All photographers know the “golden hour,” that window of warm, diffuse light when the sun is low in the sky. Elizabeth Kirby’s photography basks in the still, just-before-dusk moments that follow, when the remaining glow is cool and hugs the corners of, say, her cast iron skillet or a cluster of fresh berries or a cutting board overflowing with tender herbs. Like many others in the ONA community, we first fell in love with Elizabeth’s blog Local Milk for those trademark captures from her kitchen, which are evocatively Southern and simultaneously universal – look long enough and one senses imagined crickets and reeds beyond her windowsill, even if they’ve never visited Tennessee. Her detailed, stirringly-honest writing and global wanderlust further cemented our admiration.
Recently, Elizabeth took our new leather Madison laptop and camera bag on a trip to Barcelona, and we used the occasion to ask about her craft, aesthetic, dream project, and advice for other creatives. See below for our full Q&A and photos from her trip.
ONA: What inspired you to start Local Milk?
EK: A love of cooking & passion for seasonal food coupled with a passion for both capturing and creating beauty in everyday, mundane life inspired me to start the blog. When we aren’t mindful everyday tasks like washing up or making dinner can feel like a burden, but when we consciously both create and see beauty in these moments, when we slow down and really appreciate all that is a sudsy sink, warm water, and the dishes that serve our family or what it is to simply roast & caramelized a spring carrot—all of the sudden life blossoms as this beautiful thing worthy of art and as an inspiration for joy.
ONA: What was your first creative outlet?
EK: Writing and cooking were both early outlets of mine; I’ve been doing both since I was a child. I wrote really bad poetry as a kid and only slightly less bad poetry as a teenager. Regardless, I never stopped writing. And my favorite thing to “cook” when I was little was a really bizarre bagel sandwich topped with green apple, cinnamon, and American cheese. It was pretty good all things considered. It taught me that counter intuitive combinations both in and out of the kitchen can work. Something clicked with that weird little sandwich—it taught me to think beyond the familiar & what’s already been done.
ONA: How do you describe your personal style and design aesthetic? Are there 2-3 principles you always keep in mind?
EK: I always throw around the phrase “Appalachian wabi-sabi” to describe my style, one part nod to my southern roots and one part nod to my affinity for the beauty of imperfection, simplicity, and the organic. I like the dark, the counterintuitive, the unassuming. Asymmetry, patina, and minimalism all inspire my style in everything that I do from clothing to my home to my photos.
ONA: What are your essential tools of the trade?
EK: A digital scale, a sharp knife, and a heat source for cooking and baking. A camera, a fast lens, an iPhone, and a MacBook for everything else. And a Moleskine notebook and a Pilot pen. I can’t organize my thoughts without the last two. I’m an obsessive analog list maker.
ONA: How has travel inspired your creativity?
EK: It’s inspiring in so many ways. The people you meet, the colors, the lines, textures, language, customs, flavors, and smells—all of it finds its way back into my work in one way or another. More than I’m Southern, at this point in my life I’m a walking melting pot, an eclectic hodge-podge of a life spent traveling. Whether it’s taking recourse to the Dutch language to make a point or a decidedly Japanese pantry to make dinner, my life is full of intangible souvenirs.
ONA: Where else do you draw inspiration from?
EK: Travel, markets, art, literature, and music are big influences in my work as is my background in philosophy. The concept of wabi-sabi and the idea of metaphor as an interconnectedness among all things— those inspire me most of all.
ONA: Do you have a dream project that you’d like to tackle in the next five years?
EK: I’ve wanted to write a simple cookbook for years but I’m such a perfectionist I just can’t seem to land on the idea that feels right. It will happen when I’m ready…and I hope that’s in the next five years. I want it to be something I’m proud of, something unique, and something that truly reflects who I am now as a cook. Otherwise my dream of the next five years is simply to continue to do what I do, raise my daughter (she’s coming in August!), and enjoy our life.
ONA: What is the greatest challenge that you face as a creative professional?
EK: It’s certainly different for everyone. I come from a business family and while I didn’t exactly know what I was doing in the beginning, I’ve been able to navigate the business side of things and have even come to find I enjoy it. Truthfully I think the hardest thing for me is seeing blatant mimicry in the creative world. Sometimes I find myself feeling emotional when I really think it should be let go, no matter how persistent or uncanny. There are very few things you can copyright, the rest you have to let go and either keep doing your thing or evolve. From business models to product & logo design to prop styling, it’s frustrating to see either myself or my friends & colleagues copied. I wish I wasn’t emotional about it but sometimes I am. The difference between coping and being inspired by someone or part of a zeitgeist is a fine one, but you know it when you see it.
ONA: What advice do you have for aspiring creative professionals?
EK: Keep your head down, work hard every day, and focus on nothing but producing the highest quality work you can. Make genuine connections with like-minded people in your field as they cross your path but don’t social climb or try to get ahead with ingratiating behavior. Your work, not who you know, should be what your success is built on. Don’t obsess over social media or numbers, obsess over excellence in your field and the rest will come.
If you’re trying to make a living (if you’re fortunate enough to not need to think about finances, disregard this and just follow your bliss), keep the bottom line in mind in tandem with the ethos you want your brand to reflect. There’s nothing dirty about being a business. I take jobs depending on two factors: is it creatively satisfying to my soul and does it pay enough for me to live the life I want. If either or both criteria are met within reason, I consider taking the opportunity.
You work is valuable, and you deserve to be paid for it like any other working person. In the creative world, a lot of people can be shy or self-conscious about the financial side of things—try not to be. Value your work and others will too. And learning how to take a decent photo never hurt anyone whether they’re an aspiring illustrator or metal worker or inn keeper. We live in a visual world, if you can share what you do through photos you’ll more easily reach a bigger audience.