By Makena Pratt

Freelance illustrator and muralist Liza Burns partnered with the Oregon Cultural Trust in 2020 to design a license plate in recognition of the group’s 20th anniversary in 2021. The license plate is multi-colored and shows Oregon’s topography, with 127 symbols representing different aspects of Oregon’s history interwoven into the design. Her artwork on the license plate was also installed as four wall-sized murals at the Eugene, Medford, Portland, and Redmond airports. Burns says getting chosen for the license plate felt like “a bolt of lightning” in her life. “It changed my career,” she says. 

Burns grew up in Eugene and earned her bachelor of fine arts degree from Boston University in 2010. After graduation, she moved to Los Angeles.

“I got my degree in theater and hated it,” Burns recalls. “I was 19 and didn’t know how to say I didn’t like something. So, I moved to L.A. to do theater there and immediately didn’t do it.”

To make ends meet, Burns put one of her longtime hobbies to use and began picking up gigs as a freelance artist. After quickly faking a portfolio, she secured her first job as a muralist in 2011 when Mendocino Farms Sandwich Market hired her to create a full interior chalkboard mural. The chalkboard took two weeks to complete, but as soon as Burns started working on it, she saw a future for herself. And the sandwich market became a long-term client. 

“I immediately was like, ‘Oh, this feels like me. I love doing this. This is the most fun I’ve ever had,’” says Burns. “I immediately knew that was what I wanted to do.”

Despite identifying her passion for mural work, the uncertain nature of being an artist led her to pursue graphic design as a safer alternative. She packed her bags and moved back to Eugene, where she earned her associate’s degree in graphic design from Lane Community College in 2016 and began working for a marketing agency while doing murals and illustrations on the side. When she became pregnant with her son in 2019, Burns realized her side hustle was paying more than her day job, and subsequently leaped into being a full-time freelance artist.

“When you’re young there’s just such a balance of feeling like, ‘What should I do? What’s the smart thing to do?’” Burns laughs. “I think I played it okay, but I wish I had left sooner. I wish I had said, ‘All right, I’m just gonna try it.’”

In July 2020, just a week after giving birth, Burns answered the open call for the Cultural Trust license plate and nonchalantly sent in her submission.

“I have a kid. I don’t have time. Nobody even knows who I am,” she told herself. “I just thought of it as a fun practice thing I could do while I was postpartum . . . and then I got the job.” Now, her 2-year-old son recognizes her painting when he sees it on cars. 

The license plate accelerated Burns’ career and validated her choice to commit to her artistry, while simultaneously cementing her identity as an Oregon artist. The state-level project also helped her solidify her art style.

“I like to make art that tells a story that takes time to figure out,” she explains. “I designed it to be heavy on detail, and the whole point was that I want you to take a long time looking at this piece, discovering it, and seeing all the pieces.”

Her artistic style takes inspiration from Graeme Base’s Animalia and The Eleventh Hour, illustrated books she would read as a child and attempt to recreate. Today, Burns’ style can be seen in her illustrations and murals for this magazine, the World Athletic Championships, and Faerieworlds, among many other clients. 

Currently, Burns is tackling a digitally illustrated mural for the new YMCA building on 24th and Hilyard. She hopes to create more digitally composed illustrations, as they allow her to include intricate details that bring her style to life.

Photos by Dominick Barbero