Frame 61

Elysia Byrd

Frame 61
Elysia Byrd

"I grew up with stories of all kinds; fairytales, stories invented by my dad and stories that hold truths behind fantasy. In some way I want my paintings to be like excerpts from a story....."

Could you tell us a bit about yourself. How long have you been a practising artist and where did you study?

I graduated from Wimbledon college of art from the BA painting course in 2013 and I've been building my practice ever since. I work a lot in opposites, escaping to and returning from places and my practice depends heavily on this. I grew up in South west London and I'm still based there. I've been lucky to have travelled extensively throughout my life. Last year I went to thirteen countries, including spending a month travelling around the south of Mexico with a friend. When I'm not travelling I'm thinking about escaping.

I've just come back from four months living in Leipzig, where I was on a residency at the Spinnerei. Living in a different city and making work with new people was such a re-invigorating experience, bringing an increase in clarity and rapidity to my practice. That was the second residency that I've done. The first was a month spent in the jungle in Alto Paraíso in Brazil which truly was perception altering. The area sits on the largest bed of quartz in the world and is studded with hundreds of waterfalls. It's one of the last remaining places on earth where they have completely pure water. You're in such close proximity to nature there that I saw plants that I never could have dreamt up; Plants that looked like they had fuschia Pom-Pom heads and those that looked like they had survived since pre-history.

Hanging Pods, 2015

Your work has a playful quality, with witches hats and strange beings. Could you tell us about your work and your process?

My work is based largely around notions of travel. How we collect our experiences of journeying and how we recount those stories of encounters. I grew up with stories of all kinds; fairytales, stories invented by my dad and stories that hold truths behind fantasy. In some way I want my paintings to be like excerpts from a story, that show snippets and moments, leaving many blanks for the audience to work through. I'm realising more that the things I'm interested in painting are subjects I've always been interested in. At the beginning of the idea it seems to have sourced from one thing, but the more I muse on it, I realise that there are so many more moments wrapped up in it. The witches hats, for example, were inspired by the ornate roofs of some of the buildings in Leipzig that I saw at the beginning of my residency. At the time I was really interested in how the west see indigenous ritual and witchcraft. Having been introduced to some ideas of modern day witchcraft in Mexico and then starting my residency in Germany, witches were very much on my mind.

I wanted to use such an overused motif (the witches hat) to explore the many layers that this motif can project. From a young age I have always been fascinated by witches and magic; my brother and I used to dress up as witches and make potions from all of the products in our bathroom cabinets and Ronald Dahl the witches gave my nightmares for years. So I think by working with this motif I was trying to access and simplify all these residual memories. The use of bright, saccharine colours within my work is an attempt to make the unknown less fearful. We are often scared of things we can't comprehend, or things that we find weird. I want to harness these strange moments. I use playfulness to break down things that seem exotic or dark in order to create spaces within which the viewer can wander and explore.

The monsters and strange beings in the paintings are a way of having figuration within the work without having figures. It's still drummed into me that if I'm painting a person then I'm painting some kind of portrait which isn't what I want. The figurative elements are anchoring points within otherwise largely abstract works. They're my language of motifs that I'm trying to build; to express ideas of places or memories of feelings of places and moments.

The Witch's Lagoon, 2016

Feet for dancing, 2016

What are have you seen recently that has resonated with you?

Being in Leipzig I saw lots of great paintings from the Leipzig school painters like Neo Rauch, Daniel Richter and Tilo Baumgartel. We went on a studio visit to Rayk Goetz who was based in the same building at the residency. His use of colour and balance between abstract points and more figurative elements is amazing. I also really got into Sebastian Burger's work when I was there. There was a great show byJakub Matuška aka Masker at Galerie Dukan. I spent a day by myself in Dresden and the ceramic gallery at The Zwinger Museum is sensational. They've displayed all the Chinese ceramics on small shelves mounted onto different coloured silk wallpapers. The Meissen ceramics are in a room which is how I would imagine an old Russian palace to be. I also particularly loved a ceramic teapot that showed waves and koi carp in 3-d. It got me thinking about ceramics again. Back in London I was so happy to see lots of Ansel Krut and older Ryan Moseley work at Painters Painters at Saatchi. I love the characters and the hidden layers of colour in Ryan Moseley's work and the humour in Ansel Krut. I also still keep thinking of the Jules de Balincourt show I saw last year when I'm thinking about colour.

Where has your work been headed more recently?

Recently I've been working on some quickly executed small paintings. The paintings are taken from rough snapshot drawings I've been making, things like a rock being hugged by two arms and the rock looks like it's being swallowed or squashed by the background itself. I'm working on the idea of the paintings being able to be rotated, that they could be hung multiple ways up. I started working with this idea a few months ago to see if I could make the paintings work without having one single viewpoint. I'm excited about the possibility that a work could seem like many different works at one time.

Tell us a bit about how you spend your day/ studio routine?

My studio is at Block 336 in Brixton (London) which is an artist-run space. They have a really interesting programme of exhibitions and events and they've just celebrated their 5 year anniversary. I had my first solo show in one of the gallery spaces there last May, Pods, Pom-poms and Other Souvenirs.

I've only just moved back in since being on my residency, so everything is looking quite neat and tidy. I normally work my studio into absolute chaos until I can't take it any more and go on a massive tidying spell. I work to music, usual heavy electronic music that weirdly really gets me into almost a meditative state. Sometimes when I need something a little softer I listen to Desert island discs and recently I've been listening to some Terrence McKenna lectures. His ideas about the ways to unlock creativity and language are really fascinating - very 'out there'! I share my space with another artist, which is great because you still get those moments of great conversation when you need them. The space is in a basement, but it's an old brutalist building, so it's got high ceilings and lots of interesting concrete features. Not having a window does send you a bit weird sometimes. The work can go in slightly subterranean directions and I know I've got to go for a walk and get some air. Being so close to Brixton is great though, just walking around for half an hour I'm filled with so much colour inspiration and the ideas are clearer again. Walking is very important for me, I can feel stuck easily so I need these break-away points. Drawing forms the basis for most of my work but I can't draw in silence. I need to be half distracted when I draw otherwise the drawings are too contrived. Rather horribly, I find it easiest to draw in front of the tv, so most of my drawing happens at home.

The Boy whose body turned into a fern, 2016

The girl whose hair petrified into a waterfall, 2016

Pods, Pom-Poms and Other Souvenirs exhibition, Block 336

Pods, Pom-Poms and Other Souvenirs exhibition, Block 336

How do you go about naming your work?

Titles are really important to my work. My titles are either very tautologous or a singular word, hardly anything in between. I always name my work after I've started a piece. I've never come up with a title before I've made the work because often the work changes so much throughout the process that I can't see the essence at the beginning. Often I don't know the title of a painting until I've finished it. I like writing lists and many titles are worked through different formations until the words feel right. Titles like 'The girl whose hair petrified into a waterfall' are reminiscent of a fairytale, fable or story and provide entry points into the work. The titles of my sculptural work are much more visceral. The Knobbly Stumps series for example, the name encapsulates their physicality.

Is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline that you'd like to tell us about?

I'm about to begin working on a commission for a couple based in New Zealand. They want a large botanical piece based on some other work I've made before, incorporating the colours of New Zealand light. It will be one of the biggest pieces I've worked on for a while and I'm really excited to get going on it.

I have been working with an interior designer on an exciting project creating iPad drawings that we're making into large prints for an apartment development in North London. I'm building up a side of my practice where I'm selling 'souvenirs' such as t shirts, cards and prints. I want to give people who can't necessarily afford to buy a painting but want to own a small piece an opportunity. Mostly I'll just be trying to get myself back into the rhythm of London a bit after spending quite a lot of last year abroad.

All images courtesy of the artist
Published date: 5/4/17