Creative Couples - Irene and John Liebler

Creative Couples interview - Irene and John Liebler

This is one of my favorite series - creative couples. I'm just curious about how creatives make it work in real life. Not the supah stah lone ranger working 'round the clock at the expense of friends and family. I can't relate to that - it's neither my life nor what I aspire to.

It's that "and" again - how to be a successful artist AND partner/parent. Not either/or - that's so old school.

I wanna know how talented artists who are also in relationships, who may have families - how do they do it? How do they balance all their priorities?

And to answer these questions, I'm interviewing a number of creative couples - photographers, graphic designers, writers, artists, directors, illustrators - and learning a lot in the process. You will too.

I'm so excited to share this interview with you. I met Irene Liebler online through a year long photography group called Project52. I looked forward each week to see what she had created for the assignment. I was never disappointed and always inspired & challenged.

What I love about her work is that she can execute whimsical and fantastic ideas without them falling into cheesiness. It is a HUGE challenge to do the work that she does without losing the artistry. Even with all the photoshop involved, the art comes first. She never falls down the rabbit-hole of what I call "circus tricks" at the expense of the image.

Her fine art photography is here, her commercial work here and a vimeo over here showing how she does what she does.

And until this interview I didn't know what her husband John did - he's a digital artist and you'll see his still work below. His vimeo demo reel is here and take a look at his cool video of the inner life of the cell. And you may recognize him in some of Irene's photographs too.

On to the interview - Irene first and then John in italics.

Who are you and what do you do? How long have you been together?

My name is Irene Liebler, photographer and graphic designer, and I’ve been with my husband, John, for 27 years (married for the last 19 of those years). We met in a children’s book illustration class at the University of Connecticut. He commuted from home and never brought lunch, so I started smuggling tuna sandwiches from my dorm cafeteria to tide him over during our long, 3-hour classes.

I’ve been freelancing as a graphic designer for the past 23 years, doing mostly corporate/hospital work, and occasionally getting fun jobs like designing beer labels for a local brewery.

My name is John and I am a digital artist. Most of my work is medical or scientific in nature, although I am not a medical illustrator. I use 3D graphics software to make animations and illustrations.

Irene and I met in art school in 1988. She wanted to be a graphic designer, and I wanted to illustrate children's books. It impressed me that although her work was excellent,

she didn't seem to have to "suffer for her art" she enjoyed it, and always seemed to be having fun.

What are your strengths? What are your partner’s strengths? How do they help you work well together when you are collaborating?

If I had to boil it down, I’m a starter, and John’s a finisher, which is very helpful if we’re collaborating or hitting a wall with our own work.

I’m good at staring projects and meeting deadlines. John’s really good at the small details at the end – even if it takes a little longer.

He knows how to take a project from good to great - it’s all in the details.

So when I’m working on something, and I get to a point where I think I’m done, I show it to him. He usually has some very constructive criticism about “readability”, color or proportions – and he’s usually right.

We don’t usually collaborate directly on a project, but we each can act as a second set of eyes for the other. We can always ask the other for honest opinions about our work. What works, what doesn't work, how we might fix it. We brainstorm a lot together.

It's often easier to see solutions to someone else's problems.

Irene Liebler photographer

What have you learned from your partner?

I’ve learned to say “no”. He believes that you shouldn’t do a project unless you really want to AND you can give it 100% of your effort.  

Although she wouldn't say so, Irene is very organized. When it comes to work, she is much better at the process than I am. She gets started right away. She does her research and takes lots of notes. She does lots of sketches looking for the best solution. Then she gets the work done. I've only imprinted a fraction of those behaviors, but it's really helped me work.

What are you most impressed by/proud of your partner?

I’ve always been impressed by John’s craft. That’s probably what attracted me to him in the first place. At UConn his work was always the best in class. He does everything well – even when he’s making cakes for our kids' birthdays, they’re amazing works of art. He’s good at so many things like carpentry (which is great when you own a house), writing, and music.

I also love that he’s a great dad, and the kids respect him. 

I'm impressed by Irene's persistence and dedication to her photography. She has always had talent for taking pictures, but once she decided to pursue photography seriously, she really took off.

She's always working to learn and improve, and just making pictures every day, and her work has blossomed as a result.

How best do you support your partner and his/her goals?

At one point he owned a frame shop and decided to close it so he could teach himself 3D animation. We didn’t have kids yet, but we had a mortgage. Luckily I was very busy with my business so we took a chance. I trust his judgement 100%.

I try to stay out of the way. :)

When Irene is in the zone on a project, she is very focused, so I try not to disturb the flow. At the same time I try to stay available, so I can help when she asks.

How do you split the day-to-day administrivia?

The day-to-day stuff gets done together. He helps with cleaning and laundry (I taught the kids to do their own laundry), I do the bills, and we both drive the kids around when needed. Since we both work from home, we’re very flexible. 

[see next question for John's joint answer]

If you have children, how did you decide who does what/when re: childcare?

When our first child was born, I was freelancing in New Haven 50 hours a week. John was unemployed at the time, so he took care of our daughter while I worked. Then he got a full time job, and somehow, our schedules balanced out. I moved my office home and started cutting back on work. Almost 3 years later our son was born, and I was officially a stay-at-home-mom.

This is really an organic process. Since we're both self-employed, working from home, we're both around, and the day to day tasks just sort of gravitate to one or the other of us. Although we can trade places when necessary.

Are you ever envious of each other and if so, how do you handle it?

Not at all. Our work is so different and we don’t compete with each other. 

I don't think so, really. Of course there's always the feeling when faced by a seemingly impossible task that the other's art is easier, but that's just the "the grass is greener" effect, and in more rational moments I think we both respect the work of the other.

How do you decide whose career takes priority at different points in time? Money earning potential? Goal achievement? Time required?

We’ve always done what was necessary.

When John got a full time job, it made sense for me to stay at home with the kids. My career took a back seat, but my plan was to get back into it after both kids were in school full time. Now that the kids are older, we’re both moving forward with our careers together.

I think that we are good at balancing all of those factors, and there are not usually conflicts that require setting one of us ahead of the other. Although in practical day to day working, it's usually the most looming deadline that gets priority.

Are you a goal setter? And if so, how do you figure out how to balance your goals with your partner’s goals? 

I’ve always been very practical and my goal, since I can remember, has always been to make a living doing art. Our kids are now 12 and 15, and I've enjoyed working from home, but now I’m feeling the urge to go beyond freelancing and do something different. To make art. To create content.

Irene is more of a goal setter than I am. I'm more of a direction chooser (let's go this way and see what happens), but I think that they are complimentary. And sometimes the roles are reversed.

What advice do you have for other couples?

When we were at UConn, one of our favorite professors caught wind that were were an “item” and told us it was a bad idea, that 2 artists in one house won’t work. I’m happy to say we’ve proven him wrong.

I think that as long as you respect each other, there’s no reason why two creative people can’t be happy together.

Stay friends. Be nice to each other.

Appreciate your partner for who they are.

Give each other space to pursue your art. Have fun.


A few of my friends are in career transitions right now. Is there something in the air? Is it the season of change?

Some are like John was, moving from his framing shop to becoming a digital artist. Some are like Irene who find themselves with time opening up as their kids get older and with new interests to explore. (Design*Sponge has some great ideas about career transitions). 

What I learned from their interview is that a career is not "pick this" and then you are done. Through life circumstances, through changing interests and industries, there will be many transitions along the way.  I don't know if there ever is a destination - and that's fine.

When thinking about being in relationship as creatives, I'm reminded again of the power of an "and" rather than "either/or":

  • bring a fresh perspective to each other's problems AND know when to stay out of the way
  • celebrate your own strengths AND learn from each other.

There's no one way to be in a creative couple - it's much more fluid and flexible than that. Like Irene notes, they''ve "always done what was necessary". And John  mentions what is a common thread throughout this entire series of interviews, "appreciate your partner for who they are".

That we can be reminded of again too, right?