Emma Elliott is a British artist and sculptor whose work explores the relationships between the refined and the primitive, the physical and the spiritual, the influences of our collective past on present behaviour. Read about her creative processes as she answers our WIA Q and A. But first, check out this film as she creates her latest work: Elephantom which you can see at on form this summer.
[featured image Emma Elliott by Nicolas Laborie]
WIA: What are you doing today?
Emma Elliott: I am at a marble carving studio in Pietrasanta until the end of the month. I am usually working from a studio in London but nothing beats choosing your own marble and working in a traditional stone yard surrounded by the most beautiful Italian landscape. I love returning to Italy where I was initially trained and lived for several years.
WIA: Tell us about your creative process.
EE: I usually start with a very rough sketch on paper which helps me decide on the best process and materials. I sometimes make a small maquette in clay, but I usually go straight into working to the final scale. When working with marble I make a prototype in clay that I cast in plaster before transferring the idea to stone. I also paint and often work with found objects. My work is very varied, so there are no set rules!
WIA: Describe where you do most of your creative work.
EE: Most of the actual work is done in my studio which is located in a converted garage. I am running out of space and my home has become an extension of my studio. In the summer the workable space spills over into the garden as well. I pick up ideas wherever I go and always carry my sketchbook with me. Quite often a new work is triggered by a very simple idea or thought but my work is usually rooted in a deeper context.
WIA: What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on?
EE: My project Reconciliation has been the most significant. There are just so many layers of serendipity that fed into the finished work and it took several years from inception to the launch exhibition in 2016. The initial trigger was a visit to Jerusalem that touched me deeply, both on a very personal level as my great grandfather is buried here, but also in a much broader sense. I could not shake off what I saw at the Holocaust museum, or my disbelief at the horrors humans are capable of inflicting on one another, and I just knew that I had to express my response somehow. Eventually I met an Auschwitz survivor who not only shared the incredible story of his survival with me but also allowed me to use his prisoner number on the resulting sculpture. Put very simply, Reconciliation symbolises an attempt at reconciliation between Christians and Jews by combining the wounds of two Jesus Christ and a concentration camp prisoner in one sculpture. I feel very honoured that the videos are now included in the visual library at the Yad Vashem, the very place at which this journey began.
WIA: What made you decide to become an artist?
EE: When I was a little girl I actually wanted to be an actress, but then I spent most of my free time at school in the art studios tinkering on work. I was inspired to make things there and I think that influenced my decision to become a visual artist.
WIA: What are you currently working on?
EE: I developed my current body of work in the course of last year and have returned to Italy to make two new works in marble and put the finishing touches on two others that will be shown as part of on form biennial this summer. They are my response to the many species of wild animals threatened with extinction at the hand of man. Since I started work on the series the last white rhino male died, leaving just two females, very sad news indeed.
WIA: Do you listen to music while you work, and if so, what’s your soundtrack?
EE: At the marble studio I wear industrial strength ear defenders and my studio back home is not set up very well for music either, so I generally work in silence. Music does play a role in my work though and I enjoy collaborating with sound artists and musicians for my videos. Caspar Leopard composed the ambient soundtrack for my latest project that documents the making of Elephantom.
WIA: What are the key themes in your work?
EE: Like many artists I am fascinated by the human condition and in particular the inherient contradictions of human behaviour, whether it be crimes committed in the name of religion or the exploitation of the animal kingdom.
WIA: What would you like people to notice in your work?
EE: I generally have an idea in mind that I want to get across, but I prefer my work to be the starting point of a wider discussion as everyone contributes their own personal experiences and responses. I love it when people see something in my work that I hadn’t consciously intended.
WIA: What attracts you to the mediums you work in?
EE: I love the physicality of my work and working in 3D feels more natural to me than painting. I also enjoy experimenting with organic materials. Clay in particular is a great medium because it is so tactile and pliable; you can build up, tear down and reuse it ad infinitum. I often spontaneously destroy a piece I have grown weary of, then mid-destruction something beautiful can happen and the work ends up hanging about. My current passion is marble and I particularly enjoy being part of an artist community in Pietrasanta..The studio is basically a marble scrap yard on the edge of the beautiful Tusan hills. Apart from the horrendous squat toilet, I am in heaven and inspired by the work ethic of the artigiani. The work is utterly exhausting and it’s not unusual for me to be sparked out and in bed by 8.30pm. No amount of coffee will keep this girl from sleeping after a day in these studios! A glass of wine in the piazza also probably helps.
WIA: What equipment could you not do without?
EE: When working in clay my favourite tool is a particular piece of found wood with edges that smoothed over time and that is just perfectly rounded on one side. Working in marble is a very different experience and I would be lost without a compressor!
WIA: Who or what inspires you?
EE: I initially trained as a painter and Jenny Saville was my favourite artist while I was at school. I also continue to be inspired by the classics and love visiting the V&A and British Museum to marvel at the workmanship and finesse – all without compressors! For my own work I mainly find my inspiration in everyday life and personal experiences. A situation I find myself in, a conversation, world affairs.
WIA: How does gender affect your work?
EE: I don’t consciously make gender a theme of my work but my thinking is obviously influenced by my experiences as a woman. Similarly I don’t set out to make political statements, but I don’t shy away from the reactions my works provoke and I enjoy the discussions that ensue. It was a personal highlight to be awarded the Freedom Ambassador prize at the 2015 Passion For Freedom Festival exhibition. The winning work was based on a personal experience and referenced a sculpture by Renato Bertelli of a spinning head of Mussolini; but neither reference or explanations offered were neccesary in order to understand the piece’s main message in favour of free speech and that the first victims of dictatorship are often women.
WIA: What’s your favourite gallery, or place to see or experience art?
EE: I now love London and the city’s huge diversity of museums and vibrant contemporary art scene all avalible at your finger tips. But when I left school and moved to Florence I thought I would never return to the UK. I had stepped back in time and immeresed myself in every aspect of Italian culture, an appreciation of art being very much part and parcel of that experience. My first trip to the Uffizi to see Botticelli’s Primavera and The Birth of Venus simply blew my mind, equally Michelangelo’s Slaves at the Acedamia. Years later I find myself back in Italy at Pietrasanta. Incomparable to Florence but beautiful and inspiring all the same, especially for sculptors. Every three months the town puts on new major sculpture exhibitions in the piazza and the Museo dei Bozzetti is well worth a visit. Back in London I find it hard to pick a favourite but I love having exciting spaces like Greengrassi and Gasworks on my doorstep.
WIA: If you could own one piece of art, what would it be and why?
EE: Any of the Renaissance greats mentioned above … but more realistically, I would love to own one of Alison Blickle‘s larger multi figured works. I have been a big fan since I discovered her work on a visit to New York a couple of years ago. I love the theatrical quality of her work and how she celebrates the feminine. I also enjoy the way she plays with dimensions, staging paintings and sculptures alongside each other.
WIA: If you could collaborate with one artist, from any time, who would it be, and why?
EE: I can’t escape Michelangelo at the moment whose spirit lives on in Pietrasanta. Back in the real world I will be collaborating with Ian Wolter on a large scale sculptural project later this year – I can’t reveal any more details at this stage but watch this space …
WIA: Is there an artist, movement or collective you’d like to see re-evaluated, or a contemporary artist who is underrated?
EE: Staying on the Renaissance theme, it is of course shocking that women artists barely existed then. It would be wonderful to travel back in time and rewrite history from a female perspective.
WIA: What’s your favourite colour?
EE: I can’t divert from my standard childhood responce: blue.
Recognition of Elliott’s work includes the Winter Pride 2014 and Passion for Freedom 2015 awards, and her work is held in a number of prestigious public and private collections. Elephantom will be exhibited at on form this summer.
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