by Sydney Dean
If you’re familiar with Julie’s work, you know that animals, nature, plants, Earth, soil, luscious fruit, the environment and the abundance of it all each play a part within Julie’s pieces. As we sat in the fig café, Julie described to me how the natural environment and landscapes of Northern California and Sonoma County influence her work. “I volunteer with the Salmon Restoration Organization as a member of The Mendocino Eco Artists, so you’ll see a lot of fish pop up in my pieces. Calla lilies are also something I enjoy painting, because I love the structure and form of them. I have a fascination with ravens, which are abundant in Mendocino. You’ll also see pomegranates in some of my pieces too. That’s inspired by the mythical story of Persephone, you know, from Greek Mythology.”
If you’re not familiar with the story of Persephone, here’s how the mythological tales goes: Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, who was the Goddess of Vegetation. In the world in which they resided it was always summertime, with greenery always blooming and the sun always at its highest peak. One day, the Earth trembled and the ground split open to reveal the Underworld. Out of the cracked Earth appeared Hades, the God of the Underworld, who snatched Persephone and returned back into the Earth with her. For days, Demeter searched for Persephone, but to no avail. As the time in which Persephone was away lengthened, the Earth grew colder and the greenery receded. Meanwhile, Persephone became Queen of the Underworld, as she came to the realization that Hades was not frightening, but rather lonely. However, Persephone knew that she could not eat or drink anything from the Underworld, as this would force her to remain there forever. When Demeter finally discovered where Persephone was, Hades agreed to return her from the Underworld, but not without first giving Persephone a pomegranate. As a result of eating six pomegranate seeds, Persephone would now spend six months a year in the Underworld, and six months on Earth. The six months she spent away from Demeter in the Underworld became winter, as the Earth grew cold and barren. When she returned after six months each year, the Earth would again get warmer, and bloom into the colors of summer. Essentially, this is the mythology of how are seasons on Earth came to be. And, these seasons and the abundance each brings are a meaningful aspect to Julie’s work, and even more so to her work with the girl & the fig.
As I talked with Julie further, it became apparent that mythologies, cultures, and the natural environment all play a large part in each of her pieces. Her background of growing up in Kansas, a large state built on farming and agriculture, also plays a role. Julie’s father grew up on a farm with a farming family. Her grandparents on both sides grew up growing their own food in “Victory Gardens” during World War I and World War II. Julie’s childhood spent in Kansas influences the symbols she uses in her pieces. “I like to include red shoes in some of my work, since I’m from Kansas.
Julie also noted that the creative spirits' of her parents had a profound influence on her art. “My mother and father were creative people. My mother taught Home Economics and made all of our clothes growing up, and my father would create beautiful stained- glass pieces and window treatments. He also created colorful side tables with tiles as well. The house we lived in was colorful, vibrant, and full of life. Growing up surrounded with all of that color and creativity inspires my art. The colors and whimsical characteristics I use throughout my pieces today are very much inspired by the color and creativity I was surrounded with growing up.”
From her hometown of Kansas, Julie has traveled a lot and lived in several beautiful, scenic places. She’s traveled and lived in regions from the coast to the redwoods and through the rolling hills. Each region she’s lived in fuels her imagination along the way. In college, Julie attended the University of Kansas where she studied ceramics, sculpture, and painting. From college, Julie moved to the Skagit Valley region of Washington State, where she discovered her love for pastels. While she had a passion for ceramics, she did not enjoy the colorless quality of clay, but loved that pastels allowed her the instant gratification of working in vibrant color. Admirers of Julie’s work often tell her that they see references to Mayan or Polynesian cultures in her work. “This isn’t intentional,” she says. “It’s most likely influenced by all the traveling I have done.”
From Washington, Julie traveled on to the coastal community of Mendocino County. In 1998 in Glen Ellen, a mutual friend introduced Julie to Sondra, proprietor of the girl & the fig. Many might not know that the original location of the girl & the fig was in Glen Ellen, where the fig café & winebar resides today. At the time, Sondra had rotating art shows at the girl & the fig in Glen Ellen. After meeting, the connection between Julie and Sondra clicked, and Sondra asked Julie to show her art at the girl & the fig in Sonoma year-round. Today, Julie’s art not only graces the walls of the girl & the fig and the fig café & winebar, but it also appears on the girl & the fig’s Fig Food labels, as well as the Très Bonnes Années Syrah. Julie described to me the first time she connected with Sondra: “It was an incredible opportunity for me at the time, and continues to be! When I met Sondra, I surprisingly already had a love for figs. My pieces were already inspired by natural elements, but after connecting with Sondra and creating pieces for the girl & the fig, that inspiration definitely intensified.”
Connecting with Sondra was the beginning of a point in which Julie’s art began to evolve. As we sat in the fig café, Julie showed me images on her iPad of her earlier work in pastels. These pieces comprised a series of darker paintings featuring snakes, which as a whole mimicked a darker time in Julie’s life. As she scrolled through her photo library, she began to show me the work that comprised her second series of pieces. These pieces consisted of women emerging from pods, almost as if a tiny ray of light was beginning to creep out from the darkness of her earlier work. The next series of pieces we viewed were the pastels she created after beginning her journey with the girl & the fig. All of a sudden, the women from the pods had become one “juicy, colorful, vibrant, strong woman”. I asked Julie if this woman was in fact the representation of “the girl.” “This is the question that I get asked the most. People want to know who this woman is.”
Julie described to me how this woman represents more than just “the girl.” This woman is a representation of the evolution of Julie’s life. While painting the series of snakes in her earliest work, Julie was at a darker time in her life. As her work progressed and more color emerged, Julie cites “creating from a more delightful headspace” as the main reason for this shift. In her most recent work during the last twenty years, Julie has evolved her love for the natural environment, while simultaneously being influenced by Sondra’s farm-to-table mission. All in all, Julie’s work mimics the natural progression of her journey through life, as well as a celebration of life itself and all that this planet and Mother Earth provide to us. The woman seen throughout her pieces at the girl & the fig is both a representation of this journey, as well as from her inspiration from working with Sondra for the past twenty years.
As we sat in the fig café and talked about her work, Julie and I gazed at several of her paintings hanging on the wall. Displayed next to us was a piece titled “Très Bonnes Années”, which Julie created for the girl & the fig’s 10-year anniversary milestone. If you look closely, you can see a total of 10 figs within the painting. For the girl & the fig’s 20-year anniversary this past summer, Julie created a piece titled “Goddess of Figs,” which includes a total of 20 figs within the painting, if you count halves and all.
Part of Julie’s creative process is using symbolic shapes, like the figs, a number of times throughout a variety of her pieces. These shapes and symbols help to tell the story that lies within each piece. Julie also described how she enjoys experimenting with these shapes, and the figures in each piece, in a unique way. “Many people ask me about the fluid positions and shapes that the woman in each piece takes. This is mostly a result of playing with proportion. I love to manipulate the shape of each figure so that it fits within the layout of the paper, which often results in the woman being posed into these fluid positions.”
By the end of our conversation, I realized that one thing’s for sure - Art is a powerful thing. The whimsical shapes, energetic colors, and relaxing tones in Julie’s art come together to capture the true experience of “Wine Country,” all in one piece. Julie’s art has the ability to lighten your spirit. And, in recent times, this ability for art to convey unexplainable words and emotions is as important as ever. -------------------------- As a result of the North Bay Fires, Julie is graciously donating 20% of the proceeds from the sale of all framed art, paintings, and prints to fire relief efforts. Her art can be viewed and purchased from the girl & the fig in Sonoma, the fig café & winebar in Glen Ellen, or directly from Julie’s website, www.artistjuliehiggins.com. Be sure to also follow Julie on Facebook, at @artistjuliehiggins.