Interview with Laura Hawbaker


Laura (L.A.) Hawbaker is a writer & artist in Chicago. She previously lived in New Orleans, Hawaii, Poland, and Prague. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, Time Out Magazine, and Newcity Magazine, among others. She earned her Master's in Linguistics and was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship.

Facebook: @laura.hawbaker 

Instagram: @laurahawbaker 

Twitter: @laurahawbaker 



We are very excited that you are joining the Library this year as one of our Artists in Residence. Can you speak a bit about your background as an artist and what brought you to Columbia?  

I started getting paid for my art (which I guess counts as professional?) as a caricature artist. I was that chick beneath the white tent, drawing cartoon faces on an easel at street fairs and carnivals. I still love drawing portraits. Even today, my subject matter is exclusively people. (My friends and family still ask me to draw caricatures of them.)

I stepped up (marginally) from caricaturist when I became a street artist in New Orleans. I sold my prints at Pirate's Alley in the French Quarter. Artists have to hustle to make it. Artists need to be scrappy. My street art caught the eye of local gallery people and restaurant owners, so that's how I landed my first showings. I also connected with other street artists and we exhibited together, particularly my friend and mentor, W.L. Griffin, a great local New Orleans painter. That's how it happened, sweating in NOLA summer next to the buskers and Bourbon Street. Selling art is not easy or glamourous!


What initially inspired you to apply for the Library Artist in Residence Position? 


I was commissioned to do some costume concepts for an upcoming sci-fi movie, which were then displayed at the Library's spring exhibit, "Future Tense: Imagined Worlds from the Margins." That's when I learned about the Artist-in-Residence position. Since I was starting my MFA at Columbia in the fall, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.


We were very excited to see that you work in various mediums (visual arts, writing) in your creative practice, especially since we always try to emphasize the Library as a place for interdisciplinary synergy to happen.  How do you feel working across mediums informs your work?  

I think all creative people work across mediums! Creative people just gotta create, no matter what the form. When I was a kid I wrote little stories, stapled the pages together and illustrated them with colored pencil. I'm a visual person, so the art informs my writing--creating scenes, envisioning and shaping literary worlds. The writing also informs the art--creating story movement and dynamic characters through a static image.


Can you speak a bit to your experience of libraries in general—school, public, academic--how it relates to both your personal education and development as an artist? 


My mom worked at a children's library! I'm a library geek. A couple years ago, when I was teaching at a K-8 school in New Orleans, I refurbished the library (it had been neglected for years, fell into disrepair, was really just an abandoned, storage dumping ground). The school library was my haven growing up; I was shocked the NOLA school didn't have a functioning library space for the students. So I helped recruit kids to paint murals on the walls, organized books, bought new furniture and decorations, created a checkout system--really made the space a welcome sanctuary where the kids could nestle into a beanbag and burrow their noses in a book.

In regards to the creative process, I think research and libraries elevate our craft. Libraries intellectualize what we create, connect it to what's going on in the world outside our own heads. (Creative people can get a little stuck in their own heads, sometimes.) Creators need to understand how our art or writing or music or films fit into the broader social world, how what we're creating both acknowledges and builds upon history and culture. If we don't pay any attention to the research, the news, the historical documents, the discoveries of other people and societies ... then our art is in danger of becoming a vanity project. It can be self-indulgent if it's just about the creator and their micro worldview, which I know (for me at least) is pretty one-dimensional without macro research.

What do you hope to gain from your Residency in the Library this coming year?  

Studio space! I kid (not really). My apartment is small; art supplies take up a lot of space. My cat is very happy now that he doesn't have to navigate a labyrinth of canvases to get to his food bowl.

There are going to be so many opportunities as a Resident. Workshops, exhibits, blogs. The Library has so many resources that'll make my creation process that much easier. It'll give me tons of avenues to put what I'm making out in the world. I'm also looking forward to networking with the rest of the Columbia community through the Residency. I'll get to see what everyone on campus is doing creatively, and to help create opportunities for others to showcase their work.

What are your current and future projects?  What should we look forward to from you next? 


My "Protesters" drawings are out right now. They'll be included in the Library's ARTIVISM 2020 exhibit, and the original prints are for sale at the Bridgeport Art Center.

I'll be using my Residency to create a new series on the subject of masks--very relevant in our COVID era. I want a series of paintings that explore the evolution of the N95 respirator, how its origins are rooted in the plague masks of the Middle Ages. The project requires a lot of historic research, medical research, cultural research, etc. The Library is going to be a huge help!

I'm also a grad student in the MFA Creative Writing program, so I'm working on some short stories for my thesis. I'd love to publish a literary zine centered loosely on the masks idea. I want to include work from the Columbia community. But that wouldn't happen until the spring semester, with all the crazy going on right now. 

We'll see how it goes. It's a weird year to be writing and creating art, that's for sure.