Create & Cultivate 100: Art & Design: Libby VanderPloeg

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Illustrating emotion is not an easy task. Yet somehow, you feel things when you peruse Libby’s work. She’s responsible for the GIF that became the unofficial GIF of fourth-wave social media feminism. Many of her illustrations emphasize the power of women, collaboration, and civic engagement. And many of them go viral as rally cries for the movement.

The positivity that underscores her work makes her representation of women that much more meaningful. You want to be friends with the women she draws! You feel inspired by them! You feel connected to them! In a world filled with aggressive push notifications, click bait, and sensationalism, it feels empowering to see artists using their symbolic swords to make art with impact and calls to action.

Simply put, Libby’s work makes you feel good. And in this climate, who doesn’t need that?

Your work has gone viral so many times. Your Lift Each Other Up GIF you made was even mentioned by Gina Rodriguez on one of our panels. How did that change your career, and what was the inspiration behind that piece?

Ah, yes! The Lift Each Other Up GIF was a little bit of magic. Shortly before making that piece, I had taken a leap of faith and quit my full-time design job to pursue my illustration career. It was a little bit nerve-wracking but, lucky for me, I had a lot of strong women in my life (both IRL and through Instagram) who were also small business owners and creatives, and we were all so encouraging and supportive of one another! So I wanted to make a piece about the power of that reciprocal support. While out for my morning run, this animation idea hit me like a bolt of lightning. I was so excited to see if the idea would work that I immediately literally ran home to start working on it. By that evening, I had finished the piece and I could hardly wait to share it, and then I realized that, serendipitously, International Women’s Day was just a few days away! So things just sort of clicked into place with this piece, start to finish. Once I shared the GIF that following Tuesday, it didn’t take to long for it to go viral. I kept getting messages from friends all over the country and even in Europe that they were seeing it everywhere, which was a pretty crazy feeling! A couple years later, I’m still seeing it shared on a daily basis, which makes me happy. I’m so glad that the message of the piece resonates with women in such a positive way.

Career-wise, the viral nature of the piece put me in front of millions of individuals and organizations, which, of course, grew my audience. But it also set me on a path of working with more women-owned businesses and corporations that were taking women’s issues seriously and working publicly to address inequality. It’s wonderful to see a personal project really bloom into a public call to action!

You’ve worked with so many amazing brands. What do you think is the best way to bring your creative mind to brands + create meaningful partnerships that you feel proud of?

I always try to consider the objective of companies I’m creating work for, what the work needs to achieve, and the tone the work needs to strike. I love working collaboratively with my clients because their goals aren’t necessarily the same as mine, and because of that I need them to give me as much info as they can in order for me to work in the right direction. As I see it, my job has two parts: Part 1. Ask a ton of questions; Part 2. Solve problems. And I love when I can deliver solutions to my clients in the form of something fun and beautiful that will hopefully bring a little visual joy to their audience/readers/followers or what have you!

People look to you for inspiration, but where do you go to feel creatively inspired?

I’m inspired by just about everything around me! I’ve lived in relatively urban areas for most of my life (Grand Rapids, Chicago, Brooklyn, Stockholm) and in such environments you’re just immersed in interesting culture without trying very hard. I find humans endlessly fascinating (and weird), and along that line I’m interested in the little worlds they/we create through fashion, decor, and culture more broadly. I’m constantly cataloging all of this visual information in my head, or sometimes jotting notes down on my phone to refer back to if I just feel like doodling but am not sure where to start. For me, I’m tripping over inspiration daily. Sometimes it’s the bolt-of-lightning type, but most of the time it’s more like “I think I’ll draw my funny socks today because I love them,” and that’s fine, too.

Who are some female artists that inspired your past? Who do you think is a rising star?

When I was first starting out on my illustration path, I was so inspired by Erin Jang, and I still absolutely love her work and it’s minimal, playful sophistication. I was also super inspired by Lisa Hanawalt! After seeing her work at a little variety show in Brooklyn, I was immediately sure that I wanted to quit my job and become a full-time artist and illustrator. It was a revelation. She’s so incredibly funny and honest in her work, and I love the imaginative world of characters she creates.

I also really love the work of Lisa Congdon, Roz Chast, Anna Rifle Bond, and Maira Kalman. It’s hard to narrow this down! Within the fine art world, I was and still am so inspired by the work of Louise Bourgeois, Miranda July, Karen Kilimnik, and Alice Neel. And I can think of several rising stars whose work I love! Lauren Tamaki is one of my absolute favorite illustrators. Her work is gorgeous and so distinctive! And Jordan Sondler’s work is pure joy! Also Carolyn Suzuki. Her work is seductively cute, but so powerful. And Loveis Wise is amazing too! There are too many artists I love and I know I am forgetting to name 50 or so of them.

What about your job makes you feel the most fulfilled?

I love owning my own company and getting to decide what it is, what it’s not, and where it’s going. It’s wonderfully rewarding to feel so creatively challenged and energized, and to see your ideas come to life! And it’s also really fantastic to be able to work with clients who value my work and trust my ideas.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

I think I was in high school and trying to finish a painting for art class or something like that. My perfectionist tendencies were in full force, and the more work I put into the painting, the worse it got. Seeing my frustration, my dad casually said to me that sometimes you just have to finish things and move forward. It was really freeing to hear that then, and it still helps me with every project I do. I don’t think I’m ever completely satisfied that I’ve done the best that I could do on a project, but deadlines are in a way a blessing that helps us move forward. We can look at what we’ve finished, critique, learn, and always strive to do better next time.

What’s been the biggest surprise or highlight of your career to date?

Probably my ability to produce multiple viral pieces of art! There was, of course, the Lift Each Other Up GIF, but there was also the Layer Up GIF, the Shimmy If You’re With Her GIF, and the Huddle drawing that I made as a reflection on the 2017 Women’s March. A definite career highlight was when Cyndi Lauper posted Lift Each Other Up. My mind was completely blown! “She’s So Unusual” was such a formative album for me! It’s just an awesome feeling when one of your heroes notices your work.

What’s next for you?

I have a couple of big, fun book projects that I’m working on right now, and they’re really keeping me busy! One of them involves tons of research, so I’m learning a lot of fun, historical facts as I work on it. And I just wrapped up a very large project that I am super excited about, but shhh... I can’t talk more about until later this year. But I also want to do more personal work in 2019, and have so many ideas for prints, apparel, and other goods that I want to start making!

What keeps you up at night?

I have a hard time quieting my brain when I lay down to go to sleep. I often start managing my schedule and planning out my next work day as I’m laying there, and then I might also start trying to do some specific creative problem-solving too. If I feel that start to happen, I sometimes indulge it for a few minutes, but if it goes on longer, I start saying “sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep…” in my head and the next thing I know it’s the next morning. Sleep problems ebb and flow depending on how screwed I am, via over-scheduling. I am trying to get better at that.

What are the common challenges you've seen among female creatives in business?

I’ve seen a lot of instances where people are concerned about negotiating a better rate/fee because they are worried about a client saying no or thinking they are being difficult. It can be tough to assign a value to creative work, and there are so many factors that go into pricing. When clients don’t agree with how you price your work, it’s disheartening because you’ve made very thoughtful calculations to arrive at that value. We’re not always in a financial position to walk away when we don’t feel that a rate is quite fair, but I think it’s important to push back when we are able.

Another big challenge for creative folks in the internet age is the rampant theft of content. Illustrators are constantly having their work stolen and posted without credit, and it’s getting more brazen everyday. I suppose some people think that once something is on the internet that it is up for grabs, but it simply is not. If you want to share something you found on the web, give yourself time to look for the source. You can probably find the creator with a simple Google, and then contact the artist to ask for permission! A lot of times artists are more than happy for their work to be shared, as long as there is attribution. But ask first, especially if you want to use the work as part of a promotion. The internet is sort of the wild west, but we can all work to bring order to the chaos if we start to enforce some decorum with one another. So if you see someone’s work posted without credit, call it out! Artists deserve credit for their work.

When you hit a bump or hurdle in your career, how do you find a new road + switch gears to find success?

I had both a lot of bumps and plateaus. The plateaus came several times in the form of realizing that my graphic design jobs were ultimately unfulfilling for me and I wasn’t working towards a future that I was going to love. In some of those instances, I was able to stretch my skills in different directions that were closer to the illustration career I wanted. I might find ways to incorporate some hand-lettering or illustration into my design work. But I started realizing that if I was really supposed to be an illustrator then I needed to focus on it and do it every damned day, like any other job. The big bump in the road came in the form of getting laid off from my job as an art director. I was actually incredibly happy to get the news! It was a kind of freeing moment where I realized that this was the perfect opportunity to forge a new path. I did freelance for about a half a year after that, and then took another full time job back in design (after getting cold feet), but I gave myself a hard deadline of one year to save up money so that I could be all-in as an illustrator, and that’s just what I did. Bumps in the road are so necessary, as they give you a chance to recalibrate and zero back in on your goals!

Artists have it tough when it comes to pricing talent/skills. What’s the best advice you have for artists/designers/photographers out there who are working to turn their creative skills into a career?

No one chooses to tether themselves to a life of scraping by whilst working their ass off. Sure, you can probably get a ton of work if you charge bargain rates, and sometimes you’re not in a position to negotiate. But if you’re getting all “yeses” to your quotes, then you might consider whether you are charging too little. This might not bother you too much at first, because it can be a comfort to be busy, but after years with your nose to the grindstone, trying to make ends meet, while your friends are out buying houses, vacationing in Italy, and going to doctor’s appointments because they can afford health insurance, you might start to really resent your work. So set good precedents for yourself. You might get more nos, but if you’re a problem solver, the inquiries will keep coming.

I always encourage people in the creative field to be as transparent as possible with one another about the kind of rates they are getting and from whom. Budgets are often dependent on the type of work/client, so there is never a simple way to price things, which is why conversations with peers are incredibly valuable. Ask them if they think a rate is fair or if you should push for a little more. And if you have a client that doesn’t pay on invoices for six months, please...let your friends know.

What are you most excited for in 2019?

Well, it has nothing to do with drawing, but I am super excited to finally finish remodeling the little house I bought a couple of years ago! It’s in a super cute, woodsy little beach town in Michigan, just a few blocks from Main Street. I have been dying to decorate it since the drywall went up and they floors started going down. I can’t wait for summer days there, away from the noise, making art, jumping in Lake Michigan, baking bread, and just soaking up nature :)