“It gave me something that was a little unbelievable, that I could believe in,” said Elana Schwartz in a phone interview from Albuquerque. It was a few days before she was headed up to Santa Fe to deliver her artwork, and we were just beginning to explore her mythological universe.
Elana has been building a pantheon of ethereal characters since just after she graduated high school. “I’d make these characters and these puppets, and I wanted them to come alive,” she said. In the BFA program at University of New Mexico, she started carving her deities from wood and forming tableaus that recounted entire fables. She graduated in 2012, and has maintained a studio practice that she likens to spiritual meditation. “Carving and making art is what brings me to the present,” she said. “That’s what I’ve discovered is my religion.”
With a process that blends art and craft—and incorporates myriad materials, including animals that the artist taxidermies herself—Elana was a perfect fit to join form & concept’s stable. “I’ve come to think that my work as a combination of sculpture and craft,” she said. “It’s kind of in between, because I really value and think about the process and the materials. I think about the concept too in the end, but the concept grows out of the process. So I consider myself a craftsman at this point.”
Several days later, the artist loaded her delicate creations into a Pensky truck and drove up I-25. Check out images from the installation below, along with excerpts from our interview. You can browse all of Elana’s work on her artist page.
How did growing up in Albuquerque influence your work?
I was very influenced growing up with all of the Native American culture, and retablos, and Catholic folk art. Those things really inspired me. I was always doing art, but I didn’t really consider myself an artist until after high school, which is kind of late.
This sounds kind of weird, but what really started me into making art was my obsession with the Puppet Master movies. I became fascinated with making characters come to life.
What appealed to you about creating your own characters and stories?
It gave me something that was a little unbelievable, that I could believe in. It was like my own religion, something to believe in that seemed a little magical. I’d make these characters and these puppets and I wanted them to come alive.
How did you start wood carving?
I got really into working with wood at UNM, when I took a class in sculpture with Steve Barry. He ended up being my art mentor. He was really harsh on everyone, and I loved it. I felt like a lot of other art teachers are just like, ‘That’s so great.’ Steve took it a lot more seriously, and he got me to take it a lot more seriously.
I did one project in wood, and fell in love with the process of reductive carving. I could create these allegorical and mythological creatures from solid blocks. I really liked the reductive process because you have to imagine what’s there and remove everything else around it.
Part of the reason your characters seem so vividly alive is because of the material. The wood has an inner glow to it.
I love working with wood because it has a history of its own. I’m creating this character and personality from what was already there, and just bringing it out of the wood. It really inspires me to create characters that have their own lives, their own histories, and their own futures that are separate from mine.
What does the beginning of your process look like?
I’ll get ideas and then do these preliminary sketches. With some of my smaller pieces, I create them from one block. For larger pieces, I have to puzzle things together. I’ll make the head and the body and the limbs, and I have to fit them together. I’ll clamp them into place and just keep whittling them down.
It sounds like your carving process is almost trance-like.
I’m not a specific religion, but carving and making art is what brings me to the present. That’s what I’ve discovered is my religion. It’s this meditative process for me.
I’ve actually gotten heat stroke a few times from being in my shop and not eating or drinking for long periods of time. I just lose track of everything. I kind of love that, though. It’s like yoga or meditation for someone else.
Is your process reflected at all in the finished sculptures?
In my work, I keep returning to these themes of transcendence, and meditative spirit, and a spiritual in-between space. The process of creating definitely shows up in the sculptures. I talk to the sculptures a lot as I’m creating them. Right when I make the eyes, that’s the moment where I’ll say, ‘Now you can see where you are in the world and develop your own identity.’
How did you and Frank select the first round of works that will appear at form & concept?
I’d like to think of them as all living in the same universe, on the same plane. I’m bringing up an eclectic lot.
What appealed to you about showing at form & concept?
All the work is very eclectic. It’s lots of different mediums, but they go together really well. I think my work fits in there perfectly, because it’s a completely different medium. It’s one of the few mediums that the gallery doesn’t have.
“I’ve come to think that my work is a combination of sculpture and craft. It’s kind of in between, because I really value and think about the process and the materials. I think about the concept too in the end, but the concept grows out of the process. So I consider myself a craftsman at this point.
We’re headed to Elana’s Albuquerque studio in March to create a studio visit video and learn more of the artist’s story. In the meantime, make sure to check out the artist’s work in our downstairs galleries or on our website.