Pictures from the bus: Q&A with Lia Hiltz

"Getting a likeness on the middle fella was tough because he looked around so much. He might as well have been a spinning top," says Lia Hiltz.

Lia is a foreign service officer, mother, and wannabe artist who draws her fellow passengers on the bus ride to work. The she posts them on her blog Pictures from the bus, and other tales.

So how did you find yourself in Ottawa? What were your first impressions of the city?

Restaurants, bars, suburban Hull, and the sex trade! It was 2001, and I’d arrived from T.O. into a Lowertown high-rise near Clarence and Cumberland. I took French classes at the Foreign Service’s training institute in Hull. My neighbours — an alcoholic mother and her middle-aged son – and my unravelling long-distance relationship drove me out of the house for long, fast walks at night through the crowds in the market. It wasn’t until 2006 when I got back from a posting to Washington that I fell in love with Ottawa’s neighbourhoods, waterline, parkland and Experimental Farm.

You have an education in art but you chose a life in the foreign service. Can you tell us a little bit about your passion for art?

As a girl I drew, sang and played piano non-stop. Later I hoped I could be happy enough with art being a hobby — only in my 30s have I realised that if I don’t do constant artwork, I’m a depressed bitch. As I age, it only gets harder to ignore it, not easier. And now that I am settled and less impressionable, my creative intuition is very clear. If I give it any encouragement at all, it bursts out all over. That’s very seductive. I dream of working in art full-time.



You have a very cool blog that’s been getting quite a lot of attention lately from great local news outlets like Ottawa Start and CBC Ottawa. Tell us about your project and where the idea came from.

Thank you! I’m stunned that people like it. I began drawing at bus stops in 2007, but got pretty gung-ho after my maternity leave ended in last fall. My time is so compressed that I do art on the bus, and read childcare manuals at lunchtime. It’s a little easier now, after six months. Another push for me came when I interviewed with an art school, and the one counsel they gave was that I should draw more from life. I don’t remember why I started publishing the drawings on my blog. My husband says it was to motivate myself.

You see the bus as your studio – where do you find inspiration? How do you choose your subjects?

The number one rule of bus drawing is: don’t get caught. I pick people I can get away with drawing. But I also love being forced into drawing people or things I didn’t choose. When no one or nothing looks appealing, I just draw whatever is in front of me. Today I did a bunch of feet. It can start out dull but it always gets interesting!

Can you tell us about some of your favourite sketches?

The first time I saw this man, he was asleep. Turns out we work in the same building!

This was the first time I’d seen the lady with the hair bun without her husband. Was there a mystery there?

A commuter in a toque? Or a Space Navy commander?

This woman was really beautiful. Too bad all you get to see is her nose. I enjoyed working out all the textures — crimped skirt, molded leather purse, her hair and fur ruff.

Your work is wonderful. Has anyone ever caught you? Is there a bit of adventure in this for you?

Often I feel like I have a bubbly secret. Once, I was severally eyeballed by the guy I’d been drawing for 20 to 25 minutes and I burst out laughing. It was really embarrassing. Another time, the woman next to me chatted me up about my drawing, but then out of nowhere she shared a lot of really difficult information about her home life. If people don’t catch me drawing, I feel safer.

But it is an adventure, you’re right. I really love it.

What kind of feedback are you receiving about your project?

I’m surprised by how much people like my drawings, not just the concept of drawing on the best. Being listed by OttawaStart as a Cool Ottawa Blog bowled me over!

A lot of people spend their time of the bus on their smartphones, reading books or listening to music: what’s the benefit of stopping to take a minute to look around? What do you see that others might not notice?

I see a lot of tiny, endearing interactions. People are unbelievably polite and considerate. Simple example: a big backpack. You see so many times somebody with a giant purse or backpack an inch away from their face, and they go the whole ride without saying anything about it. You can look at that as the person being wussy, but maybe it’s because they don’t want to make the person with the big bag feel bad by complaining.

We’re talking about a metal tube with dozens of people squished into it. And it repeats a thousand times a day. It’s the riders who make it work. It’s riders who keep the bus calm, quiet and friendly. Take the Transitway at 5:30, and it’s silent, dark and comfortable. We’re all tired, and gently making our way in and out of small seats and narrow aisles. People open the doors for others, make room along the poles, arrange their feet and bags out of the way, wait for the stroller, tell someone about an empty seat. Nobody expects to be thanked, and most of the kindnesses are the kind that are hard to put into words.



How has this experience benefited you as an artist?



Every time I think I have found the limits of what this is doing for me artistically, something new happens. My observation skills and my physical coordination really benefit from the pressure of the situation. I have to take a lot in with very quick glances, and I have to get the base down fast in case they leave and I have to finish from memory. The best thing is how much more neutral I am in my observation. I don’t assume I know what anybody’s about, I just try to draw what’s in front of me. And, through the process of drawing, I think I see the person more clearly than I would if I was just people-watching.

What are you hoping people who view your site will take away from the project?

I hope people enjoy the pictures. Beyond that, if people were inspired to treat their downtime differently, you know, rather than just sitting on the bus feeling trapped and furious like I used to, that would make me really happy.

Can you share with us your perfect day in Ottawa?

Miraculously, my child — and, therefore, her mother — would sleep in.

Then, my husband would make me this breakfast: Bridgehead’s Costa Rican Cloud Forest coffee, homemade bread, butter, avocados and Taleggio cheese. We’d all go to the Children’s Museum and take turns going on stage. Next, we’d eat at The Grand Pizzeria in the market. While my daughter took her afternoon nap, I would work on art.


We’d have a late afternoon picnic supper (hopefully involving something from Three Tarts Bakery) at the Fletcher Wildlife Gardens in the Experimental Farm. If a friend babysat for us that evening while Ada slept, Jeff and I would go for a twilight walk on the bike path by the Transitway, and listen to the ducks.

Thanks for stopping by Lia…we hope to see more of you here (and on the bus) in the future!