The first time I encountered Liz Gibson she appeared to be throwing a public temper tantrum. In her powdered wig, she was sneering and yelling at the small audience gathered around her. Peculiarly, she was also handing out tiny cakes.
It was at one of CoRK’s first public openings, and Liz, a self-proclaimed “deformance artist,” was new to town. Many onlookers did not recognize her antics as performance art; they assumed she was some kind of vendor. Her hostile attitude sharply contrasted with the sweet things she was giving out, Liz told me later. Likewise, the character she was playing differs considerably from Liz’s warm and friendly demeanor in real life. Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time in the Riverside studio she shares with her partner, artist and playwright Jeff Whipple.
Standing in the wig room on the second floor of MetaCusp Studios, Liz explains how she and Jeff developed the studio name. “He came up with the word ‘meta’ and I came up with ‘cusp.’” The word cusp has always appealed to her–“I’m always on the cutting edge of something.” But Jeff suggested that they should also “be beyond the cusp of something.”
It is undeniable that this artist couple is “beyond the cusp,” particularly when it comes to recent recognition for their work. They both won the Florida Individual Artist Fellowship for 2014, the first artist couple to win the award at the same time. Considering that the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs chooses only nine candidates, it’s pretty extraordinary that two of those fellows happen to be part of a couple.
This is the fourth time Jeff has won a Florida Individual Artist Fellowship. Previously he won awards for visual art and playwriting, and he is the only Florida artist awarded fellowships in two different disciplines. Most recently Jeff was awarded a commission to paint a 74-foot-long mural for the entrance lobby of Ballou High School, a new $140 million school being built in Washington D.C. “It’s a huge honor to win in a national competition of the best muralists in the country,” he says.
In addition to her Florida Individual Artist Award, Liz’s recent shower of recognition also includes the Spark Grant and an Art Ventures Individual Artist grant. She is one of only five 2014 Spark Grant winners.
Both Liz and Jeff work in a broad range of media including painting, sculpture, costuming, video, drawing, printmaking, photography and playwriting. They have a contemporary, somewhat avant-garde flair, but Jeff says, “We don’t fit into any trend or style that’s in existence now.” His main goal in his art is simply to convey the human condition. “I want to do what I can do to express what it’s like to be alive in the world.”
Jeff’s 82 solo exhibitions include the Tampa Museum of Art and the Boca Raton Museum of Art. There have been 19 productions of his plays. Liz has had dozens of exhibitions and performances including performances at Florida State University and at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville in 2011. She will present a deformance at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota in October.
Jeff and Liz respect one another as artists and frequently ask the other for feedback.
“We are both content-based artists,” says Liz, “and we are highly symbol-related people. He’s got that three-line symbol and I’ve got this hand symbol.” Jeff incorporates his three-line image in almost every piece he makes, and Liz’s two-fingered handprint shows up in much of the work she does. The symbol serves different purposes depending on its context.
A few years after they first met in Tallahassee, the couple decided they wanted to relocate. Jeff says that art groups and city officials in St. Petersburg, Florida wanted them to settle there, but, in the end, the enthusiasm of Jacksonville’s growing art scene won them over.
In addition to working on their projects, they also teach studio art courses at the University of North Florida, and they both feel that teaching has always been a part of their vocation. “This art endeavor has constantly been about teaching,” says Liz. “There should be a class in art patronage and appreciation of art. There’s not enough support for the arts from the community.”
Liz also works as a VSA Artist in public schools. Her identity as a deformance artist stems from the birth defect that has played a role in shaping her life. She was born with seven fingers—five on her left and two on her right. Many of her programs are about universal issues of prejudice and overcoming adversity. They appeal to audiences who can relate to some of the challenges that Liz has faced. Sometimes people assume that the seven-fingered girl is sad, she says. “But I’m not sad. I’m empowered.”