Viscera mixed with gold leaf; lace tinged with blood – are these what little girls are made of? Inspired by Gothic literature and Japanese aesthetics, the violence of nature, and the strangeness of childhood experiences, the artwork of Elizabeth Shupe is a feast for the eyes. Heavy use of symbolism, from “Lovers Eyes” lockets, lush and wild plant life, and copious amounts of wild prehensile hair weave dark and beautiful tales of tragic love, budding sexuality, and violently feminine forces of nature.
Dirge Magazine: Tell me a bit about your newest series of work and your thoughts behind its subject matter.
Elizabeth Shupe: My latest completed series of work is entitled “Drowned Forest,” and the entire series is my interpretation of the famous painting “Ophelia” by Sir John Everett Millais. Millais approaches the subject of female mental illness as an outsider, presenting us with a tragic yet glamorous image of a dying Ophelia. I wanted to take that image and show the other side of it; a world where EVERY woman is potentially an Ophelia, a world where our preconceived societal notions of femininity blind us to the realities of women’s true experiences, where gender stereotypes lead us to treat men and women differently when they are faced with mental illness. Ultimately, a world where frustrations and inequalities breed the very problems that society tries to do away with. It’s “Ophelia” as seen through the lens of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I suppose you could say.
Can you tell us more about your background and what made you become an artist?
I have always made art, although lately I’ve been thinking of myself less as an artist and more as a storyteller or communicator. The need to tell stories – to use stories to fit my own personal needs – has been with me from the beginning. When I was a child, I used to make up elaborate imaginary games and then draw pictures and make objects to supplement those fantasy worlds. As a teenager, I was obsessed with manga, and I would try to fuse my stories and art together in graphic novel form. But it wasn’t until college and later grad school that I was finally given the right training and tools to express myself more fully, to be a “real” artist.
Tell us more about your process; you use such interesting materials, from traditional oil paint to paper, clay, and found objects. How did you come up with the idea to use some of these materials in your work?
The willingness to experiment, the willingness to use weird and unexpected materials. That is definitely a remnant from my early childhood creative experimentation. I just never dropped the habit of using what happened to be around, I never lost the joy of using materials in the “wrong” way. I also subscribe to the Japanese idea of “mono no aware,” which is translated as “the pathos of objects,” or a “sympathy with objects,” or alternately “a sensitivity to ephemera.” In Japan this concept is associated with an austere “wabi-sabi” aesthetic, but I interpret it personally as a sense for the “duende” inherent in inanimate things. Growing up with lots of collectors and pack rats in my family, I quickly developed an emotional connection to the inanimate. I use that emotional sense, that “sympathy with objects” to choose the best, most meaning-laden materials for the work at hand.
It sounds like Japanese culture and ideals have influenced you greatly. Other than your sensitivity to physical objects and ephemera, has it influenced your art or aesthetics in other ways?
Oh, certainly! Japanese popular culture and design aesthetics have always been very important to me. As a teenager I was a huge fan of anime and manga and when I was in my twenties I was very much into the Gothic Lolita subculture. I’m not too involved with those fandoms anymore, but I’m still very influenced by the Japanese Goth aesthetic, mostly because it has become one of the last bastions of traditional “decadence” in popular culture today. Japanese Goth carries the torch that the Symbolist artists in Europe originally lit over 100 years ago, while also injecting some much-needed fresh perspectives. Artists like Takata Yamamoto and Mitsukazu Mihara are strong influences on me.
I am also VERY influenced by Japanese artist-made ball-jointed dolls. Dolls have always resonated very strongly with me, especially the surrealist Hans Bellmer’s famous “Die Poupee” from 1934. The modern Japanese artist-made ball-jointed dolls trace a direct line back to Bellmer, while employing some traditional Japanese doll-making techniques. They are sexy, violent, and beautiful creations. In my own doll-based works I owe much to the grandfather of modern Japanese doll making, Ryo Yoshida, and his ground-breaking doll making manual, “Yoshida Style.”
Any piece of work you’d like to describe to us in a little more detail?
The green “Ophelia” pieces actually have quite a bit of violence and discomfort in them, the only difference being that I’ve replaced what would otherwise be gore with surrealistic greenery.
It’s kind of like if Bob Ross’s “happy trees” were invading your body and violating your mind and threatening to burst out of all your orifices.
The “Ophelia” pieces are also acting in a slightly different way from the rest of my works- usually people look at my work and say “Oh my, that’s disturbing!” But these pieces don’t get that initial reaction, they sneak up on the viewer, infiltrate their minds. People who would ordinarily look away end up really LOOKING at these pieces. And they are forced to come to terms with what the pieces actually depict because they’ve already made an investment in liking “all that pretty greenery.” The reaction I usually get with the “Ophelia” pieces is “Oh that’s pretty….wait….wow, that’s actually kinda fucked up.” And I like that reaction. I feel like I’ve slipped something past them.
That’s a pretty awesome description. I like the Ophelia pieces even more! If you don’t mind sharing it with us, could you please describe your typical work flow when you start to create a new piece of art?
It always starts with a half-baked idea that I develop into a sketch. The sketch is only an intermediary point however, and usually the finished work barely resembles the original idea. From the sketch I determine a plan of attack; if necessary, I brainstorm material to use, acquire said materials (which is sometimes surprisingly hard), and do tests of those materials, trying to discover their unique properties, their limitations. I gather reference images. When everything is squared away on the materials end, I get to work. I usually work on a huge number of pieces at once, picking things up and putting them down again as the inspiration moves me. I develop whole bodies of work at once this way. It takes a long time, but it’s worth it to come out on the other end with twenty or so viable works.
Who/what are your biggest influences? Where are you finding ideas or inspiration for your work?
Besides the Japanese artists I listed above, I am very influenced by the Surrealists, especially Hans Bellmer, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, and Leonora Carrington. Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varo too, although they might not have considered themselves Surrealists. Pretty much all of the Symbolists. And modern masters like Lori Field, Judith Schaechter, and Julie Heffernan.
The inspiration for my work usually comes from experiences I have had or books I have read – I read a lot. I had some interesting childhood experiences that I keep coming back to for inspiration, such as my great aunt and her dusty antique-filled home; she kept it like a time capsule, almost perfectly preserved from the turn of the 19th century.
Art is also a way for me to process negative emotions, and many of my works are “therapy” of one kind or another. I am a very big proponent of using art as a way to transform negativity into something beautiful. Perhaps not something positive, but beautiful at least.
What’s the most indispensable item in your studio?
Coffee. Definitely coffee. And maybe wine… Oh, you mean art supplies? Probably E6000 glue.
So what’s next? Any shows in the works?
Well, I’m working on a new body of work at the moment, about the dichotomy of the mind and the body, or the soul and the flesh if you prefer, and the subject is mostly cute forest animals that are…not so cute. There are definite feminist overtones to the work – the creatures that are fetishized for being beautiful and delicate simultaneously displaying a disturbing fleshy corporeality and an uncanny spiritual power. They become beautiful monsters, in the best sense.
There are some exciting new opportunities that may be upcoming in the future, but I’m keeping them mostly to myself for right now, don’t want to jinx it.
What do you hope to accomplish in the future (artistically or otherwise)?
Artistically, I hope to further explore the Ophelia metaphor, and I’m tossing around some ideas for a series using the visual vocabulary of Victorian mourning culture.
I’ve also always wanted to do a large scale installation work…I hope that someday in the future I get the opportunity to do that.
Outside of art, I hope to do a lot more fiction writing- there is a novel I’ve been working on for about a year now, and I’m looking forward to finishing it and seeing where that might take me.
And travel of course – my husband and I love to travel, we’ve been touring the country in our RV this year – but there’s still so much to see! It’s a big world out there!