Many intersections exist within the arts world. Jessica interviewed UK painter Chlo Elizabeth to see how one artist’s journey is driven by the world around her … including what she reads. Check out more of her work on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, too!
Much of your work stems from feminist dystopian novels. Can you share some of your favorite titles/writers, why this genre appeals to you, and how you “translate” literary art into your own interpretation of visual art?
Margaret Atwood’s books have been influential in some of my paintings. Novels let you see things from a different perspective, and I think painting works in the same way—but on a more subconscious level. Combining the two, novels and painting, lets me become immersed in the materiality of the paint.
I read Handmaid’s Tale last September, right before it aired on television. It was unnerving how so many of the themes were relevant to what’s happening in the USA, like women’s rights to birth control. It really struck a chord with me. Right now I’m reading The Power by Naomi Alderman. Girls become the dominant sex, and young girls start to acquire a power that lets them protect themselves. I won’t go into too much depth since it’s a new book, and I don’t want to ruin it for anyone!
“Domestic traditional relationships” featured in black and white photographs are a foundational inspiration in your work. What do you see as revealed in B&W photographs that might be lost in today’s face-tuned, Instagrammed world?
People pose and put on their good faces with black and white photographs. The scene is set, and it’s almost forced to look good. The way the composition is set shows the whole human form and tells more of a story for me to work from. In the days of black and white photos, people only took photos for special occasions. Today, we photograph everything, including our food. Black and white photos also allow my color choices to be led by the process of painting instead of what I might see in front of me.
What about your work from old family photographs? How did that begin?
It all started when I found an old article about my great grandfather from the 1950s. It mentioned his farming work, and I noticed that it only featured men. Men were all over the magazine, and women were only shown in the back with the animals. Just like they were something pretty to look at and had nothing interesting to say. This kind of got my blood boiling.
I know it was a different time, but it really irritated me that the women weren’t mentioned in any of the farming work aspects of the magazine. I knew my great grandmother. She did most of the grafting on their farm, but she wasn’t mentioned once in the article. It kickstarted my feminist journey, and I started to wonder how I could utilize these articles and photographs in contemporary society as a platform for my voice and to open discourse. It’s what led me to painting men and women together, playing around with compositions and trying to say something about these things using humor.
Humor can be a powerful tool in art and is woven into much of your work. What is your goal (if any) in the admirer’s reaction when taking in a piece that employs humor? How do you personally use humor in your own life, beyond art?
Humor is a door that gives people permission to look into what you’re doing. I don’t want to force anyone in a direction of what they “should” or shouldn’t see. I want them to take what they’d like from my work. Humor helps me talk to people. I’m naturally quite friendly, but can be shy and anxious, too. I suppose I use humor as a shield in some ways, like a lot of people do.
In your opinion, why do humans reach for art in troubled times? Do you feel “responsible” as an artist to make a political statement?
Painting and drawing are ways, other levels, to think about things in a less didactic way. I think people turn to art to escape, and if they see something in the work that gets them thinking about political topics, that’s great. However, it’s something that doesn’t have to be forced. I think it’s important for the viewer to take away what they want, need, or get. But I do find that playing around with humorous titles and puns enables the viewer to think about what the painting or work is about. Humor is a gateway, and I think it’s always important to keep things light if you are addressing touchy topics.
Visual artists usually have few chances to use text as a means of communication with their work. You take advantage of your titles. Which of your titles has received the biggest response?
My painting with the most responses to the title is “Avin a RYT Mare” (Figure 1).
The title plays around with my Yorkshire accent and regional slang. It’s based on some family stories, and it’s one of the paintings that got me really thinking about women and the power structures between men, women, and children. I found an old photo of my great grandmother with a horse, and discovered she had children and was married at 16. This freaked me out so much! I instantly thought this would be a nightmare for me if I was in that situation.
I started playing around with images, and then let the painting process lead me. There’s something uncanny about this piece, something that’s twisted. It reflects me as an individual, as I can have a dark sense of humor sometimes. However, I’m also interested in the contrasts between the subject matter and the aesthetics of the piece with the bright, vivid pallet I use.
I’m currently working on another piece with a humorous title, “Quit Horsing Around.” It’s not quite resolved yet (Figure 2).
“Good Girl” is another painting with an interesting title (Figure 3).
What is your personal, single favorite piece of yours that you’ve created? Are there pieces that you would never consider selling? Can you share what makes them special to you?
I don’t really have a favorite! I do, however, have different memories attached to certain paintings. I think as my paintings get older, they become more important to my practice. They let me push new ideas. Still, I must say “Avin a RYT Mare” is especially prominent to the series of work that I’m creating right now.
Unfortunately, if I’m offered money for my work, I will have to sell so I can continue my practice. It would be hard to say goodbye to any of my work, really, because I’ve invested so much time into them. Painting can be quite personal, and it’s kind of like giving away a part of yourself to someone. Yet it’s a necessity.
Immersing yourself in daily news can be wearing and exhausting. How does your process of creating art exacerbate or soothe this kind of immersion?
There’s something about working with oil paint, the layering of the painting and working with bright colors, that allows me to zone out. It’s like watching Netflix, but then suddenly it can turn into an argument. It can either go very well or very bad, or sometimes it’s like a rollercoaster. There can be a lot of ups and downs when making art. But it lets me think. Sometimes I get new ideas or think about something I’ve read while I’m painting. Painting somehow opens a door to that part of the brain that helps me think. Recently, I’ve just been letting go and let the process lead me. Sometimes you try to force the work, and it’s not so successful.
Do you consider your artwork a platform for opening discourse on tough subjects? If so, what kind of “conversations” are you particularly drawn towards? What issues do you currently consider most pressing to address?
For me, painting is a doorway to lightly touch upon certain subjects. I think I’m drawn to things that affect me as a woman. Being an artist has a lot to do with who you are and where you are from. Personally, to address subjects that don’t relate to me would be too forced and wouldn’t be honest. I think that would echo in my work, too.
You’re currently a resident at East Street Arts in Leeds, UK. Can you share how this residency has shaped your work thus far? What’s your single best experience as a resident here to date?
It’s been a great opportunity for me to mix with other practicing artists. There’s such a variety of creative professionals here, and it’s great for networking, too. I’ve been involved in open studios where I show the public my studio space. It’s been a fantastic platform for articulating my art practice to new audiences.
I will also be using the project space, a dedicated East Street venue for exhibitions, to test how my paintings sit together for my first solo show in August. It’s incredible that it’s completely free. Leeds Arts University is sponsoring my use of the studio space at East Street Arts which includes complimentary usage of the entire facilities. I’m trying to get as much done as I can in the six months of this residency. Nothing is usually free in this world, so I’m making the most of this opportunity.
You’re also a participant in Come Find Us, a seasonal program that focuses on “overlooked cultural activities” in the Mabgate area. How is this kind of exhibition different than what you’ve experienced before? What have you learned from it, particularly in interacting with audiences?
It’s like an open studio. People who take the tour travel all around Leeds to see a variety of exhibitions. Then, they come to East Street Arts and meet the artists at Patrick Studios, which is the headquarters of East Street Arts. It’s a great night for networking because it’s a lot more casual. Groups take turns to see the artists, and the artists talk about their work. It was great for me talking to new people and having new sets of eyes on my work.
The experience helped me dig a little deeper and explain my practice more clearly, which I think is important because making your art accessible to everyone should be something artists think about. Most of the people in the audience don’t know much about painting (I assume), so I had to talk almost like it was a timeline from start to finish. I learned to take deep breaths and to pause when talking. Sometimes I get too excited and talk about my work too fast because I’m so passionate about it.
As a recent arts university graduate, you have first-hand experience in how art is being taught at the institutional level today. What are a few top benefits you enjoyed in school? What are some issues that you believe need to be addressed, further explored, or added in formal arts education?
I went to a Leeds Arts University, and as an arts school all of the professors and faculty were practicing artists. They could help students with everything and anything. Not only did they have past experience, but they knew what was happening in the art world in real-time. On my first day, the faculty offered a presentation on their own art practice. It was a great introduction to art school. I consider this one of the top benefits of attending a quality art school—the faculty really know their stuff.
During my first two years, I was so nervous about talking about what I was doing to a group of people. However, I discovered that it was an essential part of confidence-building. Artists need to explain their work. Having access to tutors who have been to art school and are experienced in this facet of the arts world was comforting.
Another benefit was the space students had, including the lighting to display our work. We were taught very early in our studies to treat the area like a work space, and to practice hanging our work professionally. There were so many highly experienced technicians available to us, so if we ever got stuck there was always someone who could help. We were taught how to curate our work in our final year, which was a highly stressed skill. This allowed me to complete art school without wondering what to do in the “real world.”
What do you see as the biggest issues in the art world today?
The biggest issues I’ve experienced are the lack of funding for arts schools in London. Everything is getting cut. Art is critical, and helped me with my research and writing. It’s a necessity and needs to become a priority.
You will be in New York this coming autumn as the artist in resident for the ChaNorth summer program. What do you most look forward to with this experience?
This will be my first time in the USA. I’ve never left Europe before, so it’s going to be amazing! I’m looking forward to being surrounded by other creatives, but also exploring a different country, especially the art and exhibitions of New York.
Three of my four paintings that showed in London for the past year recently sold, which will help to fund my New York residency. The spring sales also seem to have piqued the interest of investors.
What are contemporary artists, including you and your peers, doing differently than the generation(s) of artists before you?
I think it’s a lot easier these days to promote yourself. With social media, you can promote exhibitions and your practice for free. With smart phones, you can document everything from studio moves to exhibitions with a quality that looks professional. It’s easy to show people what you are doing, which is a key part of engaging audiences. Just a few years ago, and especially before the internet, I can only imagine how much more difficult it was to connect people to your work.
Materials are also so much easier to access because of the internet, too. I can just Google what I want, and with the click of a finger I’ve ordered my materials. I sometimes really struggle with managing my website, but if I get stuck I can watch a YouTube tutorial. It’s great! I’ve also heard about artist opportunities abroad because of such easy access to information online. It’s greatly helped to accelerate my career.
If a person could receive one, single message from your portfolio, what do you hope it would be?
That’s a tough one. I hope they’d see the graft I’ve completed since graduating university, and can hopefully see the growth and development transition from my university days to my current practice.