Turning a Dream Into a Career
Elizabeth Langhoff Herlihy ’61
by Judy Cabassa Tart ’78
There was no question in Elizabeth Langhoff Herlihy’s mind that art was not a viable career. As a child, she had been exposed to cultural events – music, the arts – things to enjoy but not to pursue, and it was never considered that the arts could be a way to make a living. She recalls, “In the newspaper you would see pages and pages of ‘help wanted’ ads – male. Following would be one column of ‘help wanted – female.’ Those jobs included teaching, secretarial or nursing.”
At Trinity, Herlihy became an economics major, not because it was a passion but because it would probably lead to a job in a bank, a reasonable way to make a living. Although she was interested in the art classes and the activities that other students were doing, she decided that it was not really practical, that she did not have time in her schedule for art.
As graduation drew near, alumna Esther Herlihy Tecklenburg ’49, who was teaching at a small Catholic school in Charleston, South Carolina, approached Sr. Margaret Claydon ’45 to ask if any of the women of the Class of 1961 would be interested in coming to teach in Charleston. As it turned out, Herlihy, along with classmates Ellen Cowey Ewens, Judy Fredricks Santos and Betty Ewens Quadracci, found the lure of Charleston to be appealing, and they all headed south. As Herlihy says, “It was also a chance to do meaningful work and give back to the community,” something that had been emphasized during her years at Trinity.
The art community in Charleston was strong, and Herlihy rediscovered the great interest she had felt as a child. She found herself drawn to the work of local artist William Halsey, who was a painter. When she moved to Atlanta she took several ceramics courses and became very proficient in sewing and designing, from outfits to accessories, including belts. When her youngest child went off to elementary school, Herlihy decided to enroll in art courses at Georgia State. She laughs as she talks about both of them going off to school. Little did she know how it would open up a whole new world to her.
While studying at the Penland Craft School in North Carolina, she was introduced to the work of Sas Colby, an artist whose style was, and continues to be, very textural, edgy and imaginative. Herlihy recalled a particular piece, a letter to Wolfgang Mozart done on fabric, that made a great impact on her. She decided to enroll in a class taught by Colby, entitled Exploring Creativity Through Artist Books and Art Mail. Neither she nor the other six students were quite sure what they were in for, but it turned out to be a fantastic experience that greatly influenced her style and creativity.
Herlihy’s years of study exposed her to many different media that she continues to employ today in her work. Among the media she favors are paint, charcoal, sawdust, gesso, lacquer and ink as well as various papers and canvas. She finds herself drawn to Asian influences, especially with regard to papers that have a texture and strength similar to cloth. She admits, “I’m a person who tries everything,” as she experiments with paint, shellac, gesso and ink on various paper and canvas surfaces.
For her, the creative process is one of discovery, looking for the image that will capture and translate her thoughts and emotions. While some works are quite large, Herlihy’s creations are often smaller in size – three-dimensional folding books and other small mixed-media sculptures, many of which relate to a recurring theme of women and friendship. Oftentimes people are asked to participate in the creation of the artwork by adding their stories to the book pages. One of Herlihy’s book creations related individual experiences in which the participant was called upon to show courage. Much of her work is truly interactive, speaking to the viewer and provoking response.
In May 2001, classmate Elizabeth (Betty) Ewens Quadracci brought Herlihy’s artwork to the attention of Trinity, and Herlihy’s work was featured in an exhibit during Reunion Weekend, at her 40th Reunion. Guests marveled at the intricate details and textures of the pieces, and classmates participated in creating an art book that shared their thoughts and life experiences. Both Herlihy and her classmates found that process to be creative and energizing. They truly enjoyed the opportunity to share themselves with their classmates, and learned quite a bit about each other.
Among Herlihy’s favorite book pieces are ones whose themes include standing up for what you believe in, and what women know about men. The latter contains entries that range from thoughtful to bitter to comical, and every emotion in-between. In her career she has participated in an annual event known as a global art project, a process that links artists worldwide in art exchanges. Herlihy describes the project as a cultural exchange that extends intimacy between citizens of different countries. She has also been involved in mail art, which is a practice of creating artwork that is then mailed to a recipient to give them a boost, or perhaps a sense of peace. Sometimes the recipient is not another artist, but a person of influence to whom the artist wants to make a statement about a particular public policy or condition. Many mail art initiatives begin as a social statement, emphasizing environmental concerns such as clean water, or the human condition. Herlihy likes the idea of creating art and sending it out into the world, likening it to a prayer.
Herlihy is currently working on artwork for the mothers of fallen soldiers in Iraq. She finds this creative process to be a good thing – “giving it away” – just as she has donated artwork for AIDS research and art centers that sponsor workshops for children from low-income families. As with her early days spent teaching, Herlihy remembers Trinity’s emphasis on giving back, and enjoys the interaction with children. “[With low-income students] you show them another possibility in life, an opportunity. Children haven’t been ‘gussied up’ or given rules, and that freedom enhances their spirit.”
Most recently, Herlihy’s work was exhibited as part of a group show at the Quinlan Art Center in Gainesville, GA in February.
The prolific art career of Elizabeth Langhoff Herlihy ’61 first came to the attention of Trinity through classmate and arts patron Elizabeth Ewens Quadracci. In a recent conversation between friends for this magazine, Quadracci confessed, “Even before I ever visited your studio, I was jealous of you, in a way. You exude ‘artist’ – you are so incredibly creative. I admire your courage, embarking on this career, committing to a studio space and really delving into your creative side.” Quadracci, who along with her late husband founded QuadGraphics, the largest privately held printer in the world today, maintains that “art feeds the soul.” To her, design is highly important to everyday life. She believes that people are more responsive to and positively influenced by good design. Design and art have been integral to Quadracci’s life, and she often finds herself carrying some of Herlihy’s painted postcards or other tiny creations along with her. She laughed, “I always keep some of Bitty’s tiny bits of artwork with me.” Concerned about the decrease in funding for the arts in public schools, Quadracci has been involved in a program in Milwaukee known as “The Truck Studio.” This project endeavors to provide vehicles equipped with all kinds of art supplies and staffed by local artists to make regularly scheduled visits to public parks so that neighborhood children can participate in art workshops. Passion for the importance of art in our culture is part of the reason Quadracci praises Herlihy for her commitment to art in everyday life: “Art is a serious endeavor. Your office is your studio. My office is just an office in business lingo. You are driven to express your creativity without concern for personal gain or recognition. It’s difficult to stay on the edge and do the kinds of creative things that other people are not doing. Artists are the real authentic entrepreneurs in our culture.”