Womanism 1.5 Liz Flores
Interviewed by Contributing Editor: Juliet Cangelosi
The first time I encountered one of Liz Flores’ paintings, it was just that—an interaction that caught me by surprise. I saw a feminine figure with arms pressed high and thick legs in a sturdy, crouched stance. Their toes and fingers spread wide. Every part of the figure stretched to fill the canvas. I would later learn this piece was “Holding Space,” and in viewing it, I felt the strength of this person holding the invisible. It didn’t seem to be an easy feat to hold space, but one that took concentration and might. The encounter revealed a strength that could be found within oneself, and I haven’t forgotten Flores’ work since then.
In person, Flores is as warm and vibrant as the desert-hued colors that cover her canvases. We sat down in her Chicago apartment to discuss her unconventional path to pursuing painting full time, the massively influential role social media played in getting her to that point, and her traditional family’s journey into eventually supporting her decision.
JC: Is there an “origin story” to Liz Flores the artist? When do you first remember painting or identifying with the word “artist”?
LF: I painted and I drew all the time growing up. When I was a kid, through high school, I was always in art classes. I drew a lot of comic books and comic book characters. I wasn’t into a lot of the abstract work that I’m doing now, but I loved drawing. I was thinking about pursuing that, but we didn’t have the social media stuff that we have now. It’s not like you could see artists that were making a living and doing really good work—it didn’t really seem like something that could happen.
In college, I let that go. It wasn’t until after I graduated and I was working at my full time job, I started to pick up art again, just for fun. No one ever had to force me to do [art]—I wanted to do it. I was like, let me just try that again—maybe it’ll be a nice hobby that I have on the side. It just grew from there. Obviously, Instagram was then up and running. Seeing other artists really got me excited because I was like, they’re not just painting on canvas. They’re painting murals. They’re doing art on clothing. I feel like my mind just exploded! I could do that? Then I just started working towards it.
I feel like it was really hard to be like, “Yeah, I’m an artist.” Even after I left my [corporate] job, it felt like there was a little bit of embarrassment in saying “I’m an artist.” It was hard to be able to explain it.
JC: Was there a definitive moment when you were like, “I’m an artist,” or did you have to say it for a while before you grew into it?
LF: I had to say it for a while. Even when I said it a lot of times, I didn’t even know if I believed it. But you have to just say it anyway. Then eventually, one day you say it and I felt confident in that. Say it, even when there’s a quiver in your voice because one day you say it and there’s no shaking, no worrying about it. You know how to answer the questions that are going to come up.
JC: Do you still feel that imposter syndrome—if you want to call it that—sometimes, even now that you’re feeling more confident about being an artist?
LF: Yes. Especially when I meet people at dinner parties…
JC: —because people make judgments?
LF: Totally. They’re like, Ok. You’re an artist. But what do you really do? I feel like I have to justify it by saying, I worked with this brand and this brand. And then they’re like, you’re a real artist! It still feels a little nerve wracking.
I still go through moments when I’m painting something and I’m like, it’s not turning out. I suck. I’m not an artist. I still go through that. My partner was like, we’ve got to write out your creative process, because I don’t think you notice that you go through the same thing. So we wrote it out and every time, I go through a moment where I’m like, I’m not going to be good enough.
JC: I think that’s pretty relatable. A lot of people have that moment in their head. In some ways, those moments of questioning help push us further.
LF: It definitely makes you stronger. I’m realizing I’ll probably never be 100% rid of feeling that – questioning the work and what I’m doing. Sometimes that’s a good thing, because when you’re questioning it, you think of a better idea.
JC: Can you share more about your professional background? What was the turning point for you to start pursuing art, and eventually pursue it full time?
LF: I had just graduated and was doing my 9 to 5 stuff. Six months later, I was like, oh my god—I can’t believe that this is it. Whether it’s this job, or another corporate job, this routine is it for me. I started to look up motivational blogs and TED Talks. I did a lot of travel. That also started to pique my interest into other things. It literally started with – I really liked art at one point, so maybe I can try that on the side.
I stayed at my job for 3 years and kept dabbling in art and started reaching out to other artists in Chicago. I said, 'I’m just going to keep following the curiosity. Just keep following the breadcrumbs.' I’m not going to be like, 'I’m leaving [my job] tomorrow! I’m just going to keep learning.'
I was trying to piece together what life would look like. I got an artist studio in the West Loop, and I’d go there after my 9 to 5. It got to the point where every moment I’m at work, I’m just thinking about art. I’m not really getting things done, just skating by, and I don’t like that. At the time, I was living with my parents in the suburbs, and commuting to the city. I was in my twenties, so I was like, if I’m going to do it, let’s do it now. [My parents] are pretty strict, so I didn’t tell them until I put in my two weeks notice so they couldn’t talk me out of it!
JC: Is there anything about your upbringing or life experience that has influenced what you choose to explore in your work?
LF: When I was a kid, my sketchbooks were my journals. When I felt a very strong emotional reaction to something or I was experiencing something in life, I would draw it. It felt like a little bit of it was on the page and I could continue on. That sort of emptying yourself so that you can take in more of the world and life—I think that’s how my art starts. That’s why it’s easy to paint women, because it’s me. I’m a woman and I’m exploring what’s happening in my own life and human experiences. Even though I have a journaling practice now, painting is still a way I’m emptying myself so that I can keep taking in other experiences.
I went to Catholic school; painting breasts was never a thing. I was such a shy person. I would have never—I probably would have turned bright red and freaked out! I think it’s so funny how different it is now. That sensuality and exploration was something that I stifled in myself, and I think that’s why now I seek it out so much and enjoy painting it.
JC: What do you hope comes across to a viewer when they encounter your art?
LF: I hope there’s a connection between the human experience that I’ve tried to convey on the canvas, and something that they can also understand, or that they’ve gone through or felt something similar.
I try and give a little bit of a hint of what I’m trying to convey with the title of the work. But I also like having a bit of ambiguity and having people create their own descriptions of what they see. A lot of times they see something that I don’t see at all, which is really funny. If someone interprets it in their own way, I have no problems with that—I actually love that. [Abstract work] is a challenge and your brain is trying to put meaning behind it. It makes you go through your own self-reflection process. I had to do a lot of self-reflection to create the painting, and I want you to go through your own process of self-reflection to see that. Then you have your own interpretation.
JC: You’ve shared previously about the sisters in your life who’ve supported your art and encouraged you through this journey that you’ve been on. Can you speak more to this quote?
If you were to ask me how I got to this point in my life, what flashes before my eyes are dozens of women's faces. I've never walked this journey alone. It was so many sisters who first believed in my art, encouraged my practice and mentored me along the way. I think that's why I'm so drawn to painting the female form. Because maybe I'm painting all of you.
LF: Oo dang! That’s a good quote! [laughs]
When I first started, I reached out to a lot of women artists. My first art mentor, a Chicago artist named Emmy Star Brown, is the one that was like, bring your sketchbook and I’ll give you some critiques or advice. She also mentioned there was a studio opening in the building and then we worked down the hall from each other. The artists that I followed online, Elle Luna was one of them—she didn’t know it, but she was a mentor from afar. Her work was inspiring me and pushing me.
People became friends or colleagues later on, but in the beginning, they were putting things out there that almost feels like was for me. Then you actually get to meet these people and they’re even kinder in person. You’re like, I have questions. And they’re like, great—I have answers. That’s such a big deal. I don’t think people realize. When I get any questions from artists, I try and do my best to help.
Opportunities that I‘ve had— still today, it’s other artist friends that have recommended me. Every time I trail back all these big opportunities, there’s been a woman behind it who’s been rooting for me or put my name in the hat. It continues to fuel my work, because every time I think about my community, I think about the women— they were the first supporters. My sister was one of the first supporters in my family. My girlfriends were some of the first people to buy my art. It was women artists in Chicago that were like, come to this art show and I’ll introduce you to someone. I feel very blessed to have good, strong female friends that are putting your name in the hat and don’t see it as competition. I genuinely feel like everybody wants you to succeed.
JC: You’ve shared this quote from Marian Wright Edelman on your social media in the past: "You can't be, what you can't see.” Can you talk more about visibility and how it has impacted your experience as an artist and professional?
LF: Social media continues to be such a big deal for me and meeting other people in my career. I think I was looking for proof that I could do it, and that being an artist was a thing. I didn’t go to art school, so I didn’t learn a lot about other painters. Most of what I remembered from high school was they were men, they died poor and all the women were either wives of a famous painter or muses of painters.
With the Internet and Instagram, I started to see people’s practices and them working in different studios—apartments, fancy studios, garages, anything. That was like— oh, art can be made anywhere. Then you see different ages. Then you see a lot of well known painters didn’t go to art school. I think just seeing all different types of people succeeding was something that I needed in order to feel like it was at all possible.
I will say, now I look for more Latinas; I haven’t come across as many as I would like. Telling your family you’re an artist—oh my god. I feel like nobody wanted to talk to me in my family for the longest time [laughs], or they were just like, “she’s unemployed.” That was something I struggled with because I wanted to talk to someone who has those strong familial ties and who is struggling. That was hard to find. You kind of feel like you’re going through it alone. I think that’s also why it’s important for me being an artist and also being Latina – being honest about how hard all those things were because that was something that was missing from a lot of the conversation.
I love that quote, because I think it’s so true. I hope that my story— I didn’t go to art school, I was still living with my parents and they didn’t want me to be an artist—I hope that those things can be something that catalyzes other people. I really want to push my artwork further past Chicago, bring it to other places and share more of my story.
JC: Where would you like to take it?
LF: Anywhere outside of Chicago, but recently, I want to do something in Mexico. I would love to have an art show, do a mural, anything. That would be so cool. Again, I’m just following the curiosity right now—I don’t have anything planned. I’m also half Cuban, so Cuba would be incredible too. I feel a pull towards that.
JC: You mentioned how much familial ties are a part of your life and experience and how initially that was a challenging thing to tell your parents you put in your two weeks. How has that shifted now?
LF: It’s shifted a lot. Now, my parents are very supportive. That took a while. When you’re a Latina, your family is really the lifeblood of you. You grow up around your family, all the time. Not just your parents—all your cousins, your aunts, your uncles— every weekend you’re seeing each other. It’s not like, “Oh, my family doesn’t approve of something, it’s fine—I only see them twice a year.” I see my family all the time and they have no qualms about telling me how they feel. I think people were just confused. What does it mean to be an artist? I’m still figuring out what that means. In the beginning I felt like such a black sheep. Maybe that’s a reason why people don’t want to go through with it. You feel so isolated from people and from your family. They’re trying to understand what’s going on and you’re still trying to figure it out, so you don’t have concrete answers. I had to be ok with being a black sheep for a little bit. That’s really when I relied on my art community and friends, because I had a place where I didn’t feel that way.
I think the human brain does not like the unknown. I was like, the more I can fill that unknown for them, the more they’re understanding. For a while I was like, I’m not going to tell them anything. I just started opening up a little bit more and telling them about my freelance projects. My clients grew to what they are now, and if you tell them, “Jack Daniels!” they’re like, yeah, I know that! So now they really understand. But in the beginning, I was like, this is how it’s going to be for now but I have to go through it and we will cross the bridge eventually. Before they were like, “She... does some freelance consulting,” and that’s all they would say. Now my parents are like, “My daughter is an artist.”