Photographer and creative Liz Barclay and I first meet at a trendy coffee shop in Williamsburg, an in-between point for both of our apartments. As I wander inside on a dreary Thursday afternoon, Liz is already relaxing comfortably into a booth sporting yoga gear and looking perfectly at ease in her own presence. She spots me and smiles a big, jovial smile, like she’s greeting an old friend. That’s to say her energy makes me feel immediately welcome and at ease, too. I quickly learn that this is Liz’s way — making new and old people in her life feel seen, heard and supported.
Though this was our first in-person meeting, I had been following Liz for sometime. As an artist, Liz sits at a unique intersection of creativity and mindfulness. On her instagram, for instance, you can find posts that feature inspirational pick-me-ups and the New York street scene in the same gallery. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Bon Appetit, Vogue, among others, and she’s worked with brands like Nike, Adidas, Timberland and Google. Not to mention her high flash/high fashion style of shooting food actually changed professional food photography forever.
But in talking to Liz, I find that her desire for mind/body alignment was actually the driving force that led her to produce industry-defining art. After struggling with thyroid cancer at age 22, Liz saw how closely things like food, art, healing and mindset are intertwined, and used this knowledge to design a lifestyle that blends culture and well-being. Below, an edited version of our conversation on morning routines, the creative process and why slowing down is actually the healthiest thing we can do for ourselves.
Simone Spilka (SS): What does a day in the life look like for Liz?
Liz Barclay (LB): I get up around 7:00AM and keep an alarm so I can get eight hours of sleep a night. In the morning, I try not to look at my phone for the first 30 minutes. I read my Daily Reader and then usually write. I like to have what you call a power hour, but sometimes that’s wishful thinking. I do a meditation—either a short guided meditation like Tara Brach or a Transcendental Meditation (TM practice)— where I repeat a mantra for 20 minutes.
I also like to move my body a little bit for alignment, specifically my shoulders and lower spine. I have some physical issues from my job but also from natural posture. I do cat cows in the morning to activate my core and check in with how my body is feeling. Mostly I try not to do anything on social media in the morning until after I’ve done my practice. After this, I go to a workout class or yoga because I always like to take that bit of my morning after my quiet time to workout.
It’s usually pretty go go go after that if I have a shoot or a lot of meetings, but I try to take public transit or walk to break up the day. I like to work at the Bowery Hotel because they don’t have music playing. That quiet is really rejuvenating. I try to be mindful to sit down if I don’t have to run around because my job is very physical and I have to commute a lot. I actually used to think I had to run around like crazy, but I realized that’s not serving the client, the art or my productivity. Our body is a vessel — not only for the spirit but for the energetic self. It’s also my tool, so I try to keep moments to intentionally rest throughout the day. A lot of new options for Kundalini, restorative yoga or sound baths are a great, regular way to do that. My body really appreciates when I finish the day with something restorative.
SS: You mentioned a shift in time when you realize you didn’t need to rush around so much, and be more intentional with how you use your body and energy. Do you know what caused this shift?
LB: I started to do more meditation and developed a more spiritual relationship with myself. I had been running from a lot of trauma for a long time. I wanted to be busy because when you’re busy you can distract yourself. When I was 22, I had thyroid cancer and after that I got really into understanding my health, but I was not sitting still. I wasn’t taking time to land.
In 2017, my then-boyfriend had a heart attack and lived, but it was a very traumatic experience. It ended up being my spiritual revolution. I really dove into meditation and re-developed a connection to my body.
These experiences set the way, but then last year I broke my ankle and realized that I’m not immortal. I have to be careful with my body. I really saw how much effort went into healing my body, and how hard it has to work to repair itself from that.
I feel connected to people who are able to see that taking time to incubate and restore and disconnect from the world is what keeps you steadfast. Having a sense of self-worth and self-care are values that I really care about because it affects everything from your art, your relationships, your work, as well as humanity as a whole.
SS: That’s a very emotional experience to go through, especially at 22 years old. What was that process like for you?
LB: I was very resilient and powered through. I had big dreams and I wanted to work hard. I didn’t want to miss out and fall behind.
After my surgery, I showed up at my internship at a magazine and threw myself into my art and my work. But I was a little bit disassociated and when I started to dive into healing work, I found I had deep, deep trauma that I had never addressed, like not trusting my body and feeling disconnected.
They say when you experience trauma, your soul can become dislodged from your physical body. So that’s why after trauma you really have to take time to integrate. That’s why my work and art was a lifesaver, but I also really had to cope later.
SS: What do you do to feel connected to your soul now?
LB: Art and meditation. But also, I’ve done a lot of soul retrieval work. After I broke my ankle, I started doing more semantic healing, hypnosis and yoga. It allowed me to explore and get back in touch with my body. Touch therapy, breathwork, visualizations....it was all about slowing down and understanding that there are a lot of unlocked doors and I don’t know everything.
SS: Do you feel like it’s easy for you to slow down? Do you surround yourself with people who are able to slow down?
LB: I feel connected to people who are able to see that taking time to incubate and restore and disconnect from the world is what keeps you steadfast. Having a sense of self-worth and self-care are values that I really care about because it affects everything from your art, your relationships, your work, as well as humanity as a whole. As I’ve become more situated in those priorities, I’ve attracted people who are seeking the same or who want to find balance, too.
I personally try to slow down, move through things consciously and not be reactive. It’s a consistent mindfulness that I have to have. I’m not perfect, I slip up, but I try to create practices where I can reflect and take inventory. At the end of the day, I think about where I was making a selfish decision or when I was not in flow so I can stay in touch with that’s important. I’ve realized that it’s mostly about pausing. Before I write an email or a post or respond to a test. It’s just about pausing and learning to invite the pause in.
SS: How has your mindfulness practice helped you stay centered in stressful situations?
LB: Life is stressful and we can be going a million miles an hour but I’ve learned how to show up better in my relationship, as a friend and as a family member. Rather than reacting, I ask how I can be of service or connect to what someone else is going through. Sometimes we get caught up. Whether its helping a friend move, checking in on someone, booking my boyfriend a massage, I’ve learned these little things actually allow us to invite more space in. So when I rest and take care of myself, I can put more love into my relationships.
When I’m on set [at a photoshoot], my mindfulness routine has really helped me be a leader and stay energized, even if there is a client or agency looking at my work in real-time. It allows me to give constructive feedback, and most importantly, if we run into a technical difficultly — instead of panicking, I pause and explore solutions. I’ve learned to be calm instead of self-sabotaging and that’s what most people want in workplace.
After I broke my ankle, I started doing more semantic healing, hypnosis and yoga. It allowed me to explore and get back in touch with my body. Touch therapy, breathwork, visualizations....it was all about slowing down and understanding that there are a lot of unlocked doors and I don’t know everything.
SS: In regards to your art and work, when are you the most creative and/or productive? Do you have a creative process?
LB: When I stay in touch with my meditation and other grounding practices, I’m like a clear conduit. That’s when I get very inspired and tend to go off impulse of visions that come up in my mind. That’s also why I like to use photography; it allows me to manifest something pretty fast. This when I feel like I’m a channel; I go off how something makes me feel, or a color or pattern. Sometimes I go off of something that feels a bit abrasive and punk rock energy. It can be a euphoric feeling and that’s what I like to get it touch with. It feels through my art.
SS: How does it feel to create something that breaks the mold of traditional art?
LB: It’s taken me a long time to stop and take inventory of milestones. It was only recently that I allowed myself to feel what I created and allow myself to take pride. It’s honestly beyond anything I could have ever asked for. I’m grateful to have done something that expands the medium and create something that’s impressionable. I’m flattered that I opened up a new lane and it keeps me moving forward, too. How am I going to continue to innovate?
SS: Your online audience is really inspired by both your artwork and your ability to bring a sense of mindfulness into your creative pursuit. Do you find that people come to you for advice on how they can also be creative and find balance?
LB: Most people actually come to me because of the aesthetic of my food photography. They say ‘This is a Liz image’ because I created a certain aesthetic that wasn’t traditional for shooting food. It was a little bit rebellious when I first started—this idea of high flash and high contrast—and I shoot it in a very editorial and high fashion way. So for me, it’s about making art. It’s about creating something with a lifespan.
SS: What advice would you give to someone who wants to integrate more mindfulness into their own lives?
LB: Honor the morning and evening ritual. They’re two significant chapters of the day that are very special. Allow yourself at least half an hour before bed with no screen so you can disconnect for a bit. From a larger perspective, be curious and self-compassionate. There is no right or wrong way to do anything and just starting with a little bit goes a long way.
SS: Do you keep a bedtime ritual that helps you sleep well?
LB: I read, write and do my reflection of the day. I usually listen to a 10 minute meditation at the end of the night. I sleep pretty well, but I notice a big difference when I honor the bedtime process and start to slow down earlier. When I don’t, I toss and turn a little bit, so it’s about sticking to my own rules and following my own advice. But also, there’s no perfection or keeping score.