Liana Farmer considers herself a painter but also uses mixed media including marker, collage, and fibers to create figures that represent aspects of the Black American experience.
She often works small — a typical piece is 5-by-5 inches and sells for $200 — and each image is as distinct as the deckled-edge paper upon which it’s painted. With her faceless Black “womxn,” she is challenging the dominant male gaze and raising the question of who has the right to look. “There’s ownership in the painting because they don’t allow you to see their face,” she says, “and they’re not gazing back at you.”
A selection of Farmer’s paintings is viewable through July 8 at Gallery 263 in Cambridge as part of its “Small Works Project,” which currently is showcasing the work of 13 artists in flat file drawers located in the gallery.
Day job: Art teacher at P.A. Shaw Elementary School in Dorchester
Originally from: Jamaica Plain
Lives in: Roslindale, with her musician husband, Charles Baker, and 5-year-old daughter, Leila, in a 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment. “We definitely have a mess between music equipment of my husband’s, my own art, and my daughter’s stuff, but it I love it,” says Farmer, who has an at-home studio. “It’s really just my dining room that I’ve turned into my studio space.” Farmer’s daughter has her “studio space” right next to her mom at the table. “So we parallel most of the time. I’ll paint, and she’ll paint next to me and do her own thing.”
Finding affordable studio space in Boston “is just tough,” Farmer says. “You either have been on a list for years, and know people you need to know, or you’re paying for it. We, as a city, have so many opportunities for live-in artist space, but it’s primarily white, and the spaces that do have artists of color [are] very limited. The financial piece for studio space is another rent, and I already pay a substantial amount of rent in Boston.”
Inspiration: Teaching art at an elementary school is a “means to an end,” Farmer says, “but also inspiration for my work. I would not be the artist that I am without the job that I have. I think because I am able to immerse myself with students who have such creativity and inquisitive minds and just want to get messy, it makes me want to go home and do my artwork as well.”
Biggest success (and challenge): “The running of my business on my own. It’s called bylianarae,” says Farmer, who started selling her work in 2019, using Instagram and Squarespace to promote it. “I was charging $20 for an original little piece . . . I wasn’t trying to make a living from it; I was just trying to make art, and people wanted it, and I thought, ‘Why not?’”
As the demand grew, she struggled to meet it: “I really needed to hire somebody for either shipping or organization. It was just me,” she says. “So I took a pause, and it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.”
She still sells her art, but through galleries and open studios events — fewer pieces at higher prices. “The large canvases [36-by-48] go for $800; the smaller pieces are now around $200,” she says. “If it’s been shown, I have the price go up, and if it is something that’s in the back of my closet, I’ll sell it for $75 with the frame.”
How it started: “My art has been a part of my life since I can remember, from when I was in Boston Public Schools and took art classes,” says Farmer, who went to high school at Boston Latin Academy and took art classes on the weekends. In 2013, she graduated from Massachusetts College of Art and Design with a degree in art education, and a minor in fiber arts.
MassArt “really opened up a world that I didn’t know existed,” she adds. “I remember going to an exhibit at the ICA of Mark Bradford, and he does these amazing pieces that I still to this day am very much inspired by — he uses found material, very textural also. Even though I grew up in Boston and had gone to the ICA and the MFA, I just didn’t know that there were people who were either similar to me or could make art for a living.”
How it’s going: Teaching 22 back-to-back art classes a week and coming home to parent and paint is a recipe for fatigue. “I get burned out; there’s no way around it. I’m in a constant state of exhaustion,” Farmer says. “The exhaustion, however, does not stop me from doing what I have to do, which is make art — that’s kind of my breathing. There are times, though, when I’m too tired to come home and paint. I lean on my teaching . . . if I’m having a tough day, I can get working right next to my students, and maybe I don’t get home to my studio like I planned, but I did produce something, and I’ll keep that and throw it in my sketchbook later.”
For recent sketchbook collages, she cut up recycled paper from her classroom — “student work that was no longer wanted.”
Farmer is currently part of Kingston Gallery’s Emerging Artist program, and she keeps an eye out for “opportunities that cater to a working artist and a mom,” she says. “I came across a residency in Brookline last summer that, like, saved me. I was able to work there, and I had a show at the end, and it was great. I continue to look for residencies and fellowships that work with me. Work for me, I guess.
“I would love to transition, eventually, to just being an artist,” she adds, “and yes, still involved with teaching somehow. I’m still finding ways to try to do both, and I think I’m at a fork in the road.”
Interview was edited and condensed.