Libby Burns

7-year-old Libby loved to draw people and characters. She does just that now plus she made a children's book.

Take us back to you as a kid. I think I have more in common with 7-year-old me now than at any other time. At that age, I loved to draw people and characters, and I loved to make things. I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. I think there was something about being able to create the person I wanted to be on paper. I could draw and curate my own world with stories and people that I wanted to be like. To this day, I’m still drawing women that are strong and cool and who are extensions of my shy, introverted self.  

What's keeping you busy? I’m really focused on making accessories and developing more products right now. I’ve been illustrating for a long time, along with creating prints and cards and having my work published in magazines, but creating actual products (buttons, pins, books) is something fairly new to me. It ads another dimension (literally and figuratively) to the content I’m creating. I feel like having something to say and having a voice is really important when creating art and illustration work, and I’m finding that creating pieces that are beyond just prints is really helping shape my voice and challenging me to think more about what I’m trying to say—about who I am as an artist.

"Self-doubt has been the biggest obstacle for moving my illustration career forward."

Walk us through the days leading up to starting your own thing? I’ve been doing illustration work on the side since around 2009, but between two years of grad school, then working full-time, (and maybe a little bit of self-doubt), I was never able to give it the attention it really needed. This past fall, I was starting to feel confident and comfortable in my day job as a designer, my husband and I were finally settled in the house we bought, grad school was over and done with, and yet, something was missing. I think there was something about the illustration work that I’ve been doing since I was a child that is a defining aspect of who I am, and it took having everything in my life being completely in place to realize that I couldn’t be truly happy without illustrating, without creating and making on a daily basis.

Since that day in November, I illustrate every day. I reopened my Etsy shop, I’ve written and illustrated a children’s book and I’ve reconnected with a part of myself that feels like coming home. 

"You can use your imagination and be exactly who you want to on that piece of paper."

What have been the challenges? Who and what has helped? Like a lot of artists and creators, self-doubt has been the biggest obstacle for moving my illustration career forward. I don’t have a degree in illustration, I didn’t attend traditional art school, and I’m not a full-time illustrator. I’m often questioning my own legitimacy and feel like I’m just faking my way through this thing.

I’ve struggled with this a lot, and recently experienced something that really helped. While you can get feedback online—Facebook likes, Instagram followers—none of that is comparable to feedback in person. When I did my first art fair/market, and I met real people and heard feedback in person from real humans, it was a total game changer. It gave me so much perspective (and confidence) about what people really thought of my work, and what pieces were working and what weren't. I think staying connected with people in real life, not on the internet, can really help keep you focused and know how to move forward.

Talk to us about one of your good days this week. Today is a pretty great day. I’m dropping off some of my inventory to be sold at Domestica in the East Village. Being able to have my work sold at a store that was one of the first places I visited in Des Moines and thought, “Wow, this place is cool. Des Moines is cool!” is pretty awesome. 

"It’s so refreshing to meet people who are supportive and encouraging."

Someone is starting a project for the first time, what would you want to say to them? I think the idea of starting something new is, in itself, overwhelming. It can be hard to know where to start. I heard someone say once that you’d be amazed how much progress you can make with just putting in a C+ effort every day. You don’t have to get everything done all at once or be putting in 100% effort all the time. In fact, that’s how you get burnt out.

You just need to put in some effort every day. I try to remember that on days where I’m overwhelmed or intimated by work and my to-do list. I really do think that you make quality, consistent progress if you just do a little every day. As my mother says, “take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.” 

To someone looking to start a children’s book what’s advice would you give them? Keep it simple. When I first tried to storyboard out my ideas, I was coming up with complicated story concepts and found myself getting frustrated. After several attempts, I decided to take a step back. I was overthinking it and trying way too hard to come up with a perfect, meaningful, nuanced story, and the result didn't feel like it was unique to me. My style is simple and modern, often with lots of white space, so why not let that approach guide me? I used that aesthetic as a guide rail, and the words and visuals came easily. Get your self-doubt out of the way and the story will write (and illustrate) itself.

Whose work do you admire in the Des Moines area? I recently participated in the Social Club's PedalArt poster show, and I had my poster printed at Eight Seven Central. Tony Streeter of Cicada Grove screen-printed my poster and not only was I blown away by how perfectly it was printed, I was really impressed with how talented and kind Tony and the people at Eight Seven Central were. Working with them validated my impressions of the art community in Des Moines — there's crazy talent here, and it's not elitist. It's inclusive, welcoming, encouraging. Good people doing good work. 

Why Des Moines? I’m originally from the Washington D.C. –area, and I moved from D.C. to the Midwest for grad school in 2012.  After I graduated, I was offered a job in Des Moines and moved here without having stepped foot in Iowa before. I had no idea what to expect at the time, but I can say now that moving to Des Moines was one of the best things I’ve done. Especially as an artist, the community here is an incredible mix of quirk, edge, talent, and Iowa nice. It’s so refreshing to meet people who are supportive and encouraging, which is almost every person I’ve met while pursuing my art and illustration career in this city. 

Des Moines is growing. What’s one new thing that caught your eye? I love a lot of restaurants here, but I’d have to say that new restaurant on Ingersoll, Harbinger, is totally next-level for Des Moines. That was one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time, in any city. Plus, the restaurant itself is super adorable. I just love the overall vibe in that place.

If you could grant the Des Moines one wish what would it be and why? This is pretty specific but I wish more places/shops/restaurants would be open on Sunday. It seems like a lot of this city shuts down. I’ve seem more and more places have Sunday hours, but I’d like to see more going on. (I’m looking at you, La Mie.)

Convince someone new to DSM your favorite place to go on your day off. The Des Moines bike trail system is incredible. You can ride along a shimmering river for miles, stop at numerous cycling-friendly bars, bike down to a baseball game, cross over the lake and do yoga in the park, the list goes on. Riding through the Des Moines bike trails and all the places it will take you is my favorite way to spend the day here. 

The most underrated thing in DSM is ________. Why? Chuck's Restaurant. I’m not even sure how my husband and I discovered the place, but we did shortly after moving here and we even ended up having our wedding reception there. That place has an incredible amount of soul and I always feel better about the world after going there. Specifically, the live music on Friday and Saturday nights. There is nothing better than watching Julius Brooks play sax.

"Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves."

What are you most proud of and why? When I found out my brother and his wife were expecting a baby boy, I wanted to make something really special. I realized it was the perfect opportunity to try a project I had always wanted to attempt: writing a children’s book.

I wrote a simple little story called “Ways to Go” and it turned out to be one of my favorite illustration pieces that I’ve done. I’m particularly proud of it because no matter where my illustration career takes me, I know this little boy will have this little story I wrote when he was born. That really means something to me.  

In three months, what do you hope to accomplish? This summer I’m focusing on illustrating more children’s products (books, toys, prints). I’m hoping to complete those projects and be able to have them on my Etsy shop and sell them at some art markets and craft fairs. In the next few months I really want to increase my inventory and have a suite of products that I'm really happy with and that are ready to sell in the fall.

"To this day, I’m still drawing women that are strong and cool and who are extensions of my shy, introverted self."

What’s one thing people need to know you really care about? I really, really care about how we treat each other. How you treat those around you—showing kindness and compassion—really affects people. It makes a difference. You’ll never regret sending that person a thank you card, talking to them on their first day at work, listening to their hard day.

And when I say “how we treat each other,” I don’t mean that we are always nice and perfect. We’re only human, and sometimes we have to remember that about each other. My favorite poet, Mary Oliver, writes that "nobody, of course, is kind, or mean, for a simple reason." It’s important to remember that we all have context, we’re all complicated. We all have a story.

What would you say to your 7-year-old self today? Drawing and painting isn't just a hobby. It doesn't have to be something that you do in your spare time. It can be a career. I know you don't know anyone who is a real, full-time artist, but don't let that stop you. You can use your imagination and be exactly who you want to on that piece of paper. All the people and animals and stories you draw — they are important. There is value in what you are making and it's worth it to keep going. I know the world will tell you in every way possible that it's not, but please listen to yourself. If not yourself, at least listen to the strong, fearless ladies you are drawing at this very moment. What would they do?

Photo credit: Drew Deubner