Helen Gotlib’s recent large-scale drawings are something of a Rorschach test. Their swirling, two-tone shapes might call any number of things to mind: One person might see a cabbage while another might see a brain. Someone else might see a topographical map. Turns out you really are just looking at a cabbage, though.
“I’ve been drawing a lot of stuff from the farmers market,” Gotlib says of her recent work, which she exhibited last month at the Tiny Expo that she and three other artists put together in her native Ann Arbor.
A graduate of the University of Michigan’s art school, Gotlib studied printmaking and medical illustration, and landed a gig doing medical illustrations for an orthopedic news publication. She decided the commercial art thing wasn’t for her and decided to take a swing at being a full-time fine artist.
“My last semester, [my boyfriend and I] said, ‘Wouldn’t it be kinda cool to just go around the country and just do art fairs for a summer?’” Gotlib says. “So we did that and we were like, ‘Oh, wait, we can actually make a living doing that,’ and, 10 years later, that’s still what we’re doing.”
For Gotlib, the leap from medical illustration to cabbages wasn’t a big one. “I was always really interested in very detailed work, so I think it was interesting to learn more techniques from taking scientific illustration classes,” she says. “Not that I necessarily use the same techniques, but the attention to detail is still a part of my work.”
Gotlib calls Ann Arbor home for the winter months, working on art before she and her boyfriend pack up for their annual trek doing the art fair circuit. “I normally do between 12 and 15 art shows a year, everywhere from the East Coast to the West Coast,” she says. “My next big shows will be down in Florida in March. Normally from about October to March I just have time in the studio. I don’t do any shows then.”
“All the shows are on the weekend. It’s kind of the opposite schedule of a normal work week,” she says of the art fair life. “We go to shows on the weekend, and then during the week we just go to the Keys and go camping, just waiting for the next show.”
For now, Gotlib is enjoying her time laying low in Ann Arbor. “I travel to almost every major city every single year,” she says. “So coming home and just being somewhere that’s really low-key is kinda nice.”
She’s also grateful for Ann Arbor for inspiring her in the first place. “At art school they just teach you how to make things,” she says. “I was lucky to grow up in Ann Arbor and have the art fair right here. I used to think, ‘Maybe when I grow up I can have a booth at the Ann Arbor art fair.’ And it just kind of all came together.”