Artist Snapshot: Elizabeth Demaray

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

Artist Snapshot: Elizabeth Demaray
Elizabeth Demaray in front of Home Is Where the Plastic Eating Stomach Is, plastomach sculpture and installation on Governors Island, NY, 2019.

At what age did you decide to become an artist?

I didn’t actually start making art until my junior year in college. I took a ceramic sculpture class with Richard Shaw. At the time, my areas of study were cognitive psychology and neuroscience. One night when I was working late in the ceramics studio, I realized I was really happy with the sculpture I was making because it seemed to be both ugly and beautiful at the same time. I remember thinking, “How is it possible that something can be both ugly and beautiful?” I couldn’t believe that a visual medium could allow one to communicate contradiction. Needless to say, the ability of art to simultaneously convey contradictory information knocked my socks off, and I’ve never turned back.

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

Well, I was older, so I don’t actually remember anybody’s response. It was a difficult decision on my own part, though. I was working toward a degree in medicine. I remember feeling guilty because it seemed to me that as an artist, I wasn’t going to be trained in anything “useful.” I now understand that everybody can be useful, especially considering the challenges we are having to contend with.

Who are your favorite artists?

Hans Haacke, Marcel Broodthaers, Agnes Denes, Dieter Roth, David Ireland, Gillian Wearing, and Miranda July. I also love the work of Richard Shaw, H.C. Westermann, Enrique Chagoya, Jan Švankmajer, and David Altmejd.

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

Hugo Bastidas.

Art book you cannot live without?

Allan Kaprow’s Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life.

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?

Fearlessness and the ability to think outside the box.

Do you keep a sketchbook?

I do, but I don’t get nearly enough time with it!

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?

While it was open, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?

The David Ireland retrospective at the University Art Museum at UC Berkeley. I was in college, and it was the first time I ever remember deeply contemplating an abstract sculpture. Ireland exhibited cylindrical lumps of cement with a wire sticking out of the end of each. I couldn’t tell if they were poorly sculpted rats with wire for tails or some sort of giant joke cigars. The specificity and simultaneous unknowability of these impoverished objects seemed both humorous and saddening.

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

At this point in the history of the world, I would want to run for president or maybe become an epidemiologist.

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

I had a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts right out of grad school. My fellow artists were doing amazing work in performative and community art. While I was initially trained as a sculptor, these new perspectives helped me see my practice outside the context of a gallery.

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

I wish I had been exposed to the concept of working collaboratively. Community art-making is distributive and generative, and allows us to realize large or complex works. It is also a wonderful way of creating community and erasing the distinction between the maker and the viewer.

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

That’s a tough question! I’m going to have to go with a work of art that I actually spend time with. Every time I pass through Lincoln Square, even if I’m in a hurry, I spend at least a moment with Alexander Calder’s Le Guichet (The Ticket Window, 1963). This life-size sculpture is created from sheet-metal “cut-outs” and painted a monochromatic black. It’s freestanding and invites the viewer to walk around or through it.

The work also inhabits the absolute center of a breezeway leading to the entrance of the Library for the Performing Arts in New York City’s Lincoln Center complex. The structure is one of Calder’s lean-to-style “stabiles.” As a bit of background, the term stabile was coined by Jean Arp to differentiate Calder’s freestanding abstract sculptures from his hanging, freely moving “mobiles.” Calder explained the difference between stabiles and mobiles this way: “You have to walk around a stabile or through it — a mobile dances in front of you.” The generosity, grace, and humor of The Ticket Window never fails to impress me. The work almost teases you not to pass under its arches. The next time you’re in Lincoln Center, take a seat nearby and watch how every child that passes climbs on, under, and through this magnet of an artwork.

The piece has a cut-out “eye,” or, as the name implies, a “ticket window.” The porous, deftly defined perimeter of the structure is just big enough for two adults to stand shoulder to shoulder. Once “inside,” the viewer is invited (or should I say compelled) to look through the sculpture’s one porthole back out to the surrounding cityscape. Every time I stand under its arches and look through the framed window of this masterwork, I feel like I’m sharing a dialogue, maybe even an in-joke, with the artist. I feel like Calder is inviting me to view a theatrical happening that the two of us are sharing together. As I stand under his sculpture, I experience a moment of intimacy, across time, with the artist. He is inviting me to share his view with him. I can almost hear him whisper in my ear, “See with me now and be the audience in the theater of the world.”

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?

I love looking at doodles, illuminated manuscripts, old scientific illustrations, cookbooks, and anything that’s alive.

Do you listen to music in your studio?

Yes, jazz, blues, punk rock, and classical.

What is the last gallery you visited?

I really miss going to openings, so that’s a great quarantine question. It would be “Eve Sonneman: Navigation with Dreams” at the Nohra Haime Gallery.

Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?

Wow. I don’t even know where to start with the long, long list! Okay, people who you should go look at that I really like include Joan Linder, Jim Lee, Jon Cohrs, Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung, Paul Rene Johnson, Jane Philbrick, Nobuho Nagasawa, Ellen Levy, Mary Mattingly, and Aviva Rahmani. There are so many more artists that I would love to include! Go to the events page on my blog to see a fuller list.

What art materials can you not live without?

For the past ten years or so, I’ve been collaborating with plants. I knit sweaters for plants. I culture lichen on the sides of skyscrapers. I make robotic supports for potted houseplants.

These life forms can take in sunlight and produce chemical energy while making oxygen. No human is able to do this. Scientists say that we’ve only got three hundred more years of oxygen left on earth. However, we can potentially rectify this and climate change in general with the help of plants. Studies indicate that all we have to do to stop global warming is to have each person on earth plant six trees.

I’m actually creating a work right now that involves growing six Lombardy poplars on a bend in the river Seine in France. The piece is on a spot called Italian Beach. Only the oldest inhabitants of Marnay-sur-Seine, the tiny village nearby, know why this place has that name. It turns out that sixty years ago, there was a giant Lombardy poplar that grew on the river bank that was so tall it dominated the landscape. So, with the help of the community, I’m replanting this site with trees. The work is called The Namesake Project: Italian Beach on the Seine. My hope is that with the Namesake Project, others will be inspired to replant those places that bear the names of trees.

Do you create art every day?

Yes. I take a tiny bit of time every morning to work. I have a family and am in charge of two concentrations in art at Rutgers University, so I get up very early and use my time wisely. I’m glad that you asked about work time. Figuring out how and when to work is one of the superpowers of artists. We’re creative and we’re driven to work. So, we often come up with unusual strategies that allow us studio time, whether this is sketching on a subway train or making art in real time with collaborators.

What is the longest time you went without creating art?

In 2018, while installing The Namesake Project: Italian Beach on the Seine, my shoulder and left arm were crushed under the weight of a bronze breaker bar. The injury caused me to have shoulder replacement surgery. My guess is that it took about nine months before I could actually work in my studio again.

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?

I work anyway. I find that if I can just work, the inspiration will follow.

What are the questions that drive your work?

I’m interested in our cultural interactions with the natural world. My work also explores the nature of trans-species giving. This is the concept that the similarities between living organisms are such that we might be able to give another life form a hand up. In this vein, I program listening stations that play human music for birds, culture lichen on the sides of skyscrapers, and design alternative forms of housing for land hermit crabs.

What is the most important quality in an artist?

Perseverance.

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

The Manhattan Tundra Project. It proposes the creation of emergent ecosystems on the unused tops of modernist buildings. The first installation is slated to open on the roof of World Trade Center Building 7 in 2020.

The Manhattan Tundra Project aims to cover the unused areas on the tops of skyscrapers with six to eight inches of topsoil to support emergent ecosystems. This project also proposes to install webcams on these buildings so that people living and working in these spaces can log on and see what, or possibly who, is living on their rooftops. This is a work of generative art. The really exciting part is seeing what shows up of its own accord.

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

In this time of “great pause,” I am seeing a flourishing of creativity. People are responding to the pandemic in innovative ways. I am suddenly seeing all kinds of new models for cultural production. And I don’t just mean having conversations over Zoom, although that’s part of it. I’m thinking about dancers on TikTok and isolated musicians playing together on streaming platforms. My students, who are sharing their sculpture projects online, are even considering their work from new vantage points. I feel like this moment is forcing us, or should I say allowing us, to create new systems.

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