Artist Snapshot: Elizabeth Allison

Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions

Elizabeth Allison interview
Elizabeth Allison in the studio, 2020

At what age did you decide to become an artist?

Art held my interest from a young age in a way other things did not. Sports, music, and many aspects of school seemed dull, but looking at and trying to make art was always very engrossing for me.

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?

It was pretty much a given, and I don’t recall that there was any sort of big reveal. They have always been very encouraging, but they worry about my financial stability.

Who are your favorite artists?

What I’m looking at and excited about is a changeable thing, but there are some constants that repeatedly pull me back. Donatello, Michelangelo, Corot, and the contemporary photographer Todd Hido are all artists whose work I seek out repeatedly.

Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?

See above! And so many more. I really don’t think I can pick a favorite artist.

Art book you cannot live without?

My relationship with art books is also pretty fickle. There are times when a book will be very important to me, and then lie neglected for years. Not an art book, nor really a cook book, but more of what I’d call an aspirational living book that I revisit periodically is An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. I love the way she writes and thinks about food, and it really resonates with how I think about art.

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?

It depends on the artist. But I’ve noticed that talent is more common than one might think. Tenacity and willingness to push oneself separates out those who will stick with it, which is an essential component to achieving interesting things. I also think there is an internal urgency, this hunger for… what? I don’t even know what the hunger is for. But it’s presence is palpable and impactful in some artworks, and I believe it must originate in the artist.

I’m not interested in irony in art, so what would be the opposite quality of that be? Perhaps sincerity, or even earnestness. But there also needs to be self-awareness, in a good way, not just self-obsession.

Do you keep a sketchbook?

I have various sketchbooks and notebooks here and there, but never seem to have one on hand when I need to jot something down. As a result I also have many little scraps of paper, empty junk mail envelopes, and backs of random receipts with sketches, notes, and ideas scattered around. So essentially I constantly doodle and fuss at things, and I can never can find my musings when needed. This is not an efficient system, and I would not recommend it.

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?

The Met for the win, hands down.

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?

Seeing the permanent collection at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museo Nacional in Madrid, as opposed to a special exhibition, was an amazing experience for me. It was such an incredible collection, with works by many great artists, but what so intrigued me was the particular artworks that were there. For example, there was this very small Renoir landscape. I’m not usually especially excited about Renoir, but this little landscape was amazing. You could feel the breeze move across the grass. It was alive. This type of unexpected vitality from an artist whose work I had at least a passing familiarity was shocking. Other pieces in that collection had that same startling quality of presenting a lesser known side (at least to me) of a well-known artist.

If you were not an artist, what would you be?

Bored? Gainfully employed? Perhaps both. I find people fascinating and somewhat alarming, so something where I get to observe people closely, like being a bartender or therapist, could be a good fit. Although maybe those are actually kind of the same job.

Did you have an artistic cohort that influenced your early creative development?

I think my artistic development has been influenced by so many individuals at every stage, and it still is. I’ve been very lucky to have such exceptional teachers and peers around me.

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?

That there are so many things other than making artwork required if you want any sort of career as an artist. The business end of it is just that—not some magical, cerebral, or spiritual pursuit, and it takes a tremendous amount of time and energy. Some days making artwork ends up being the last priority.

What work of art have you looked at most and why?

The artworks in my home, which are mostly done by artists I have some sort of personal relationship with. It is different to live with something, to observe it every day, as opposed to explore your memory of it. It can be surprising when you see something you never noticed in what you thought you knew well.

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?

I love walking around the city—it could really be any city—but more often than not it’s New York City, especially these days. I find it tremendously stimulating on all levels—visually, physically, aurally, and sometimes, for better or worse, olfactorily.

Do you listen to music in your studio?

No, but not because it is some matter of principle or anything. I just kind of got out of the habit years ago. There is always so much ambient noise that I don’t need music. One of the strangest things about the whole Covid-19 lockdown experience was how much quieter New York City became during those months, except for the constant drone of sirens in the distance.

What is the last gallery you visited?

I don’t remember what I saw before the lockdown… often gallery shows don’t make a strong impression on me. I do recall seeing a group exhibition at the Shed, which is more of an art center than a commercial gallery, in late January. It was about how individuals interact with technology, and it had a virtual reality headset and an immersive experience ride. It really struck me how different thinking about art is right now than my own thinking. Not better or worse, just different. This show was all about art as experience, or entertainment. It had more in common with a theme park than the still, contemplative air I associate with museums. But people were there and engaged. It’s just a different way of thinking.

Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?

I guess anyone I can think of can’t be that underrated, or I probably wouldn’t have heard of him or her.

What art materials can you not live without?

Paper? My brain? Pencil? My phone? I think the tools are the conduit, so if one falls away you just find another. That being said, there are certain tools I really like. Heavy, rough-textured watercolor paper and Hake brushes are high on my list these days.

Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?

Definitely not. But I certainly think, talk, and fret about it every day.

What is the longest time you went without creating art?

I have no idea. I like to work in different mediums so days, weeks, months might go by where I don’t paint or sculpt or make prints or, or, or…. And then there is the business of daily life and professional life to contend with, the boundaries of which are all very blurry for me. But I don’t think there is any time wasted. I believe whether in the front of the mind or the back, our brains keep turning the ideas that are important to us over and over, and eventually that comes out in the work.

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?

When I actually get to the studio, there is no time to contemplate my level of inspiration. Even if I’m in a weird mood, I’ll just do something, anything, and then I can analyze it and react to it another time.

What are the questions that drive your work?

How do we communicate and connect in a meaningful way with each other—with those who are close and those who are far? What’s the point? How do I go a little further than I did before and stretch myself a little more?

What is the most important quality in an artist?

Tenacity, bravery, and openness all spring to mind.

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?

There are so many things I have not achieved and don’t expect I will. I have in no way impacted the course of “Art” and do not expect to. I want to make my work and feel connected to at least some people sometimes. The process is the point.

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?

It’s tantalizing to have the world at you fingertips. And information travels so fast and often so seamlessly that we get exposed to all these things without real effort on our part. It’s quite amazing really. On the flip side, there is kind of a numbness that settles in, or at least I think it does for me. The bombardment of so many back-lit digital images, removed from the original, filtered through the screen and someone else, seems a pale imitation to physically standing in front of an object and seeing it through your own eyes at your own particular moment.


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