Interview with Illustrator Libby VanderPloeg

I first came upon Libby and her work when I was fumbling through instagram one evening and was intrigued by an image she posted of a vinyl album with a cat, a witch, and a little girl on the cover. I then read the caption, which explained it was a picture of her mother’s storytelling album from the 80’s, and the art was done by her babysitter at the time. Libby ended the post saying, “Remember thinking that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up - draw and tell stories.” I was hooked. I was so moved by this short and sweet anecdote on creation and sharing between women over generations. I had to know more. Libby happily indulged me and answered my questions about her work, her life, and her inspiration, artfully illustrating with her words and images the tried and true power of storytelling.  

Photo by Jennifer Galatiotio

Photo by Jennifer Galatiotio

How long have you been working in illustration and design? When did you first discover this passion of yours, and how have you cultivated it for yourself?

A page from one of Libby's earliest projects - a retelling of the Three Little Pigs

A page from one of Libby's earliest projects - a retelling of the Three Little Pigs

I’ve been working professionally as an illustrator and designer for about 15 years, but I’ve been a maker of things my whole life, from drawings and paintings to clothing and crafts.  My hands don’t know how to rest. As a little girl, I was relentlessly drawing and cobbling things together, and was lucky to have parents that loved and encouraged my creative pursuits.  My mom, a musician and storyteller when I was growing up, and my dad, an amazing craftsman and music aficionado, got me thinking very purposefully about music, art, and the power of language at a young age.  Throughout my life, I’ve continued to work creatively as a drawer, painter, designer, and musician of sorts, by doing it pretty much everyday, and by working relatively quickly as a means of bringing as many of my creative aspirations as I possibly can to fruition.

You say your work is rooted in your deep affinity for storytelling - what is your process like for transcribing words or ideas into images and symbols?

The first part of storytelling is, of course, capturing a story. You have to be patient and attentive if you want someone to share a glimpse of their life with you. The next part is perhaps more important though: empathy—which is about listening, reading visual queues, and reflection.  If you move through your world with these ideas in mind, you’ll start to see your life in a broader context, which will give you something interesting to think about and potentially share. When I’m in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, I do a lot of quiet watching and listening, and from there the visual stories start to occupy my mind. Putting this into a concrete and shareable form is all about finding that concise and personal way to convey an intriguing or relatable message.  At the end of the day, I think I really just want to say something that makes people smile, or just feel a little pang of something.

You mentioned your mother and even babysitter as women who were creators that influenced you growing up - what ideas did they inspire in you? How did your upbringing influence you as a creator?

Libby and her mother with matching blonde bobs in the 80's

Libby and her mother with matching blonde bobs in the 80's

When I was little, my mom, Pamela, made a living as a touring storyteller, telling her tales at schools and renaissance fairs (no joke—turkey legs, arrows, knights, and the VanderPloeg brood). She shared stories about Michigan history and strong women from the revolutionary war (i.e. Deborah Sampson), in addition to some original stories we had created together on family road trips (e.g. the story of Alesha, a little girl who had mushrooms growing out of her ears after spending too much time playing in a mildew-perfumed basement). Mom pulled out all the stops in her programs, performing in immaculate costumes sewn by my Grandma Bette (see some illustrations based on her below), whose craftsmanship and attention to detail bordered obsession — especially with the revolutionary war pieces — insisting on heritage print fabrics, lace-up bodices with boning, and structured crinolines. I proudly basked in my mother’s glow as she brought her stories to life — joyfully hammering out Appalachian melodies on a dulcimer, to captivated crowds. She had a couple of her story collections recorded at River City Studios in Michigan, the cover art illustrated and designed by my babysitter, Paula. I recall sitting at the kitchen table with her as she worked on sketches for cassettes and LP sleeves, wondering how she was going to turn those doodles of cats and mice and rainbows into records and tapes, wishing I could draw as well as Paula, hoping that with practice, I too could do something as marvelous as this someday. In short, I was surrounded by imagination and craftsmanship, and it seemed only natural to participate. And so I made things. And stuff. And more things. I drew and cut paper dolls with fashions of my own creation. I constructed elaborate, homey dioramas for them to occupy. I made hand-drawn fashion magazines. I stitched together crazy outfits. I crocheted. I knitted. I painted, and painted, and painted everything I could paint ( including my brother’s train set, which I spray-painted blue). I was a whirling dervish, wielding pens, needles, scissors, and glue guns with abandon.

See more illustrations and stories about Grandma Bette here!

See more illustrations and stories about Grandma Bette here!

What other female figures inspire you in your creative pursuits?

Besides my mom and grandma, I am incredibly inspired by my creative lady friends, of which there are too many to list! There’s Maresa Ponitch, who’s got me thinking a lot about the power of style through her amazing vintage collections at Dusty Rose in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. And I’m always energized by seeing what Kara Sparkman, of She and the Sea, is up to. She was one of the first people that I met in college — I remember noticing her sitting a couple of rows ahead of me in art history class with a thermos full of coffee, wearing a patchwork dress, and thinking she and I ought to become friends, and so we did, journeying to Greece together at age 18, studying art and the beauty of the Mediterranean. Later, she moved to Oregon and became this superwoman surfer and painter, who is currently on a surf-centric road trip up the Pacific Northwest coast, collecting imagery, making art, and gathering stories along the way. And I have a few favorite illustrators that I haven’t met, but whose work I’m enamored with.  I think that Lisa Hanawalt is wonderful — a perfect mix of humor, sweetness, and raunchiness. The illustrator Ping Zhu’s brush work is scary good. Same goes for Elizabeth Graeber and Marisa Seguin. There are so many people I could list here! I’ll finish the list with a big nod to Tove Janssen, the lovely Finn who created the Moomin comic strip, and wrote such perfect phrases as, “There’s no need to imagine that you’re a wondrous beauty, because that’s what you are.” Just think about that.

See more from "Revival, a series of style icons" here!

Have there been any obstacles you've had to overcome in your creative journey, and if so, how have you done so?

The biggest obstacle for me was finding the right formula so that I could live comfortably without sacrificing too much creative freedom.  I’ve spent my fair share of time in unsatisfying desk jobs, squirreling money away so that I could buy myself some time to do more creative (and, at times, less financially lucrative) projects. I don’t feel like I lost out on anything by being a full-timer for longer than I would have liked though.  I learned a lot of really awesome and/or enlightening things about cooperation by working within corporate bureaucracies.

Have you ever encountered criticism of your work? How do you handle that?

Oh yeah, I definitely encounter criticism now and then, often coming in the form of uncomfortable silence, which I might interpret as passive criticism, which might make me obsessively wonder how I could have done a better job! Should I have given this whole project another day of work and pondering before delivering? But then I remember to chill out, and bear in mind that everyone likes different things, and maybe the silence I’m witnessing is just a period of acclimation, a moment for the viewer to think about what they are looking at, a moment to think of something thoughtful to say in relation to the work.  More importantly though, I try to keep in mind that there can be work that I make for myself and work that I make for others.  If people don’t like what you’re making, that doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong.  Keep exploring and experimenting, regardless of what people say. The bottom line is that you've got to make what you want to make, and find a way to live happily.

What is your favorite setting to work in?

I love working in my home/studio in Brooklyn.  I live on a very quiet and peaceful block lined with Honey Locust Trees. Late summer, windows open, cup of coffee, a pastry within arms reach, sketching on the sofa, breeze blowing through the room, music playing. Just perfect. That’s my rider.

Do you have any rituals that help motivate you in your work?

I take time out to go for either a morning or afternoon walk around the neighborhood. It’s important time away from the computer, when I can think about ideas, look at what an interesting place the world is, and not feel obliged to reply to anything. Never underestimate the power of a good stretch.

What or where or who is home to you?

I don’t know exactly what home is, perhaps because I’ve spent equal parts of my life in Michigan, Chicago, and New York, so I think home is a feeling for me more than any one place. There should be art on the walls by people you know, and objects laying about that remind you of places you’ve been, and people that you love. And a nicely patterned wool blanket to wrap yourself up in. It’s whatever brings you comfort.

Where's one of the coolest places you've visited or traveled to?

In 2013, I went to Nicaragua with my boyfriend, Erik. It was unlike any place I’ve ever been, mainly because it was still so undeveloped and non-European. The people there were so kind and lovely. The markets were bustling and colorful, filled with delicious fruits I can’t possibly remember the names of. We climbed to the top of volcanoes, dove through massive waves in the Pacific, and zip-lined through forest canopies. It was a real adventure.  I’d highly recommend traveling within Central America to anyone who wants to broaden their perspective. This trip was life-changing.

And lastly, do you consider yourself a feminist?

Yes, I certainly do consider myself a feminist.  I owe so much of my quality of life to those individuals who fought hard to give women a voice in the arts, politics, and culture, and I believe in showing respect for those who work to make your life better. Greater equality for women didn’t just appear out of thin air. It was born of  persistence and a belief in the plausibility of change, and that can’t be taken for granted.