while I'm working. In addition, I’m trying to read, watch, and consume with more intention. The practice and my life being intertwined is really important to me. I’m very fortunate that my husband enjoys looking at art and so there always tends to be some sort of natural dialogue around the house.
F-D: What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
EF: Going from running a co-op and being part of a group for years really ingrained in me a habit of cleaning everything after I used it because I was always sharing the space with other people. It’s an interesting psychological difference to not have to participate in that anymore. I don’t have to put away supplies or take down art because I'm the only one in here. Leaving things out gives me flexibility in my schedule and how I can think about the projects, but it also requires me to come back. If I step away in the middle of something, I obviously cannot just leave it. Closure is important.
F-D: Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
EF: I feel affiliated with design. I feel like the direction for me to go is with design and in particular interior design. Where it fits, I’m still figuring out. My work isn't cutting edge and it's not trying to be. I’m not making work to break a barrier. I’m not out for shock value. I really want to make something that people want to look at. I strive for a certain level of meditation. I don’t want to think about what everyone else is doing because I already compare myself so much. I’ve always been influenced by Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, and Richard Diebenkorn amongst so many others; but I also follow a lot of my peers that I attended school with over the years, and I maintain relationships with people that I respect and admire.
F-D: Do you have a motto or creed that as an artist you live by?
EF: Be authentic. Be as genuine as you can be. If I feel like I’m being true to myself than it’ll all work out. I always ask myself if I’m being genuine and if I'm doing what I want to be doing.
F-D: When asked; what do you tell people you do for a living?
EF: I studder. [laughs]
I’m forcing myself to say that "after twenty years as an artist and teacher, I’m now getting the opportunity to be a full-time artist". As a teacher, it’s so easy to introduce what you do because you’re seen as performing some sort of work for the greater good. You’re giving back. As an artist, it's a bit different. It is for the greater good, too. But. . .
F-D: What risks have you taken in your work, or for your work?
EF: Going full-time has been an incredible risk. This is the year that I have to have the courage to make this happen. My husband is being very financially generous, but I’ve always had to be on my own financially, so it feels uncomfortable. I’m at this point, risk-wise, where I’m getting a lot of feedback and I’m listening to that and then taking it and doing something with it.
F-D: Words of wisdom?
EF: Keep working. I’m so glad that I maintained a practice and just continued to show up throughout the years. Sometimes that’s all that you can do. Put the time in and do the work and you will be rewarded. I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to be a part of a community like that of the Lexington arts community. I’m happy, not only that I got to know a lot of people, but that people felt like they could reach out to me when they needed help and they knew that I’d follow through. It’s really wonderful when you get to feel like you’re someone people want to work with. It doesn’t just happen.
F-D: Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
EF: While I make traditional prints on paper I am starting to take them out of the frame. I am mounting them on wood panels. I am creating scrolls (thinking about the enso, pattern, and Asian art). Also, I have all of the printed rice paper stencils. Years ago I noticed I was getting cool imagery on my stencils, so I stop cutting them out of newsprint and use rice paper. I am collaging them together and starting to build 3D forms. I am not sure where it is going to take me, but I like how it is stretching my thinking process.
F-D: Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
EF: I will have work installed at Quill's Firehouse through February 10th and I'm in a group exhibition, Abstract in Kentucky, at Kaviar Forge & Gallery through February 24th. I'm in an Abstract Invitational Exhibit, Open to Interpretation, at the Community Arts Center in Danville Kentucky from March 29th-May 25th. On March 2nd through 4th I will be a part of the Kentucky Crafted Market at the Louisville Exposition Center; and lastly I'm curating an exhibition of printmaking, Printmakers in Kentucky, at Christ Church Cathedral, in Lexington. That will be open from March 5th-April 30th.