bendy ‘nanas and wonky FLOWERS
Q&A with nostalgia-loving, garden-plucking artist Liv Lee
Enter Nature’s Playground with the artist who plucks art from her backyard to inspire happiness
I wanted my name changed to Flower because I loved flowers!
Flowers on flowers on flowers. Welcome to the “loosey goosey” style and wonky world of Australian artist Liv Lee – whose artwork takes root in her back garden.
This interview is part of a TOPIA series in partnership with Face This. The Dutch charity brings together street artists with Indonesian school kids to turn children’s drawings into merch to support their education. Read all the interviews.
Painting bunches of bendy bananas, droopy tulips, and misshapen melons, Lee takes a fun look at nature through surface design – the developing of patterns and prints – finding pleasing motifs out of wobbly interpretations of plants, flowers and fruit.
Lee grew up in a small coastal town on the east coast of Australia called Port Macquarie. The area respects the First Peoples – the Birpai – who are the traditional custodians of the lands of the region. “I was lucky enough to live on a property just outside of the town. Our house was amongst a working vineyard, which meant we would always go and pick some grapes before harvest – they weren’t really nice to eat though, to be honest!”
After 12 years of living in Sydney, the artist moved back to her home town of at the beginning of the pandemic with her husband and daughter in tow. “It’s got stunning beaches, and we’ve also got rainforest and bushland,” she says.
Now Lee’s joined forces on a collaboration with Face This to create ‘T-shirts for good’, sweaters and tote bags from the drawings of Indonesian school children. We asked the artist about the importance of playfulness, creating from a pure place – and flowers.
Q&A: Liv Lee
Hi Liv. Did you always like to draw?
I have drawn since I was a kid, but I always really loved the more hands-on creative side. I made papier-mâché apples, sculptures out of dad’s scrap timber, collages out of Easter egg wrappings, dinosaurs out of felt – and so on. I remember a big vase of flowers that I drew in crayon when I was eight-years-old. It must have been a nice one, because the teacher laminated it. I had signed the back Olivia “Flower”. I wanted my name changed to Flower because I loved flowers. I knew all the names of the different plants and flowers as a kid, so I am sure the drawing was just a bunch of my favourites.
What made you decide to become an artist?
In my mid-twenties, I was a bit lost. I had never stopped creating things, but I didn’t know how to turn this into a career. To teach myself Photoshop, I started making patterns and one day a friend told me about surface design, which I didn’t even know was a thing. But knew it was what I needed to be doing! That night I enrolled in a course in Sydney. Once I had my daughter and had some spare time during naps, I would paint and paint and paint – and then really developed my style.
What is the best thing about being an ‘artist’?
I love that so much of the art that I make is used on everyday goods – tea towels, blankets, bags – as it makes art more accessible. Plus, it’s being useful in everyday life and most importantly, bringing joy to someone’s space. I have been surprised that it’s resonated with people. I was creating art just for myself as an exploration to find my artistic style, and then I started putting it out in the world. I always feel quite vulnerable sharing my work, it’s a little piece of myself that I just throw out there. To think that there has been such a positive response is really warming, and surprising!
I love that so much of the art that I make is used on everyday goods – tea towels, blankets, bags – as it makes art more accessible.
And the biggest challenge?
It would have to be everything else that isn’t making art! I probably spend about 20% of my time actually making art and the rest of the time is made up of accounting, replying to emails, creating quotes and contracts, making content, updating my website, packing orders, meetings! My to-do list is never ending. In saying that, it isn’t lost on me how lucky and extremely grateful I am to be making art for a living.
How important is it to you today to bring joy with your work?
It’s really important! I truly love it when people tell me that seeing my work has brightened their day, or put a smile on their face. I think a part of that is because of the playful, irreverent style of my work.
What is one thing you do regularly, a simple ritual or hack that brings you joy or elicits a sense of self care?
My morning coffee! I go to bed dreaming of it and wake up thinking about it. It’s usually the very first thing I do in the morning.
What are you most inspired by?
My home and surroundings completely influence my artwork – I am forever inspired by the form, texture and interesting shapes of Australian native flora. The flowers here are unapologetically bold and a little bit crazy – I just love them. And my dad is my biggest artistic influence. He was an incredible artist who made intricate wood carvings and detailed drawings. His art featured mostly native Australian cockatoos and native flora. He showed me the endless beauty and inspiration we have in our own backyard. It is safe to say our styles are very different.
I am forever inspired by the form, texture and interesting shapes of Australian native flora. The flowers here are unapologetically bold.
If you had to look at one artwork only until the end of days, what would it be – and why?
I’d say the artwork that I have directly in front of me in my studio – a sausage riso print by Daniel Peter. I’ve looked at it all day, every day for a long time now and I still love it.
Pablo Picasso once said: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” How do you remain an artist?
I just never stopped making things as an adult. I explored a lot of different mediums – wood carving, pottery, silversmithing, sewing, embroidery, etc. The end result wasn’t always great, but that doesn’t matter. I think it’s a great way to cultivate your inner child – go out of your comfort zone by trying new things, without being afraid to fail.
You designed an artwork by using some of the Indonesian kids’ drawings by Face This. The proceeds will provide the kids you’ve collaborated with a playground. How important is playfulness for you as an artist?
Without the playfulness element, it just wouldn’t have the same effect on people. So to answer the question, very important – playfulness is the foundation of my art. I absolutely loved the idea of creating a piece of work with the kids! It’s just such a fun brief that also 100% benefits the children – how could I say no to that?!
When you received the drawings, what was your first reaction?
They all spoke to me, I loved them all. Sometimes as an artist today, you worry about things that you absolutely shouldn’t when making art – like how it will perform on Instagram, rather than simply making art that you love. This can then influence the final piece. What I saw with the children’s drawings was that they were all created from such a pure place, without worrying about those external influences – to me, they all look raw and honest and 100% themselves and that’s a really beautiful thing.
Which drawings did you use to create your artwork with and why did you pick these?
My theme for the piece was ‘Nature’s Playground’ so I chose drawings of flowers and animals that would complement my other elements. It’s been really fun to be a part of this project, and knowing that it will directly benefit the kids is so great. As an artist, I have my go-to subjects that I paint, and this collab has made me see how I can introduce other elements into my work to make it even more playful.
Is there something you would like to say to the kids who made the drawings you’ve worked with?
Don’t ever stop creating!
What’s next? What are you up to next – the near future and any longer-term plans?
For now, I’m just happy that I am able to create art for a living, I’m extremely lucky to do so. In saying that, I am constantly dreaming – I’d love to create a fashion label with my husband, so maybe you’ll see that from me in the next few years. We’re not in any rush to start it, and I believe I am exactly where I am meant to be right now. When the time feels right, we might just give it a go.
Spoiler Alert! The upcoming theme of TOPIA Season 02 is The Egg – something that pops up in your artworks. What does ‘the egg’ symbolise to you?
To be completely honest, I just love how a sunny side up egg looks – its organic form and the yellow on white, it’s visual perfection. But if you would like some egg-based advice from me, I say… If there is something you have always dreamed of doing, or have been afraid to start something, just go for it and give it a crack!
Lastly, we are creating a playlist for TOPIA. What is the last song you’d want to hear during your time here on Earth?
OH gosh this is so hard, I’ll just pick one of my faves – ‘You Ain’t the Problem’ by Michael Kiwanuka!
Liv Lee’s World of Good
The artist’s tips of five outrageously good people to follow
– @warlu_art – one of the longest running, 100% Aboriginal owned, art cooperatives in remote Australia
– @clothingthegaps – aboriginal social enterprise uniting people through fashion and cause
– @lucyandyak – an independent, people-focused company famous for comfy organic dungas, conscious clothing and vibrant prints
– @thedesignfiles – Australia’s most popular design blog
– @mameko_maeda – Japanese illustrator who focuses on the body’s tension and wrinkles
What’s so good about this?
Creativity has a transformative power for children of all cultures. The Face This Foundation works to empower Indonesian schoolchildren to “design their own future”. by giving a platform to kids living in marginalised areas. They design streetwear in collaboration with street artists from around the world. Proceeds support their education. Liv Lee’s artwork is available on tees, sweaters and tote bags. All pieces are available to buy online. Check out more of the artist’s work on her Instagram and website.
Meet the writer
Lisa Goldapple is the creative brain behind the world of TOPIA. The magazine’s Editor-in-chief has been creating shows for MTV, BBC, Vice, TVNZ, National Geographic and more since the noughties. Then created social good platform, Atlas of the Future. Today her desk faces the trippy side of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which might explain a few things. To understand how TOPIA came out of this rare brain, read ‘Mind Blown’. As she puts it: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”