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The Makers Dozen: Watercolor Painter and Greater Milwaukee Committee President Julia Taylor

Jun. 2, 2020 at 3:56PM

As a watercolorist and creative placemaker, Julia Taylor never stops seeking new ways to solve problems. Julia knows first-hand how art can define people, neighborhoods, and entire communities. Through her work as president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC), she’s sharply focused on leveraging a neighborhood’s existing strengths, nurturing its assets, and expressing outwardly the attributes that make it a unique and valuable place. Before working for the GMC, Julia served as the president of the YWCA of Greater Milwaukee for 16 years. She is currently an active member of the board of directors for both UPAF and Milwaukee Film. Through all of her years as a leader in the Milwaukee business and nonprofit scenes, Julia’s artistic sensibility has served as her guidepost. We virtually sat down with Julia to talk about how her creative mindset benefits her art, city, and life.

Why are you creative?

I’m a visually oriented person. I listen more with my eyes than I do with my ears. Color and light are exciting and stimulating. They actually help me reason-out issues. For a musician, this expression would be auditory, but for me, it’s visual. And because I perceive the world this way, I’m creative. It’s my inspiration.

What is something you do outside your job that keeps you creative?

Painting keeps me creative. When I was in college, I created stained glass. I even owned a stained glass business that allowed me to pay my rent and stay in school. I’ve always had a side creative gig. I was flunking a design class and due to a scholarship, I needed to change majors. Otherwise, I would have gone into art professionally (chuckle). I’ve worked with pastels, oils... I’m always working on something.

Watercolor has really been important to me. I like it because it’s fast. The more you try to manipulate the color, the more interesting things come together. It trains you to let go. There are a lot of rules in watercolor that apply to life like that. LIke if you want light to show up, you need to put your darkest value next to your lightest value. And never reuse masking tape.

What’s something you saw recently that inspired you?

I do look at a lot of art and there are certain watercolorists I really admire such as Herman Pekel, Alvaro Castagnet, and Joseph Zbukvic. I enjoy seeing their work on Instagram. Learning from other artists pushes me to take my work in a different direction. I must say that I don’t stay with one thing long. Perhaps not long enough. One week I might do portraits and then landscapes. Each type requires its own techniques. I’m trying to be more versatile. Sometimes inspiration tells me that it’s time to shift gears and move to something else.

What’s one thing you’ve created that defines who you are the most?

My favorite work of art is always going to be my next one. When I think about some of my favorite pieces… I painted a pair of roosters in 2016. They are quite big, 22”x23”. When I see them, I’m almost surprised when I’m reminded that it was me who created them. Those paintings contain the spirit of that animal. Roosters have been defining for me, I guess. I like to create something evocative. When I was a little girl, we had a farm we’d like to visit a couple of times a week. It was about a mile from our house. My dad had chickens. The roosters could be pretty mean. They would chase you. As a little girl, I was in charge of feeding the birds; I’d bring the food out in a pie pan. And there was this one rooster who would chase me. Welp, I whacked that mean rooster with the pie pan. And guess what? He never messed with me again. I learned something about bullies that day. Beyond that history, roosters also have crazy expressions and eyes that I like to capture in my work. I just think chickens are bizarre birds; they are fun subjects.

Name an Influential/Inspirational book everyone must read.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. It’s a book about stepping away from social media and how to effectively make creative space in your life. I’ve recommended it to many people including my team. The book stresses the importance of making sure you have physical space, time, and mental room so you can focus. It made me rethink how I spend my time.

What do you carry around with you every day that is indispensable?

My phone with all my pictures on it. I take a lot of pictures. Many have become the basis for my paintings. I used to carry notebooks around everywhere; I still do but not as much. I’ve kept all of my notebooks. But now I use my phone for everything.

Most influential person in your creative life?

In some ways, I’d say it’s Alvaro Castagnet. He is one of these artists who—while he was classically trained and began art school at age 14—has only done work in watercolor. He’s an intellectual. He thinks a lot about art. I took a three-day class with him last year. Even now, I think about him every day. I think about his theory of what art is and what it should be. He taught me the importance of capturing atmosphere. If your painting effectively has atmosphere, it doesn’t matter how correct the rest of your technique is. In fact, you don’t want it to be correct. You want it to have atmosphere.

How do you silence the doubts?

I wouldn’t say I have doubts. I like to say I have different opinions. I will often hang up a painting and then immediately say, “I’m going to paint it again; I need to redo it.” It’s surprising to me that those are the paintings that tend to be the most liked and commented on. I’ve learned not to be so judgmental about my own work. There may be things that others see in my work that I don’t.

What’s your morning routine?

Surprisingly, my routine now isn’t that much different than it was before the pandemic. Although I don’t start as early as I used to. I get up and have coffee and breakfast with my husband and dog. I try to read the paper and go for a walk or exercise for at least half an hour. I’m very consistent with exercise; that is a must. My day starts around 9:00 a.m. and then it’s Zooms all day.

Favorite/most productive meeting spot?

Normally I’d say it might be in my office. I do my painting in my studio, which is also where I set up my work-from-home office for now. My studio is my creative place, regardless of the quarantine.

If you weren’t a ____ what would you be?

If I weren’t a nonprofit leader, I’d be an artist. I think most of my schoolmates would have guessed that I’d go the art route, which I did, just not professionally. It took me a long time before I could refer to myself as an artist.

What is the greatest piece of advice you ever received?

Change occurs at the speed of trust. I rely on that saying a lot. It applies to anyone you deal with, in any capacity. If you don’t have basic trust, you can only go so far. Creative expression really brings people together. Look at the pandemic. If you already have strong working relationships, you can sustain them through Zoom. But you cant only do it virtually for so long. You need a foundation of trust, first. There’s something to be said about being in the same room. When relationships get tested, it’s when they get stronger.

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About the author

Cory Ampe

Cory Ampe has worked in marketing and communications for more than 20 years. She currently owns a marketing firm named Campe + Co , is the president of United Adworkers, and volunteers for Sculpture Milwaukee, Islands of Brilliance, and Girl Scouts Wisconsin Southeast. She is also married to a creative person and is the mom of two high-energy kids.