Detroit artists Liz Ably. Photo by Krissy Booth used with permission.
By Matt Harmon
Liz Ahlbrand is a multimodal artist living in Detroit. She holds a Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance. After an injury left her with severe chronic pain, she turned to the visual arts for new ways to cope and heal. Since then, she has been working as a freelance graphic designer and consultant, contributing her creative skills and personal artwork to numerous organizations and publications that focus on the intersecting issues of social justice, environmental sustainability, and the resiliency of the human spirit. She also regularly writes and performs music under the alias Liz Ably, and with her band, Deep Bloom.
FLOW Communications Intern Matt Harmon spoke recently by phone with Ably to discuss her artistic development, the role water plays in her work, and much more. Check out the transcript below:
Matt Harmon (MH): Can you describe to me your journey as an artist?
Liz Ably (LA): I have always been involved in the performing arts. That was mainly how I was involved in school and in community groups growing up, through middle school and high school, was in the performing arts. By that I mean mainly music, also theater and some dance, and I ended up going to college for music performance, which is a very different experience than a high school choral program or something. That was really interesting. I ended up studying jazz and opera, which are very different types of art forms.
It was a very rigorous schooling in college, which was quite the opposite of the experience I had in highly nurturing middle and high school programs that were very much about inclusivity and, as “woo woo” as this sounds, almost this spiritual nature of how music brings us together and transcends everything and in some moments can make you feel extremely connected and extremely alive, like alive in the best way, like thriving.
So anyways, I went into college for music because I wanted to continue with that, but as one often finds when you go into an institutionalized educational process, it’s not always about the lovey dovey stuff, so that was a bit of a rigorous experience for me in college, and afterwards, I was hoping to reconnect with that bigger, deeper sense of purpose that I always felt while making music, participating in music, listening to music, so I started working with a nonprofit setting with performing arts. So that job right out of college was the typical nonprofit experience where you’re working way more than is healthy for any human.
I really feel like everything is interconnected, so when I’m not a healthy person, I feel as though that has major ripple effects in my life, in my relationships, and in my community.
As I’ve learned since then, if you want to try to figure out the complicated, big issues of supporting communities through the arts or any method—but the arts have always been how I’ve encountered community—but if you want to support that process, that requires exceptional time and space, and the emergency mentality that this non-profit in particular had an issue with, went through a lot of burnout and made it, in my opinion at least, we weren’t really being very effective, so that was a little disheartening. I’ve backed all the way up to college and my first job out of college because that’s where this creative reawakening began for me, was at a very low point of ignoring my creative curiosities and involving myself in ways of living that were not healthy and were not very conscious, and I mean that in the broadest term possible because I really feel like everything is interconnected, so when I’m not a healthy person, I feel as though that has major ripple effects in my life, in my relationships, and in my community. How can I give in the ways I feel I’m called to give when there’s nothing in the well to give?
So that’s where this newfound sense of creativity began, was from a very scarce place of needing to get back in touch with my own sense of where do I derive connection to myself and to other people and to the planet and non-human beings as well. So that was kind of for the first time in my life where I started getting curious about the visual arts because, like I said, I’ve always been involved in the performing arts, not the visual arts, like painting and drawing and that kind of thing.
So that just started all as an experiment and purely led out of curiosity, which I think was the missing piece in a lot of those previous experiences with the non-profit and the music school, just a lack of individual curiosity about what could happen and allowing yourself to experiment with the risk of failure and acknowledging that failure is not a failure, in a sense, because you’re in that experimental mindset. So I started experimenting with drawing and with watercolors, the first media I started working with, which I was mainly drawn to because of the texture, the flowiness of it. You can definitely try with watercolors to really control that medium, but I have found that the most fun way to use watercolors is to let go of the sense of control and to let the water and the texture of the paper and the gravity to manipulate that medium and do some interesting things, and it ends up looking really natural, really reminiscent of rock formations and the topographical grooves you see in maps where glaciers have been, and all sorts of interesting things when you start getting curious and opening your eyes up to different ways to using watercolors besides just trying to control it.
MH: I feel like that maps onto how we control water as a natural resource. We assume when we control it, we’re going to get the best outcome, but when we actually let water do what water does, instead of trying to have this power over it, it’s ultimately going to be better for everyone.
LA: I totally agree. I’m thinking now of an author I really love, adrienne maree brown, and in one of her books I read recently, Emergency Strategy, she said something off the bat, and I’m just paraphrasing because I don’t remember exactly, but she was talking about how the natural world can support any kind of mindset, and people have chosen and supported the mindset for so long of “man vs nature” or “Oh, we’ll get nature full of all these hierarchies” and “dog eat dog.”
I totally agree with what you were saying before that we, in a lot of ways, in order to protect our world and ourselves, it’s more about unlearning than it is about learning. As much as technology is amazing, etcetera, etcetera, the world has already been doing its thing pretty well until we tried to overly control a lot of this stuff, so I think there’s a balance to be struck. It’s not a total unlearning, you know? It’s having some hindsight and understanding the interconnectedness of everything and how we are not the masters of this world, we’re just a part of this.
You can definitely try with watercolors to really control that medium, but I have found that the most fun way to use watercolors is to let go of the sense of control and to let the water and the texture of the paper and the gravity to manipulate that medium
MH: Was there a formative experience for you with water that inspires you as an artist?
LA: I’m trying to think of a good one. A lot of it goes back to memories I have of growing up in Michigan, because I’m from Michigan and our family was all about experiencing the Great Lakes, and the little lakes, and everything in between. Big, big into traveling all throughout Michigan. I guess something that I was thinking of earlier when I shared one of those other paintings with you, was of the stones, because I have so many memories of walking along the local parks, the state parks along the water’s edge, usually Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, and collecting these rocks because water, when it washes over these rocks, it makes the colors pop in an amazing way—sometimes these incredible patterns pop out that you wouldn’t even notice when the rocks are dry. So the best way to experience those rocks is to drench them in water. To me, it speaks to how water is life. Water brings everything to life. Even these inanimate objects, these rocks look so much more alive, and have character, and want to tell a story about the history of our world once they’re drenched in water and have that life brought back into them.
MH: While we’re on the subject of that piece, I’m interested in where those rocks are from?
LA: They’re from everywhere. I mean, they’re all, I think they’re almost all from Michigan. I’m pretty sure those are all Michigan rocks. There’s obviously some Petoskey stones in there, and most of those had just been picked up along the beaches in Michigan.
MH: Beautiful. I just love looking at the intricacies, especially when you say water brings them out, and if we take them away from the natural environment, take them away from the water, it’s not the same experience.
LA: Yeah, exactly. My dad has a geology degree, so he would know when we were picking up the rocks on the beach, like, “Oh, that’s magnesium” or whatever. He would tell a story about why the different kinds of elements showed up in the rocks and different ways, with the stripes or with polka dotty looks. I love thinking about the diversity that we can see too under the water of all these different elements. So interesting.
And any good work that is done to protect water is also protecting human lives and non-human lives, our economy and everything, absolutely everything. So that’s why, because it affects everything.
MH: I think that goes beautifully into my next question, which is thinking about how your dad is telling a story about the rocks, but you’re painting the rocks, and there are different ways to use different media to talk about the same thing. So I’m interested in the ways water informs your art as a musician?
LA: That’s a cool question. I love that. It’s something you wouldn’t think about too, because with paint, there’s obviously some kind of flow in that medium, and even more so, obviously, with watercolor—but with music, I do think it is about the story that you’re telling. And I wrote a song a few months ago that I’d probably never share with anyone, but it was about the story of explaining to myself how writing a song, even if the song isn’t a protest song, even if it’s not, “Obviously this is about demanding justice,” how can a song, that’s just a song, still tell a story, and still be important in the work of justice on all levels?
Because I really feel like, you know, environmental justice is intricately connected to social justice, economic justice, all of that is connected. For me, I think that’s one of the media that is more about connecting to my inner self and accepting that even when I am not using the medium of music to write a song for an organization to use at a protest or something, it’s still a valid way to reconnect to myself, and therefore, a valid way to reconnect to the world that I belong to—because we exist inside so much context, and it really takes a great deal of sorting through and exploring in all different kinds of ways, through all different media, whether that’s artistic media or social media.
MH: My next question is on your piece “water” which was featured in the Clearline Zine. This piece is so striking, and I want to know: What are you trying to get across with its content and its title?
LA: There was a lot that went into thinking about creating that. One of the things is, it’s a figure where her face or hairdo suggest a Motown sort of vibe. So I did create it to represent the Detroit area where I’ve been living for the past six or seven years now. She’s drowning, it looks like, in water, but it’s also, you know, connected to her own tears. And to me, this is about a lot of things, including Detroit’s obvious, terrible pollution problem and how that affects the people of Detroit, in multiple ways. Obviously we’ve got, you know, the effect of the groundwater and the drinking water, which is significant, but also how that gets ingested in other ways through the rain and through the urban farms and the food that people are trying to grow.
Because I really feel like, you know, environmental justice is intricately connected to social justice, economic justice, all of that is connected.
Also what has to be noted too is the interesting irony of Detroit having this big problem with the cost of water, right? And it has a lot of water cutoffs, but even all the efforts that are sometimes put in place, not as effectively as they should be to stop the cutoffs, it still doesn’t address the actual safety of the water.
And there’s just so much pollution, and it obviously disproportionately affects people of color, communities of color. So when you look at the maps, there’s one that the Environmental Justice Program at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability drew, and you look up: Where is the water most polluted, where is the land most polluted? Upriver is cleaner, but it’s also whiter. Downriver, you can obviously see the effects of redlining still in where that pollution is happening and affecting people the most.
To me, it was a lot about the water cutoffs. It was a lot about the actual pollution once you even have access to water. And also honestly, a lot of impact of the floods too. I had a lot of friends and family whose houses were severely flooded during the past couple of years, which is, you know, because there’s only so much that can be, I think, blamed on infrastructure, which definitely needs to be helped. But I think that the price of climate change is also showing up in those severe floods that are completely ripping apart people’s homes right now in Detroit.
MH: Yeah. There’s so many issues that are frankly started by government neglect. But it takes such an individual toll on people. We could chalk it up to water pollution or air pollution, leave it as these big issues. Or we could really look at individual cases of people that are impacted by these issues.
LA: Yeah, totally. It seems like in Detroit, especially there are a lot of individual people and organizations and movements who are fighting back and trying to hold people accountable and make change happen. I really feel like art has a really important place in fighting for justice. And they always have, you know, so it’s really important to me to combine those things.
MH: I want to jump to the third piece where we’re looking at human forms amid color, another watercolor piece. I am just curious as to what the relationship is between humans and water that you’re hinting at with this piece.
LA: So this piece was created in June 2020, and I started by using the technique, which allows the water and the gravity and the texture of the page to act more as the painter than the actual person and the paintbrush, you know? So again, letting go of trying to control the situation. That’s how the color got on there. That’s how the different shapes got on there. And once it all dried, again kind of like the stones, with watercolor it looks different when it dries than when it’s wet, which is really interesting. So once it dried, there were sort of these ridges that reminded me of landscape, but also of faces and profiles and eyes and lips. So I just started tracing what I saw. I think it kind of turned into, not consciously, but unconsciously, became a commentary on the paradox of the moment of having faces be masked and not fully being able to see each other’s faces or be there for each other in the complete way because of a pandemic. And yet, also how so many people were unmasking to release their voice to demand justice in regards to so many different issues.
I really feel like art has a really important place in fighting for justice. And they always have, you know, so it’s really important to me to combine those things.
I feel like there’s something extremely soothing and revitalizing about water that you just can’t deny. It’s powerful, and yet, also renewing at the same time. I think that’s the reason why I felt called to use watercolor more than any other medium. Because I didn’t use acrylics, and just pen and gouache, and stuff like that. The interesting dual properties of water, I think, are what we really need right now. Collectively it’s all these droplets of water, extremely powerful, yet extremely life bringing.
MH: Why do you think we should be protecting water in the Great Lakes?
LA: I think it just goes back to understanding how interconnected everything is. We cannot not preserve our water sources. You can’t even approach it just from one viewpoint, like, “Oh, we’ve got to preserve it because we’re Michigan, and this is how we bring tourists.” You can’t just approach it in one way. There’s so many things we have to protect because it’s all interconnected, and any good work that is done to protect water is also protecting human lives and non-human lives, our economy and everything, absolutely everything. So that’s why, because it affects everything.