Summer… that feeling of simple, tranquil days, when you are taking your time; when you don’t have to wake up early in the morning, but you do so regardless, at sunrise, without any plans for the day ahead, but with a sense of wander; when you can find joy in the everyday and contemplate the unknown with the same enthusiasm. The very same feeling that I had one winter day when I discovered Elizabeth Mayville’s work: it was her series of paintings depicting women in striped t-shirts, with the back to the viewer or with the face not showing, and with the hair tied in a knot or ponytail. As soon as summer rolled in this month, I instinctively thought of Elizabeth’s calm and subtly beautiful paintings which render that same mood of endless summer. An interview with the artist herself soon followed, which gave me the chance and pleasure to find out the real inspiration behind her paintings that sparked that first interest in me, as well as the pros and cons of being an artist in Michigan (and what makes this place unique to live in) and why working with her hands feels like a true gift.
Where or how did you learn your craft? How early on did you know this was something you wanted to do as a profession?
I’m not sure when I first painted. Obviously, I did as a child, and then I remember making some truly awful paintings in high school art classes. I didn’t really study painting until my second year of college and it finally stuck. While at university, I sort of dreamily thought I would have a career in art, but didn’t really take the time to figure out what steps I needed to take to get there. It wasn’t until I had been out in the working world for over fives years that I decided to make a go of it. I realised that I wasn’t particularly good at or interested in anything else professionally.
What is the best part about working with your hands?
Creating something from nothing is a shock to the system nearly every time. It’s so exciting to be at the helm when a painting finally starts to come together. This is a bit of a cliché, but, in modern times, so many things feel synthetic and removed from us that it feels like a real gift to know how to make a thing that you can hold in your hands.
How would you describe and how did you develop your painting style? Who and what has influenced and inspired your work?
My style could best be described as quiet and calm. I never made strides to push my work in that direction, instead, like a lot of young artists I just mimicked the work I liked best and eventually I landed somewhere between my heroes and my basic ability. I love Fairfield Porter, Richard Diebenkorn, Helen Frankenthaler, William Bailey, and David Park.
What are the pros and cons of creating art in Michigan, as opposed to, for example, New York City, the hub of the artistic world? And how does the place you live in influence you artistically?
The biggest pro is that it’s relatively inexpensive to live here and I still have access to customers all over the world via the internet. The biggest con is that my natural inclination to be a bit isolated is totally reinforced here. I just bought a house on four acres of land and I can go days now with only seeing my husband and son, which is amazing, but I’m obviously missing out on culture, real-life art world connections, and the opportunity to see important pieces of art in person. But I do love the quiet and I think that comes through in my work. My aim is to continue living in Michigan, but to get my career to a point where I’m traveling to major cities a few times a year and soaking up all that I can while I’m there.
Many of your works are depictions of objects that convey the space and feeling of “home”, and that celebrate the everyday. Is this what your paintings are aiming to inspire?
Absolutely. I think there’s magic in many of the little bits that make up a day. It’s so easy to overlook it, but it makes an otherwise ordinary day worth experiencing.
You have a series of paintings portraying girls/women in striped t-shirts. They make me think of endless summer. What was the idea behind them?
I’ve loved Gerhard Richter’s painting “Betty” since the first time I saw an image of it. It’s a hyper-realistic depiction of his daughter with her back to the viewer. What I loved about that painting is that I have no idea what’s going on. I don’t know what this girl looks like, I don’t know what she’s doing and that makes the whole thing a bit of a beautiful and tranquil mystery. A lot of people buy my prints because they swear they look exactly like someone they know and I love that. I like that they’re open and straightforward at the same time.
I was reading somewhere that art is something about everyday life, about finding creativity in the ordinary. What makes something art?
To me, art is a human expression that strikes a cord with other people on multiple levels and involves some amount of skilled craftsmanship. That isn’t to say that something has to be shared and revered to be art, I think it just has to be capable of resonating with more than one person.
I believe that asking an artist details about his/her creative process is somehow irrelevant, but I would at least like to know where your creative process begins.
My creative process usually begins by going out in the world. Whether it be on a hike or in a museum or at dinner with friends, I usually get the first inkling of an idea outside of the studio. Then, when it’s studio time, I’ll start picking away at the idea with sketches or small gouache paintings. Sometimes it ends there or else it continues further into a large oil painting.
Do you consider the prints of your paintings also artworks in and of themselves?
I’ve never thought of it in that way before, but I suppose I do. I love the process of printing them, cutting them down and putting together the packaging. There is certainly the same level of care present in their creation as with the paintings.
Do you have a specific working atmosphere you like to surround yourself with when creating?
This is a tricky question to answer right now. I’ve just moved and my future studio off of our garage currently contains pool equipment and mousetraps, while my current studio is a spare bedroom with a folding table and all of my equipment spread out on the floor. Neither of these is my ideal working atmosphere. My goal for my future studio is a clean, light-filled space with different areas for different jobs (painting, computer work, packaging). But if that doesn’t work out, I’ve found that I’m pretty adaptable and can work just about anywhere.
Does objectivity in the art world exist? Isn’t the emotion the essence of looking at art?
I don’t think anyone can claim to be innately objective, but it’s certainly something one could work towards.
What has been your career highlight so far?
I’ve had a few proud moments, but, honestly, I’m still completely excited that painting is my job. The fact that I’m a professional painter is a highlight for me.
What does success mean, to you, in the artistic world?
I’m sure that it means a bunch of different things for each person invested in the artistic world. For me, at this moment, it means being able to continue to contribute financially to my family while making work in which I’m invested.
The best advice you have been given, career-wise.
I don’t know that anyone has boiled down their experience and given me a good quotable piece of advice, but what I’ve gathered from successful creative people is that you must go to your studio daily, work even if you don’t feel like it, be dependable and be kind.
One thing you can not start your day without:
Clean teeth and fresh clothes.
What does style mean to you? How would you describe your own personal style?
Style to me is the way in which the world is filtered through an individual. It’s some mixture of that person’s innate and honed skill along with the things they find important.
Where would we find you when not working?
Being a stay at home mom. Hiking with my son, demanding he pick up his toys, cooking dinner, etc.
What is your favourite thing to do in Michigan and which you would miss if you lived anywhere else in the world?
My favourite thing to do here is ride in a boat and go swimming in the middle of a lake. There are so many lakes here and I hope to soon be the owner and captain of my very own boat. I know there are lakes everywhere, but there are five literally within about a mile from my house. It’s fantastic.
Your favourite moment of the day:
I love waking up to the morning sun in summertime and climbing into bed at night in the winter.
photos: courtesy of Elizabeth Mayville