Studio Visit – Elissa Levy
July, 2017 – Brookyln, New York
WHERE DID YOU GROW UP?
I grew up between Long Island and CT. We lived in Long Island through my parents’ divorce. After my mother got remarried, my step-father’s company moved to CT, so we moved there when I was around 8 or 9.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN IN YOUR CURRENT STUDIO? HOW DID YOU END UP IN NEW YORK?
I’ve been in my current studio for about a year. It was supposed to be just six months because the building was sold, but I needed a space–and I loved this space, so I took it thinking that I just wouldn’t unpack. I still have a few piles of boxes. They extended it for another 6 months, then another six months, and now it’s supposed to be two more years. You never know, though, because they could say, “it has to be tomorrow that you get out,” but I’d like to stay in this area. It’s been a year and hopefully it will be two more.
I’m from New York [State], and when I was growing up I used to come into the city and take Saturday classes at FIT. I had friends from camp who lived in New York, so I would visit them too. I always knew I would come back [to New York] one day.
I graduated from high school early, so I did a semester in Paris at the American University in Paris before I started art school. Then I went to RISD for two years and left to spend about a year in North Carolina at Penland. It was amazing, and I totally loved it. I was a glass major in college, so I did glass workshops at Penland and also just rented studio time and worked during their off-sessions. But after being in the mountains for a year I wanted to get back to RISD and finish up. After I graduated I spent 5 years in LA after, and then I came back here [to New York].
WHAT IS THE DRIVING FORCE BEHIND YOUR WORK?
I had to write an elevator speech for something, which is two sentences and it’s very difficult. When I did it, I actually tried not to talk about the work that I’m making, but rather how I think about the work because your work changes. I’ve been working with newspaper for a while, and now I’m starting to do some work with books. But you don’t want to talk about your work in terms of it has to be this certain material. I would say I’m always looking at this balance or imbalance of opposing forces. In the newspaper, I’m looking at these different positions of authority that the papers have, and then I’m looking at the power structures in the newspaper–the loss of power, or the gaining of power, or how you gain power through the loss of power.
There’s that duality that you can really see in a paper. I’m looking for that duality in all things. With the flowers and the books, it’s nature and organized chaos. When I was working with camouflage, I was interested in the way that camouflage was this man-made “natural” pattern–so you have man-made and nature opposing, but also coming together in this way.
I think that I always work to balance, or imbalance, masculine and feminine attributes whether they are more stereotypical. I also work feminizing things, or using decorative elements that are more stereotypical female to create something that’s somewhere in between, or bring them together, or maybe just show them in their separate ways.
I am a woman and I’m happy with those feminine parts of myself, but I also acknowledge very masculine parts of myself too that I bring to the work. When I look at power struggles in the newspaper, for example, it’s also incriminating myself in those whether it’s the blame or the fear of the loss of power. It’s not just saying, this is other people–or these men are bad. It’s in the way that people say you have a dream and all the people are you. I can look at the work and say that too–the hopes, the fears, the dreams.
You could say there is a masculinity to work with the plaster and hydrocal, but at the same time it’s an organic material and has a feminine quality, much like when I was working with glass. In college, I wasn’t interested in wood shop or welding, which was the focus of the sculpture department–so at the time I was in school you had nowhere else to go if you wanted to work with organic materials. The newspaper also has this duality–being organic and flexible, but the newspaper isn’t just any paper–it’s the authority of papers so it’s considered masculine.
WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST STRUGGLE IN THE STUDIO?
One thing I always struggle with is the finishing part of the work-to say that it’s finished. I’ve really been trying to go to that extra place where I’m doing more finishing: pedestals that I had made, that I just didn’t do before–putting something in a frame. I’m going to have a platform made for a piece on the floor…those things. But even when I’m just deciding, there’s a place where I find the work satisfying and it isn’t necessarily in its most finished place. It’s hard to make some of those final decisions that are more permanent. It’s easier to move onto the next thing because that’s where the excitement is.
WAS THERE EVER A TIME WHEN YOU STOPPED MAKING WORK OF FELT LIKE YOU COULDN’T KEEP GOING? IF SO, WHAT HELPED YOU CONTINUE?
There was a time when I wasn’t making work when I lived in LA, and it was more because of really trying to balance out working a job and working in a studio after college. I didn’t want to go to grad school. I wanted to move into the world and figure out how to be me and support myself and make my work. I worked in the Arts, and it was very challenging and also very satisfying, and it takes a lot of your creative energy so there’s really not enough left after work. I really enjoyed it and I met a lot of amazing people, but I also became depressed. It was not really how I wanted to be living my life. I had to leave those jobs and just step it down with jobs that were not as engaging to me so that I could save myself, for myself. That was also around the time I decided to move to New York, because I felt like there were more people who were looking at art who weren’t in the art world than in LA. LA has a really interesting art scene, but when you’d walk into a gallery you either felt completely alone, or that everyone else was an artist. Whereas in New York, non-artists look at and experience art all the time and that was important to me because I didn’t want to feel like I was making artwork in a bubble. In New York, [viewing art] is more of a cultural priority.
So anyway, I started making work again and had a solo show in San Francisco and that was really inspiring for me. That was a great way for me to move on and refocus my energy. I have to say that because I’ve been working with the newspaper…it’s definitely challenging for me after the election, as it was for a lot of people in different ways. A lot of people are depressed. I felt not that I couldn’t make artwork, but that I didn’t know if I could really use the paper. It has changed the way I make my work, and it’s one of the reasons I’m looking at historic papers from the Nixon resignation. It’s hard for me to look at the paper sometimes and see what’s going on–it’s always been challenging because the paper is not always the bearer of good news. There are a lot of terrible, terrible things that are happening all of the time.
I was having anxiety and it got me really worked up. I don’t remember that happening before the election. I knew that I could still make work, and it was depressing, but it made me question what I wanted to address: does it matter, is it just a vehicle? I know a lot of artists wonder if they should be more of activists in their work, and that’s a different kind of art. I’ve had very few images of Trump in my work because I don’t want to give the power to him that the newspaper has given to him. The news and the media giving him that power is what made him president, so I don’t really want to give him that power in my work. But, there will be a time when it will just be a past memory in the same way that I can just use other people that have been–Nixon, for example, has a different [connotation] for us now, so I can put him in and maybe if we were in the time of that it would take away my voice.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ROUTINES, RITUALS, OR COPING MECHANISMS YOU USE REGULARLY IN YOUR STUDIO PRACTICE?
I have a thing about eating my lunch here–for me it’s about getting comfortable, eating and looking. Not really thinking or planning or plotting. That gets me settled to be here, and it was the same way when I was working more at night. I guess it’s sort of a weird ritual to eat and look first. So eating in my studio and just having that passive experience of being in here to get me settled and started with whatever I’m thinking about. I definitely put on the news, maybe too much, so I might stop doing that. When I’m a little bit blank in my head, I go through the newspaper and I save it for those times that I’m blank so that I can be inspired by looking at it, or it’s just something where I can feel productive by going through it and looking for images without having to really target something to do. That’s pretty much it: NPR and lunch.
DO YOU HAVE ANY HOBBIES OR INTERESTS OUTSIDE OF YOUR STUDIO PRACTICE THAT HELP KEEP YOU SANE?
I’m a really narrowly focused person. I exercise, bring my lunch here, go home, and I will either watch TV shows with my husband, or go to art openings. I do like to cook–I made a deviled ostrich egg once, but it was disgusting. Not exactly for eating!
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR DAY TO DAY TO SOMEONE OUTSIDE OF THE ARTS?
I think people are afraid to ask artists how their day to day is, and it’s fine having no idea, but I think people are intimidated by art or artists and so they feel like it’s a stupid question. When I was working in my studio after work, because that’s the only time I could, I think people were surprised because you’re at your job for 7 – 8 hours and then you’re at your studio for 3 – 4 hours. And at the end of the day it’s tough, and that’s why I think the sitting down having dinner ritual here was good for me. Sometimes having a glass of wine in the studio helps to shake off the day, and to not be worried about not having enough time and to just be present. There’s a lot of pressure to make use of your time. Even when I go through the newspaper, there’s this pressure that I’m not totally using my time, and so it helps me feel less pressure, but a little bit like I’m being productive. I’m sure people have other [rituals], and these are all things that you make up as you go if you’re a night person or a morning person you kind of do that to yourself to make it work. I used to work at night, but now that I have a family I’m not because I want to get home and have dinner with my husband and kids…but I think people are always sort of surprised that someone would go to work and then go to their studio.
They don’t see artists as having another job. It’s another full time job because not only are you working, but you’re also trying to keep it in your head and experience the world as an artist, but you’re also doing the business of art which is a huge thing too; applying for things, writing your artist statements, working on your images–all those things take a lot of time, and if you don’t have the business part of it, or any aptitude for it, then you’re in trouble.
DO YOU HAVE ANY PROJECTS OR EXHIBITIONS COMING UP THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO PROMOTE?
I have work at the Flag Art Foundation; the show goes until August 11th and is a group of artist working with The New York Times
In September I will have work in an exhibition entitled The Dark State, curated by Becky Kinder as part of the Bushwick Open Studios.
SEPTEMBER 23, 2017-SEPTEMBER 24, 2017, ALL DAY at 449 Troutman #3A
And in October I will be participating in the Arts Gowanus Open Studios. October 21 – 22, Sat + Sun, noon – 6pm.