Having secured one barking rescue dog in a back room, and holding another, elfin Julia Licht welcomes me into her Landings home and offers me a cappuccino. Self-proclaimed espresso snobs, we know a thing or two about a good cappuccino and she is proud of her barista skills.
As she steams the milk, I sit at the kitchen table looking around her modest patio home with its messily creative vibe; paintings, sketchbooks, and ceramics everywhere. The sunporch off the kitchen is a clutter of tables which serve double duty as paint palettes, ceramic vessels, easels, painting commissions in progress, postcards, framed artwork, sleeping cats, and a twinkling miniature Christmas tree.
Licht shares her space with daughter Ivory, a senior at Savannah Arts, and eldest daughter Jade, a fiber artist. (Check out her amazingly funky sweaters and other crocheted creations, which her mom describes as “very painterly,” on Instagram @colorsofjade and at colorsofjade.com) Middle daughter Azzurro (Italian for sky-blue) is in New York in her third year of legal studies.
“People make assumptions when I tell them I live at the Landings. They think I’m super wealthy when, actually, I live month to month,” she tells me. “My parents retired here, and I just couldn’t be with my husband anymore. I sold my apartment in New York and moved here with three little kids.” Despite Licht maintaining a relationship with her ex-in-laws in Italy, the girls have not seen their father, a mosaic artist from Sicily, in 13 years.
Always creative, Licht grew up on Long Island, the daughter of a marble importer who commuted to Manhattan every day. She always wanted to be an artist (“I sucked at school”). “Once a week I took art classes with this lady who was amazing. She inspired such self-confidence in me and helped me develop a portfolio for art school. Recently, she ended up finding me on Facebook. She’s about 85 now.”
Licht holds a Certificate in Fine Arts from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, and a BA in Fine Arts from the University of Pennsylvania. Moving back to New York City after graduation, “I couldn’t seem to hold a regular job very well. So, I became a street artist for nine years. We were there when Rudy Giuliani was trying to clean up the streets. We said selling art was our freedom of speech and we didn’t need a license to sell.”
Selling illustrations of the gritty characters of New York City, Licht made more money working on the weekends than she did by holding down a job during the week. Every Friday night she would set up in the same spot in Soho to sell on Saturdays and Sundays. In addition to her street art, Licht sold illustrations to magazines and shows me several that appeared in issues of the New Yorker.
Licht is still close friends with the street artists who now live all over the world. “That’s where I found my people. I was not happy in college; I just wanted to make art and not hold a regular job. When I became a street artist, I found my tribe. My two best friends today – one is in Pennsylvania, and one is in New York – were street artists with me.”
Licht also met her ex-husband, Sergio Furnari, while he was a street artist. From the Sicilian town of Caltagirone, today he is a highly sought-after ceramic and mosaic artist who creates “the bottoms of fancy pools and has this famous sculpture of eleven New York workers on an I-beam.” (One of his life-size replicas of the iconic 1932 photograph of ironworkers above the Rockefeller Center construction site, “Lunchtime Atop a Skyscraper,” can be seen inside the Turbine Market and Café at Savannah’s Plant Riverside.)
After marriage, Furnari and Licht had three daughters about 18 months apart. Licht gave up her freelance illustration career unable to find the time and spousal support to make her art, though “I have a whole series of motherhood drawings.” It was not until she relocated to Savannah, divorced her husband, and the girls had started high school, that she was able to fully dedicate herself again to her craft.
During her early years in Savannah, Licht held a succession of jobs to put food on the table, carving out some time to make ceramics tiles, containers, and cars in a kiln her ex had left at the house. Her vessels from this time are chunky, almost cubist in style, containing pieces of glass, and even entire bottles, found in the marsh. When I ask her way she was drawn to create the ceramic cars, she says, “My ex had about fifty different old cars and didn’t pay much child support, so I think it was a way to get some of that anger out.”
Once the girls were older, Licht returned to painting, taking commissions for pet portraits which have proven to be a steady source of income. “I love my dogs. I love my rescues. So, if people want to pay me to paint their dogs, bring it on! And everyone is so happy when they see the finished piece! ” Her studio is full of funkily rendered portraits of cats and dogs, many with the owners holding their animals.
When not painting pets, she is happiest creating images of the urban landscape of the South: gas stations, the infamous I-95 South of the Border attraction, the sign from the now-defunct Larry’s Restaurant on Skidaway, along with nostalgic renderings of Volkswagen bugs and vans, many of which are impeccably framed and hung around her studio. A print making and lithography major in school, she also draws line art for tattoos.
“In New York my work was darker, and more people focused. The characters I’d meet would inspire me.” She shows me a collection of postcards that she sold as packs of 15 or 20 during her street artist days. “Here, I’m not so inspired by the people, and I don’t want to paint the marsh.” Instead, she has, for example, painted a striking series of small-scale images of Waffle Houses. Her style is spare and impressionistic, resulting in pieces that seem rendered in pastel rather than in acrylic paint. “I love all of it. I do kind of get burned out on portraiture, but commissions come and go and then I have time to explore things like the Waffle Houses.”
Flipping through her Submit to Motherhood book of drawings and paintings (her eldest girl having a tantrum…a stroller tipped over because of the weight of the groceries on the arms…a toddler looking in the toilet at her first poop), I realize Licht has not had the easiest life as a single mother and artist, but she has made it work…
In her fast-talking, self-deprecating style, the petite artist smiles, and tells me that her youngest daughter “hated me for the past three years. But she wrote a really sweet college essay about me. She has a job at a daycare, and she wrote about how she didn’t realize how hard it had been for me as a single mom and how much she appreciates what I did. That was the best gift ever.”
See Licht’s pet portraiture on Facebook @petportraitsbyjulialicht and on Instagram @petportraitsbyjulialicht, and follow her other artwork on Facebook @julialigthfinearts and on Instagram @artbyjulialicht.
Trust me - her paintings are as good as her cappuccino.