Like the artists of Marvel Comics and DC, Albuquerque sculptor Elana Schwartz is a universe builder. Just after high school, she started creating whimsical characters by tearing apart stuffed animals and stitching them back together. She picked up wood carving at the University of New Mexico, and the material brought her characters to life in a new way. Suddenly, complete story arcs were forming around the figures that she carved. Inspired by the mythologies of cultures from around the world, she envisioned her characters as a pantheon of fantastical deities.
Schwartz’s colorful characters will be in good company at form & concept’s Superhero Masquerade: One-Year Anniversary Celebration this Friday. At the special event, we’re challenging visitors to dress like superheroes for the chance to win special prizes and partake in a VIP breakfast cereal bar. Read our interview with Elana below, and come meet her at the Superhero Masquerade on Friday, May 26, 5-8 pm. She’ll present new artwork in our One-Year Anniversary Exhibition, which debuts at the party.
Tell us about growing up in Albuquerque, and how you were influenced by the confluence of cultures here.
Growing up in New Mexico, I learned a lot about Native American and Hispanic Catholic cultures. The anthropomorphic, human-animal deities of Native American cultures and the retablos and scenes from Christian and Catholic religion have informed my work. I also am inspired by the Hindu and Buddhist religions.
Why is religious iconography so inspiring to you?
The gods and deities imbue so much meaning into these pictures or sculptures. Someone’s feelings can be so affected by just being near that sculpture or picture. I was inspired because I wanted to make something that could have a fraction of that impact on someone that’s looking at it.
When did you decide you wanted to be an artist?
I didn’t even know I wanted to be a fine artist until after high school. I was always into art and creating. I would sketch and make things in clay, but I didn’t know I wanted to be an artist until I started creating dolls and puppets after high school. I actually went to college for psychology, and decided to switch to fine art because I spent all my time making art instead of studying.
Tell us about those early characters you were creating.
Right after high school I started making little creatures out of just about anything. I would go to the thrift store and buy stuffed animals and cut them up. I’d use fur and Sculpey and wire. I was really into making specific characters come alive. That’s what inspired me to start making art in the first place, this idea of creating another life.
When did wood carving enter into your artistic practice?
I went to UNM for my last few years of college, and I did a sculpture class with my professor Steve Barry. We could use whatever materials we wanted for this project, which was supposed to be a narrative. I decided to use wood, and created a little man on a whale. That was my first wood piece.
I just loved the process of reductive carving. It’s such a meditative process, because you have to keep cutting in until your figure starts to show in the wood. To me, that just became an addictive thing.
So even in that very first project, you were able to envision a form within the block?
Yes. When I see a block of of wood I know what I want to create. I can see a figure or a gesture in the wood, and then I just carve away the other parts of the wood.
What’s your favorite thing about wood as an artistic medium?
I love working with wood because it’s a natural material. I love creating something so that in the last phase, you can really see the wood grain come out. I’m taking something that already has a life and spirit of its own, and creating something else from it. It’s like I’m transferring the energy that’s already there.
Lately, you’ve been incorporating different kinds of wood, inlaid stones and event taxidermy animals into your sculptures. Tell us about the array of materials you’re using.
I started working with wood, but I wanted to incorporate different mediums. It adds a little more interest to me. For example, I like adding pops of color using gems and minerals.
It happens to be that I love doing taxidermy, and taxidermy goes really well with wood. Those things both happen to go really well with inlay, and different kinds of wood, and crushed turquoise and gems. I put them all together to create my new style.
You dream up complex mythologies for your characters. How did that element of your work develop?
I got really into creating these universes where my characters were interacting with each other on different levels. They deal with deep moral and universal issues that everyone can relate to.
Do they all exist in the same universe, or are they involved in different stories?
I would like to think of all my creations as existing on the same pantheon of gods and deities and characters that interact in that world.
How does that inform your own sense of spirituality?
I wasn’t raised religious and I don’t consider myself to be a specific religion. However, I do find peace of mind in creating my work. I’ve come to the conclusion that creating art has become a religion for me.
When your sculptures are together in a room, it’s almost like they’re onstage. Does that resonate with you?
Definitely. I like them to look like they’re in the middle of a great scene. Maybe the final scene of an opera. This is the most dramatic moment of their lives.
Do you ever wish you could slip through the veil and exist in this world?
Absolutely. I often wish that I could be part of this reality that I’m creating. But I have to exist in this world in order to create the other world, unfortunately.
How do viewers react to the storytelling element of the work?
A lot of people ask me detailed questions about the mythology. But you know, I make my mythology pretty vague for a reason. I want people to create their own histories and mythologies with the piece that they interact with and are attracted to. I’d like for them to be able build from mine. People that see them can add to and change that history. I like to hear other people’s interpretations of the work.
I create these characters and put them into the world. From there, they kind of fly free. They create their own destinies and tell their own stories that are apart from me. There’s nothing I want to do to get in the way of that.