After a successful career in commercial illustration, artist Libba Tracy returned to the mountains of Western North Carolina and began to express her love for the natural world with clay. Her recent body of work, Critters on the Go, is whimsical kiln-fired creatures that balance folk art spontaneity with elements of classical sculptural art. Select works from this series are currently on display at Grovewood Gallery and in our online shop.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Libba about her background and creative journey as an artist as well as what she’s done to boost her spirit during this challenging time of COVID-19. Read the interview below.
Interview with Artist Libba Tracy
Did you grow up in an artistic family?
Tracy: Yes, my grandmother was a designer and also a china painter, which was popular at that time. As a result of my grandmother’s influence, my father became a prolific painter from the time he sold his manufacturing business at age 62 until he died at age 93. To race the clock, he feverishly painted every day, leaving us with a studio of countless paintings and notebooks from his workshops, both the ones he attended and the ones he gave. To be a witness to his insatiable curiosity and willingness to learn was what I grew up watching. He mastered the art of exploration.
Being the youngest of four sisters, I had the privilege of spending more time with my father. He was also given the job of spearheading the South Carolina State Museum into reality. My love of art comes from going with him to many museums to see what worked and what didn’t and what the vision could be. As a direct result of his example, I have a slew of family members who express themselves through many different art forms. How lucky I am.
What’s your professional background, and how did clay become your passion?
Tracy: My first class in college was in clay, but I failed to find the challenge with it at that time and switched to Illustration and Design. My first job was as an illustrator at South Carolina ETV network in Columbia. After marriage, we moved to Phoenix, Arizona, which proved to be a fabulous town to pursue a career in painting and illustration. It was a 15-year phase that ended with several children’s books and the birth of my own children.
Moving back east to be near family and raise my kids became the next priority. Clay entered later as a new tactile challenge that didn’t require deadlines and the pressure the commercial world demanded. With clay, one can follow a whim and not have it be about fulfilling someone else’s needs. That was the joy of it as well as being on the ground floor of a co-op studio in the River Arts District that was created specifically for starter ceramicists to grow.
What is the inspiration behind your popular Critters on the Go series? What would you like to communicate or achieve through that body of work?
Tracy: Pristine nature and animal behavior are loves of mine. I despair over climate change and the loss of beauty, both living and earthly. My creature sculptures are not a direct statement of the devastation I see, but more of a whimsical release from it. If I could figure out a way to speak directly about the problem without experiencing despair, I would. The closest I get is to imply that these creatures are going (on wheels) and that I love them.
Has living in the mountains of Western North Carolina inspired you artistically?
Tracy: My folks had a cottage in Montreat for 50 years, and that is where we returned to after being in the desert. It was a coming home and a gentle place to raise the kids. We currently live on an 11-acre farm in Black Mountain that nurtures my need for beautiful mountain views and wildlife. We live next door to cows, geese, and horses. I relish living in the country next to a vibrant little town as well as the hopping city of Asheville.
Have you found new ways to boost your creative spirit during the pandemic?
Tracy: The pandemic threw a crowbar into my ability to get into the studio and be inspired. What did get me going was the desire to help in some way. I set up a partial studio in my barn, cranked out over 150 mugs, and partnered with the Black Mountain Center for the Arts to sell my work to create funds for Bounty & Soul food service. Doing that gave purpose and meaning to creating anything at all when so many people are suffering. For me, this time period is a quandary, a crossroads time in life with no clear pathway through.
When you’re not busy in the studio or creating, what do you enjoy doing?
Tracy: Currently, I’m harboring grown children under my roof, so cooking has surprisingly come forward as a pleasure and necessity. Hiking is important as it puts me in direct contact with beauty. I currently have 7 wild turkeys that visit me each day, and I delight in observing the personalities of the wild ones that come through our land. Last night, we had a mother bear and her 3 babes romp past our windows. Day-to-day living is up close and reflective these days