Featured Artist Elise Schweitzer


Please can you tell us about your artistic practice?

I paint directly from life, and sometimes go to great lengths to set up my scene with my models outdoors. Although I have a studio, lately I’ve become more of a nomadic painter, keeping almost everything that I need in a van and setting up in temporary locations. My latest complete body of work, “Parachute Suite,” portrayed a allegorical crisis realized through multiple large-scale paintings. In this series I imagined what would happen if a skydiver crash-landed in a suburban backyard, and created tableaus to paint with models outside, with a variety of props like kiddie pools and lawn chairs, and an actual parachute that I bought off eBay. Each large painting is about 6ft x 9ft and took between 18 and 20 sessions to finish.

Large scale paintings seem to have their own weird logic. Although small sketches and drawings are part of my process, the final paintings grow very organically from a direct experience of the scene.

What art education have you received?

I studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which was a fantastic experience. PAFA has a joint program with the University of Pennsylvania, so I was able to take academic classes (from art history to linguistics and political science) and graduate with a BFA. I received a travel award in my last year at PAFA, so I spent the summer in Italy and Spain before heading to Indiana University in Bloomington for an MFA in painting.

Where do you see your work sitting in relation to figurative and abstract work?

Although I am a figurative painter, I am usually more anxious about the abstract realities of my paintings than the figurative realities. If I’m painting (and repainting) a figure, I’m often struggling with the relationships of shape and colour, how the figure fits against the background and contributes to the compositional linkages in the painting. The story arcs that grow out of my paintings (a skydiver crash landing in a back yard, people coming to pack away the parachute etc.) are in some ways expressions of abstract goals (diagonals converging, heavy shapes pressed down by grey light.)

Where were you born / brought up and how has this affected your painting?

I’m originally from St. Louis, Missouri, and although my parents are not painters, I grew up in a house full of artwork. When my dad was in grade school he had a summer job running errands for an artist named Fred Conway, who happened to be a professor of painting at Washington University. My dad became lifelong friends with Fred and his wife, and over the years collected dozens of oil paintings, watercolours and drawings. I’ve only realised in the last few years how unusual that was, to have these fantastic paintings all over the house.

Although I wasn’t at all conscious of it when I was kid, I think being immersed in paintings in such a direct way allowed me to imagine myself as a painter. Art wasn’t only something that existed in remote museum spaces, it also lived in paintings leaning against the wall and stacks of drawings in old suitcases.

What and whom are your influences.

In graduate school I studied with Eve Mansdorf, who’s a wonderful painter of large-scale figurative paintings and at PAFA I was strongly influenced by Scott Noel, who’s energy for painting seems to know no limits. This fall I curated a show of Scott’s large scale mythological paintings at the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum at Hollins University, and it’s be a real privilege to see so much of his work in one place.

Do you have any shows coming up?

Yes, I will have a show at the Liminal Gallery in Roanoke, Virginia in November.

How do you juggle life and painting?

Even before I started teaching full time, I noticed a rhythm in my painting, 6-9 months of small paintings and drawings, kicking around ideas, pushing paint around, and then a few months of sustained large-scale painting. I’m fortunate that my creative rhythm seems to fit well with an academic year. For the last few years I’ve spent the fall and spring semester making small things, preparing work for shows, traveling, and generally wool-gathering, then painting like a fiend in the summer.

Do you teach?

Yes, I am an assistant professor of painting at Hollins University, a small women’s college in southwestern Virginia.

Do you have a place you are trying to move towards in your work?

Last spring I closed the book on Parachute Suite, and this summer started some new projects. Hollins University has a fantastic equestrian program, so it’s a perfect opportunity to play with all the historical and aesthetic conventions of horses in painting. I’m still in the very beginning stages of this idea, so it’s vague and almost non-verbal, but the next body of work will be “something with horses!”

In practical terms, how do you organise your life? work / income / making work / creative projects, what is a usual day for you?

In 2010 I received an Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation grant, and I was able to take a break from teaching as an adjunct professor in Indianapolis and spend all my time in my studio. After a few months, I desperately missed talking to students. I realised this when I was in an art supply store and overheard some bewildered parents shopping for supplies, wondering what “gesso” was. I think I almost broke in to song-and-dance, I was so eager to explain to them about sizing and grounds. When the next adjunct teaching opportunity came up, I took it! Although finding a balance between teaching commitments and my own artwork can be a challenge, there’s no part of my job that I don’t really enjoy.

During the school year, a typical weekday involves teaching a painting or a drawing class, probably some service commitments like meetings or committee work, planning ahead (I’m taking a group of students to Rome in January, which is great fun to plan) and/or preparing for exhibitions. Making artwork happens on the weekends or on the odd afternoon that I have free. Once classes are out in the spring, I become an all-day-every-day studio artist. Since my income comes from teaching, I have the freedom to make unsellable paintings– paintings that are unreasonably large, or very strange in their subject matter.