Interview with Elizabeth Jordan, by Jennifer Palmer
Published: Vol. I, Issue II
Date of Interview: Mar. 9th, 2015
I wanted to start by asking you about your experience at the Penland School of Crafts, and how that shaped you as an artist.
Lithography and printmaking were my primary mediums in those days, so I took a lithography class with the artist Melinda Beeman at Penland. It’s a beautiful place nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. One of the things I loved about lithography was the sensation of drawing on limestone. Because of the nature of grease pencil on the stone surface, it feels very tactile and expressive. My imagery consisted of animals, fish, and birds, which is not that much different from what I do today. It was also interesting to watch other craftspeople at work, doing everything from glassblowing to furniture design. You are really exposed to serious, personal dedication at Penland.
I noticed that you have lived in different parts of the country. Does location influence your artwork?
Going from growing up in New Jersey to moving to New Mexico was like entering another world. The mountains and deserts changed color all day long, and culturally, it was the Wild West. I attended the Tamarind School of Lithography in Albuquerque, then got a job as a fine art printer in Tampa, Florida. It was interesting going from an arid desert to an extremely humid jungle. I was taken by the amount of birds in Florida, and loved being near the Gulf of Mexico. I ended up going to graduate school in Tampa and was lucky to meet a lot of great artists there. After graduate school we moved to New York City, and have been here for thirty years. There’s no shortage of intensity, energy, and variety of people. It’s possible to get a lot of ideas from that energy, and the streets can be a source of found materials too.
What advice would you give artists starting out?
My advice is don’t just live the lifestyle, do the work. Ultimately it’s the experience of hard work that’s the most enjoyable and worthwhile reason to be an artist. Putting time into the craft of making something will reward you with a piece that can stand on its own.
Your work has such a focus and power by the choice of medium. How do you choose what materials to use?
At times it just makes sense to use a specific material, it’s a matter of trusting one’s intuition, and some seem to have the potential to really change the way you see things. I like to be open to materials that are unexpected and untraditional, like the thick wires I found cut from a telephone pole. Frequently, I start a piece with wire mesh or chicken wire because that helps to visualize it three-dimensionally. When I use tree branches, I’m looking for a gestural resemblance to legs, wings, or paws. Clay, joint compound, or paper clay make a skin-like surface that can be painted. All of these together build up a history and patina unique to each work.
Do you like to collect anything? And if so do you have a favorite place to collect things?
I collect a variety of natural things, from bird’s nests to turtle shells, which usually come from the beach or woods. When in the city, I collect things that people have lost or thrown away, like army men, jewelry, and handwritten notes. I keep my eyes to the ground whenever I’m walking outside.
How does nature play a role in your work?
Years ago an esoteric consultant summed up my experience as being “of the earth.” I think that’s true of my personality and my work, and because they’re both so connected, the natural world is a starting point of ideas. Nature has taught me that there isn’t any sentimentality about life and death in that world—life is temporal and very fragile. I’m trying to make pieces that are about that ephemeral place where something can be both vulnerable and powerful.
I am really drawn to your series The Lives of Birds. How did this series influence your future work?
The Lives of Birds is a work that began by making birds at the end of a workday, when I had a few leftover materials and a little time left. Because the process has infinite permutations, I feel I can mine this subject indefinitely. It also is a series that can be assembled as an installation, which is a means for me to work a little bigger and with more complexity—it seems to gain strength in numbers. Creating the birds opened me up to the idea of combining many materials in one object, and how that made each object quirky and unique. Most of the work I’m doing today evolved from seeking the gestural quality of wood and combining it with multiple materials.
Who has influenced you as an artist?
I’ve had so many great art teachers and known a lot of artists over the years that no single person stands out. In many different ways, they’ve all contributed to my experience. I can honestly say that I love art from the Dada period and enjoy Outsider Art very much.
What is your most important artist’s tool?
A knife that’s capable of whittling.
What is one item you could not work without in your studio?
Could you describe your artistic process?
It’s a strange thing to say but I try not to overthink things too much, preferring to just go into my studio and start, and then keep going until I have to stop. At the same time there’s a running dialogue going on in my head, although it’s often about anything but art. I just try to keep the process intuitive rather than idea-driven.
While there are times that I have specific intentions and goals, my favorite days are when I go into the studio and start something totally unexpected and unplanned. It’s rewarding to pick up a piece of wire and see how it could be made into something new. Trying to make something out of nothing is a mystery that I’m very interested in.
How has your practice changed over time?
I think I’m a lot more patient these days, because I do a lot of repetitive tasks. Those tasks can have a calming effect because you’re just doing the same process over and over. They give me a lot of time to think things over. I also make a lot of prototypes of objects, referring to them as three-dimensional sketches. It’s a way to try out ideas and see where they lead. I have a lot of sample objects lying around the studio that may or may not end up in a formal, finished work. I consider those my sketches.
What is your workspace/studio like?
My studio is a parlor in a brownstone-style building, with a non-working fireplace and great windows. I’ve been here for just a year after working for 20 years in a loft space, so it’s still an adjustment being here. There are some practical issues with the space that I’m trying to work around, but it’s slowly feeling more and more comfortable. Once it turns into a big, messy pile of disorder I’ll be satisfied.
The artist’s workspace.
If there was one thing you wanted people to know about your work, what would it be?
I would ask the viewer to invest some time to really look at each piece, because my work isn’t beautiful in a traditional sense. It has its own unique beauty, which may seem dark, but it isn’t without humor. It would be my wish that people would listen to my work, because it whispers rather than shouts.
What project or projects are you currently working on?
I have three projects in the works. Bones and teeth reoccur often as a theme, so one piece is a series of bones made from clay that will be embedded into a chunk of wood. There is also a wire piece that’s reminiscent of barbed wire; it has a series of wire dragonflies attached. The idea came from something I saw—about 50 dragonflies all resting on a clothesline. I continue to make different animals, and currently have the understructure of a wolf laying on its side. It will be attached in an eccentric fashion to a wooden base that resembles a shipping pallet. In pieces such as this, the base and the animal are all part of the work. These are all works begun in 2015, none have titles as of yet, and all range in size from 12" x 20" to 24" x 36". The materials so far consist of claystone, chicken wire, wood, hangers, and wire.
Whose work interests you right now? And what artists/poets/presses/galleries put out work that you find exciting?
There are a number of artists whose work I like to seek out: Louise Kruger, Petah Coyne, and Phoebe Washburn are a few artists I admire. I enjoy also seeing works by unknown artists in group shows.
Where do you see American sculpture/painting/drawing/photography headed right now?
American art is headed in so many directions that I wouldn’t venture a guess. I’m just hoping that eventually the cream will rise to the top.