Julia Milbrandt in her South Euclid art studio with some inspiration for her work. Photo / Amanda Koehn

Age: 25 • Lives: South Euclid • Creates: South Euclid and Cleveland Institute of Art • Learned: BFA in drawing and printmaking from CIA

By Amanda Koehn

For Julia Milbrandt, inspiration may come from something so minute you may overlook it. But if you do notice it – perhaps a balloon floating through the sky, a box of confetti or a pop music lyric – it might bring a tinge of happiness. 

“I get my inspiration from my everyday life,” she says. “I’m really interested in small moments of like wonder and joy and awe that kind of take us out of our everyday mundane experiences.”

She’ll snap a photo to document the moment and make a note in her phone, eventually to become art.

The Buffalo, N.Y. native first moved to Northeast Ohio to attend the Cleveland Institute of Art and graduated in 2019. Now, she works a day job as a preparator at Progressive, where she installs art, brings in new acquisitions and ships artwork around the county. 

“Do You Ever Feel (Like a Plastic Bag)” (2019). Lithograph installation, 38 x 60 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.

During her nights and weekends though, Milbrandt can be found either drawing in her studio – an extra bedroom in her South Euclid apartment – or printmaking at her alma mater, where she is an artist-in-residence. At CIA, she works with students and assists with departmental projects, she says, and has the benefit of using the college’s printmaking workshop.  

“Stone lithography is my jam in print, and that is totally something you can’t do at home,” she says, noting the process using limestone, gum arabic and nitric acid requires a special facility to avoid danger. 

Milbrandt says she’s always created things and in middle school became serious about fine arts. Choosing CIA for its feel and proximity to home, she pursued printmaking for the first time and chose to double major in it with drawing. She valued the chance to learn from Karen Beckwith, a local artist and a Tamarind Master Printer – the title for one who completes the elite lithography program at the Tamarind Institute in New Mexico.

“I got to learn litho from Karen, who’s one of the highest trained people in the country,” she says of Beckwith, who was technical specialist at CIA before she retired.

In 2018, when Milbrandt was a junior, she took part in a Creativity Works internship program at CIA that challenged her to build her own solo show. It also involved the real-world work of pitching herself to galleries and helped build her confidence, she says. While she faced some rejection, she showed at the Gordon Square Arts District office at the 78th Street Studios.

“That really challenged me professionally, and kind of socially because I still am pretty introverted and timid,” she says. “It really pushed me that like in order to make it happen, I had to email these galleries, I had to meet these people that I was nervous to talk to.”

“Typhoon Lagoon” (2019). Lithograph, 30 x 22 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.

While Milbrandt says she’s always been drawn to bright color, reflective objects, and the way light moves and defines spaces and things – a style she pursued in school – after graduating she sought to explore new themes. The COVID-19 pandemic began less than a year later, which also influenced her work. She had more free time, she says, as she moved back in with her parents in Buffalo for a few months after the places she worked at the time shut down temporarily.

Initially, she found she lacked inspiration because she couldn’t go out to see and experience things that would normally lead to artistic ideas. And once she did create, it was different. 

“It was a lot more of the abstraction-based stuff,” she says. “I was trying to pause people and make them stop and look and pay attention to small things in the everyday.” 

She points to a screen print she made of a balloon sign that says “Oh what fun,” where the word “fun” has deflated and fallen some.

“When The Fun Has Ended” (2021). Screenprint, 22 x 15 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“It’s kind of looking at the moments after that peak moment of excitement,” she says, adding it’s a natural shift for finding momentum after the big milestone of earning her BFA.

And she is gaining momentum. This summer, she had a drawing on view at Praxis Fiber Workshop as part of the CAN Triennial. It was based on a box of confetti pieces and “little bits of memories” of stuff the box once held, she says.

“We hold on to these little memories – whether that be physical or like a photo in our phone, or just like a little memory in our brain,” she says.

The piece is titled  “Look At This Stuff, Isn’t It Neat?” – a reference to “The Little Mermaid.” Pop culture and music often influence her work as well. A big Taylor Swift fan, her lyrics show up in Milbrandt’s titles. 

“Look At This Stuff, Isn’t It Neat?” (2022). Gouache and colored pencil on embossed paper, 30 x 22 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.

At Future Ink Graphics’ “Women Who Print” show earlier this year, a print of hers hung with Beckwith’s. Milbrandt was also in a recent exhibit at MetroHealth and part of the 2022 Mid America Print Council Conference, hosted by Kent State University with CIA as a partner institution. 

And after a busy year, now it’s time to “literally go back to the drawing board” to determine what’s next, she says.       

Meanwhile, her work on Progressive’s art collection also fuels her, she says. Since December 2020, she’s installed artwork that employees can experience and learn from in their work environment, which aligns with her own artistic practice.  

“There’s a huge educational component to our collection,” she says. “It’s really great to get to engage with people that aren’t trying to engage about art, but it’s in their everyday life. The same thing (with) working at CIA – it’s like getting to help students and other artists, even just on a technical aspect to make their work, it like fuels my brain a bit. … I like to help make art happen in the world, whether that be my own or bringing other people up.”   

“Julia’s excitement about a project increases with each new level of technical difficulty. This excitement, a bubbly effervescence, translates into the festive imagery of her art. Julia’s work holds these two things, technical virtuosity and giddy representation, in tension, creating compelling artwork.”

Sarah Kabot, associate professor and chair of drawing department, Cleveland Institute of Art