In the Studio: Elise Thompson

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to where you are today.

I was born in Cincinnati, OH and grew up just across the Ohio River in Northern Kentucky. I joke that I was a “prolific” child artist, meaning I made too many drawings; often the same drawing over, and over, and over again. That’s right; I would make one IMG_3139-1drawing, and then I would repeat that same drawing with slight changes endlessly. The subject matter was usually animals ranging from ducks, dogs, lions, horses, dinosaurs, etc. One of the more hilarious serial drawings I made was of a lion in the middle, roaring, with a terrified zebra and giraffe on either side looking shocked that a lion would do this; all on the same picture plane. Just grass, as if they were hanging out in someone’s backyard in suburbia. With each iteration, the giraffe’s neck shortened until it looked more like a hippo than the originally intended creature. My mom commented on this, and I’m pretty sure that was the first “critique” of my work ever. I took it pretty hard.

From ages 9-17, I was a competitive figure skater, training full time by homeschooling my 8th and half of my 9th grade year. For five of those years, I was also a competitive dancer in jazz/ballet/tap for cross training. Acting, singing, and improv were thrown in for good measure, and I honestly thought theatre was going to be the way to go! Dance was also, ironically, less hard on my body when compared to figure skating. I got my first stress fracture in my lower back when I was 12, and my second at 14, effectively putting me in a corset back brace almost full time paired with years of physical therapy. I had many awkward growth spurts during these years, which didn’t help! When I quit figure skating for good at 17, I grew another two inches. I think my body was waiting for me to give it up already! Athletics didn’t just put me through the paces physically, it taught me self-discipline and perseverance psychologically. I’m still learning my threshold, and while skating and dance really did a number on me, I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. Except that maybe I would try swimming instead next time haha. Seems way more low impact, I’m just sayin’.

It wasn’t really until my last year of high school, and when I started attending undergrad at Northern Kentucky University, that I began to pursue visual art seriously. I did a foundations class in theatre my first semester, and after surmising that, “Yeah, I don’t think this is for me..” I took my foundations courses in fine art. I vividly remember having a one-on-one with one of my professors during Foundations I and them saying, “I can see you majoring in fine art and going onto grad school.” Seed planted. That’s all it takes sometimes! Just a mere suggestion. I had been looking for a direction, so maybe I was waiting to hear that someone believed that I COULD finally commit to visual art. 

I officially received my BFA in painting in 2010, took a few years to intern at the Cincinnati Art Museum, worked as an art handler at the Contemporary Arts Center, and as a Teaching Artist and mural painter with ArtWorks Cincinnati before attending Florida State University for my MFA in studio art. I stayed in Tallahassee, FL to teach for a few years, co-directed a non-profit gallery with my art partner in crime Haley Lauw, and managed a warehouse studio where I worked and subleased to local artist friends. I attended artist residencies at the Vermont Studio Center (summer 2016), The Wassaic Project (summer 2017), and The Maple Terrace Artist Residency Program (winter 2017). By mid to late 2018, things were already beginning to change drastically in my personal life, but I knew I needed to push even more. I decided to finally move to New York City after a few years of friends attempting to convince me to do it and me endlessly talking around the idea. Things just really lined up last year, and I’m really thankful for my family and all the friends, new and old, who continue to make this transition as smooth and painless as possible (if possible!). I’ve been in Brooklyn in a live/work space since March, and I’m still finding my footing, but I know this was the right decision. It’s been really challenging, but rewarding too, and while this city demands so much, it really does give back. Friends have said, “You probably won’t feel all that comfortable until about year..5.” So, great. Here we go!


2. What does your work aim to say? What internal and external factors motivate your conceptual choices?

Whether it’s subconscious or not, my work is definitely a reflection of my inner desires and neuroses. Perhaps it’s a cliche to say that the things you make are an extension of yourself, but I am often surprised and pleased by how my painting and sculpting processes coalesce or run parallel with my personality, my (seemingly) involuntary inclinations, and my contradictory need for dominance over the medium/image versus intuitive flow of the materials and outside variables. I’ve joked that my type A and B personalities are constantly at odds, but this friction seems to produce cohesive work. Even when I’m battling restraint over this maximalist urge to rein in 10 paintings into one, formally and conceptually, the things I make seem to work together, especially in groups. I’m using translucent surfaces such as clear vinyls and chiffon as substrates, and the way that I treat what is below the surface, between layers, and above speaks to this psychological notion of keeping secrets/veiling truths and cutting away obstructed layers to divulge what is really underneath. I think of the gestures as metaphors for language and communication. We can use semantics to somewhat skew what we really mean, remain ambiguous in our intentions, soften clarity. We can also use our words to be powerfully clear and succinct. I’m physically frosted and blurring surfaces, layering up the material while also trying to keep various parts of the surface untouched or cleared away as this push and pull idea regarding self-disclosure. There are elegant moments of judiciousness and satisfying occurrences of indulgence, but not without points where these two concepts clash. I’ve referred to this “clashing point” before as a “wrench” in the image that can make a viewer stop short. Within all these luscious and sumptuous moments in the painting material, there are usually moves I’ve made that are not conventionally beautiful and can be downright uncomfortable to look at whether it’s the way the colors are meshing or that the textures allude to something else. I keep those parts in the work as a visual example of a consequence or as a reminder that things are not endlessly “smooth sailing”. The good can have an underbelly.


3. You stated “Through gestures of concealing, revealing, and the suggestion of the familiar, these works allude to vulnerability, desire, and the competing inclination to either remain private, or explicitly share.” Do you feel your work is about control in any way?

Most definitely! I even say “Control, however, is always present.” That’s a characteristic I’m battling all the time, in life and the studio; control vs. going with the flow. On the surface, I can present a very “chill” and “even keel” demeanor, but underneath the surface is a whole mess of anxieties. What else is new? The urge for control is where I’m trying to reel in the things that I think are making me anxious in an effort to exact power over them. Control them so they don’t control you. This isn’t always the healthiest solution, and too much pressure can have some adverse effects; many more obvious than others. Some of the more interesting moves I’ve made with paintings have been because I’ve forced myself to give up being so overbearing with the material. I will also drive myself insane by trying to corral every poured surface and every piped line. I’ve incorporated working around or living with “the accidents” that occur when making work. The first hole I ever cut in a painting was an accident. I want to say I had every intention in cutting a void in Give Me Sugar, but that wouldn’t be completely honest. I was trying to cut a clean line where I had masked off an area knowing that when I pulled up the tape, it would pull up jagged and messy. The blade when through the surface too far, and I was convinced I had ruined this thing that I had put so much time and care into starting. I decided that in my practice, I need to be more flexible when it comes to these unintentional occurrences by responding with intentional solutions. I’ll either cover it up or go with it; whichever move is best. Thankfully, this mode has been working for me! It’s almost impossible to hit the “undo button” with vinyl and chiffon. It shows everything and it forgets very little. Learning how to mind the material is important, but learning how to work with your mistakes is another.


4. What does the word “successful” mean to you as an artist?

FullSizeRender-2This is a really hard question to answer because I’m still trying to figure that out. Regarding flexibility, it’s important for this definition to evolve as you grow. Right now, for me, “successful as an artist” means to continue making work and putting myself out there. Continue making whether what I think I’m producing is good, bad, small, large, anything at all, and taking other artists seriously when they want to do studio visits to stay engaged. That likely seems like I’m setting the bar low, but honestly, working day jobs, affording a place to live, making time to be social, carving out time to be alone, and finding time to get away are all consuming. If I can fit in a full-time studio practice with other full-time responsibilities that will allow me to continue on, then GOOD. That’s my goal right now. And the more people you meet and the more studio visits you accept, the more opportunities come your way. Perseverance is a success to me, even if there isn’t always concrete show for it yet.


5. What advice have you been given that has influenced you the most?

You can’t make work that is going to appeal to everyone, and you shouldn’t make work that you think will do so. Follow your inclinations and your gut, even if the idea seems totally weird. Above all, if you can afford to, try making the things you’ve been thinking about to see them. You can talk yourself out of doing anything, but you can’t know if it’s a good or bad idea until you try. One time in grad school, I painted every chip from an entire tube of Pringles, meaning I put paint ON the chips. I didn’t paint a still life of chips, I PAINTED the chips. Get it? Paint chips? Was that a good idea? No. Was it a good idea to try? Yes, because I got it out of the way, and I don’t have to think about it anymore. Plus, it’s a story my mentor from graduate school loves telling other students now. I’m good with that!


6. Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about? Or perhaps what’s next for you?

Right now, I’m settling into my new studio situation, and I’m trying to continue the “Voids and Gaps” body of work I started last year as well as works that hide additional paintings under frosted surfaces. There’s a lot more to mine there. I currently have two works at the Wassaic Summer Exhibition titled Ad Astra Per Aspera at the Wassaic Project until September 21st if you find yourself in upstate NY! I’m also conceptualizing a two-person show San Antonio-based artist Brittany Ham at Mantle Art Space for January 2020. It seems far away, but it really isn’t! We’re in the early stages right now, but I’m excited about what we’ll be making in the coming months.

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