Elizabeth Sullivan’s paintings are a playful investigation of paint application and an exploration of colour, composition and space. Energy and movement are important in her work as she strives to create paintings with visual contradiction while incorporating moments of recognition. She dissects and reassembles found imagery from surrounding landscapes, art history, visual culture and uses these cues to inspire an unexpected collection of paint and mark making.
Elizabeth works as a forest fire-fighter during the summer months and spends the rest of her time making art. She grew up in Ennismore, Ontario and in 2012 she earned her BA from the School of Fine Arts and Music at the University of Guelph, specializing in painting. Her work has been shown in Peterborough, Waterloo and Guelph.
Christina: You graduated from the University of Guelph in 2012 and now almost four years later, you haven’t stopped pursuing and perfecting your painting. Where did you start when you left school and thought “I want to keep making art”?
Elizabeth: I went to India with my sister for a couple months as soon as I finished and that was a great break from everything. When my season of fire-fighting up north was finished in September, I wanted to make a fresh start to “making art out of school” so Kate Szabo, Nick Silvani and I moved to Montreal.
There we shared an apartment, were able to attend the many art gallery openings, artist talks, we became members of an artist run center and had our own studios and work time. Montreal is full of a really artistic lively vibe that is very nurturing and supportive for young artists.
Christina: Why did you choose Montreal for that over Toronto?
Elizabeth: We were given to understand that Montreal is a more supportive community for emerging artists. Rent was much more affordable and so renting a studio as well as an apartment was much more feasible. There also seemed to be more experimental work going on. People in Montreal embrace the arts and culture more than you typically see in Toronto. In the business section people were still aware of a big art show going on, or a street installation. It didn’t seem as separated. Art had infiltrated the city, through murals, projections, music festivals in the winter, so there were more opportunities.
When my lease was up it was time to head back to work as a forest fire fighter, which meant moving back to Ontario. Kate stayed in Montreal though and loved it very very much.
Christina: Does your work fighting forest fires find its way into your paintings?
Elizabeth: I think it has indirectly. My abstract paintings have a lot of energy to them, and a vast space surrounding them. I think being in remote Canadian wilderness and experiencing this natural energy exploding and tearing through the landscape has influenced them. But when I choose the actual elements I am layering, I focus more on texture and textiles, or patterns rather than images from up North.
Christina: I can really see that. “Overcome” for example, has a lot of fire and water in it, and yet, when you look closely, it’s made up of these delicate lacy moments, and even a bit that reminds me of the orange fencing sometimes seen around construction areas.
Elizabeth: Yes, I am often drawn to include contrasting moment, organic and geometric forms. I definitely referenced a snow fence; I thought it was funny placing it there as if it was attempting to hold back all this movement.
Christina: Just a small hint of it, with no real hope of ever containing the explosion.
Elizabeth: That’s it! I see it as a bit of a “Don’t just get lost here; pay attention to the shapes” message since this painting has a lot of abstract elements to it.
Christina: If anything, it seems to make the explosive aspect stand out more.
Elizabeth: I’m glad it reads as that, and you are able to pause a moment to look. Layering details are in abundance in my paintings. I want to encourage an examination of the relationship between the finer detailed marks and the more gestural marks. I’m always hoping that perhaps there can be a “Whoaaa, there is more than I originally thought was here!” moment for the viewer.
Christina: It definitely does read that way. I see the topographical map references and Star chart elements to work similarly in “Enthralled” all while the geometric elements encourage you to step into the painting.
Elizabeth: I definitely like to have those moments of recognition in theses paintings juxtaposed to more painterly moments. I guess I do it with the hope that the viewer will understand these are visual aspects of our contemporary culture taken out of their context and placed in this new environment where they are introduced and relating with more painterly, abstract moments.
For example, I think it’s interesting to take recognizable patterns like leopard print or zebra and collage them into this shmorgase-board of paint to see if ideas around the lines of topographical maps might be altered or looked at in a different artistic way.
Christina: Speaking of culture, as a Canadian painter, who purposely or not, seems to be incorporating aspects of the Canadian North into her work, how conscious are you of your work’s relationship to the Group of 7?
Elizabeth: I recently went to the AGO and one of my favorite areas to see is the Group of 7 rooms. I love to closely inspect how they created these paintings and their interpretation of the colour they saw in the Canadian landscape. There is one, where the snow is lavender! Which totally works in the painting. So their colour and how it was used to create an emotionally charged landscapes, keeps bringing me back to inspect those rooms. Yet, I don’t intentionally think of the Gof7 and its relationship to what I am doing; I appreciate how they capture light and colour of the landscape but that’s about it.
Christina: I guess for me, it ultimately comes down to the fact that we never can create in a vacuum, and since we are canadian, the Group of 7 will follow us around whether we want it to or not. I think it’s fascinating that your work can relate to/reference it, without seeming like it’s trying to BE it. It’s more like a nod to history in my mind.
Elizabeth: Yes, that is something I was thinking about when I made some of these paintings: That nothing is new. Everything you do is recycled or appropriated somehow. In some cases I have even gone so far as re-creating brush strokes I have seen in other paintings, or copying techniques other artists have used and then combining them all together.
Christina: And that just answers my next question which was “Would you consider your paintings to be a sort of painting collage?”
Elizabeth: I am still trying to figure out what these abstracts are about, but I think this combination of collaging, appropriation, stamps, gestural marks genuine to the artist’s hand, and juxtaposing them against each other is a core interest of mine and part of what drives to make them.
Lately I have been experimenting with including different mediums such as: wax crayons, oil pastel, pigment, pencil crayon, etc. I even used a match and burned the surface of one of them! I like extending the collaged subject matter to the material.
I am hoping to start a new series this summer that will have more reference to forest fires. Charred bark textures, scorched moss, is this beautiful orange and reminds me of the coral reef, so I definitely want to incorporate moments like those, while having the atmosphere and sublime of the wilderness.
Christina: So why do you paint on wood panels rather than canvas?
Elizabeth: Originally, I was drawn to them for the texture. I liked the contrast between the paint and the wood. But as I continued to work and my interest in depth and space grew, I found it more difficult to really have that depth on the wood panel. In Overcome and Enthralled, I realized that. So I began painting the whole background, Excess and Nest have the wood peak out from behind the paint as if it were a painted mark. Also, its much more conducive for multi-media. I use an iron at times and making the painting can get quite aggressive, so the wood panel is hardier. With the most recent, Above and After the Storm, I took it as a challenge to create more depth still having the wood show through.
Christina: I love the idea of art as a constant challenge to yourself.
Elizabeth: It’s exciting to have a new challenge! Something to explore and experiment with.
Christina: So what challenges have you faced in coming back to Ontario?
Elizabeth: I think breaking into the art scene, though that is a challenge wherever you go. Finding opportunities for emerging painters to show their work is a challenge as well. I’m in Peterborough, so the scene is a wee bit smaller than Toronto. I was able to participate in Peterborough Artsweek, just this past September and it was so fun! I made a 12 ft x 6 ft site specific painting for a window downtown.
I am also constantly looking for call for submissions and opportunities to show. I’ve actually started an annual pop up gallery at friends house in Peterborough. We clear out the bottom floor of her house, I buy wine, make invitations and organize live music and for one weekend I have a little gallery in Peterborough where my most recent work is on display. It’s a growing success and we just celebrated our 4th year this past December.
Christina: Do you have any key artist influences in your life right now?
Elizabeth: Melanie Authier, is a huge influence! I love how she is able to create an alternate environment with so much atmosphere.
Christina: Oh wow, her work is gorgeous! I can definitely see the connection there.
Elizabeth: Turner has always been a big influence as well. The darkness and light in his paintings are incredible! Again, I am a sucker for the atmosphere and movement in his work as well
Christina: So what value do you place on your community/fellow artists in terms of support/motivation/promotion etc?
Elizabeth: It is a huge importance! For me it is so valuable to have a group of artists that you can discuss work with, experience galleries together, or bounce ideas off of. It’s very comforting to know you are not alone in this crazy endeavor to follow your passion and create, even though it might not be the most financially stable career path. I try to visit Toronto often; A group of friends have a live/work studio space and it is so inspiring and motivating to go and see what everyone is working on.
Christina: I’d like to follow up on that remark about the artist path not being the most financially stable. Canada doesn’t seem to have the same type of celebrity artists as Europe and the US has, even our well-established professors spend a large part of their time teaching in order to provide for themselves and fund their work. Do you have any advice for emerging artists who are worried that their work-life will take over their time and space for art?
Elizabeth: I am very lucky to have a job that is seasonal, which allows me the time to create work. Looking at my friends as alternative examples, I would say you just need a lot of drive! If you are committed to making work it will happen, even if you have to work a full time job. A lot of those guys in Toronto have full time jobs and still manage to make time. Looking into bursaries or affiliating yourself with the city or larger companies to make murals, or installations might be an option.
View more of Elizabeth’s art at elizabethsullivan.ca and go ahead and share this post with any artists or art lovers you know!