Friday Focus: Liz Elton
Liz Elton trained at Wimbledon College of Art (BA in Fine Art, Painting) and Chelsea College of Art and Design (MA in Fine Art). She is the recipient of a Mark Rothko Memorial Trust Artist in Residence Award, Daugavpils, Latvia, has been shortlisted for the John Moores Painting Prize three times and her work was awarded special commendation in Dentons Art Prize 2018. In 2020 she was awarded second place in the Sustainability Art Prize, and she was shortlisted again in 2021.
Liz takes inspiration from landscape and still-life painting to explore the potential of waste and the recycling of matter. Her fragile ephemeral works address environmental issues, such as the connection between soil health and food or how ecological thinking might shift over time. Often made on compostable grounds, coloured with water miscible oils and vegetable dyes made from waste, and embedded with seeds, they evoke considerations of land, digestion, waste and recovery. Spilling off the wall, they have been shown both inside and out, in galleries, gardens and fields. Liz makes editioned prints of her large works, and in 2020 lockdown, away from the studio, she began a series of images of her compost bin referencing historical still-life painting.
Her installations, paintings, prints and photographs have been shown widely, and her work is included in
private collections in the UK and internationally. She lives and works in London.
Can you tell me about your practice? How do you get started on a piece of work?
I’m inspired by the materials I use, by their beauty and transparency and by the meaning I see embedded in them. Some of my works have begun simply by putting pieces of material together in the studio and seeing how they interact with the light. But frequently ideas are triggered by making connections between texts I’ve read or talks I’ve attended or by a particular place, and a narrative might then begin to build within the work.
I like the immediacy of watercolour and usually start by making little sketches. I often look at images of the landscape from above as a way of thinking about a particular place. My work ‘Hill’ (shown at 163 Gallery in Herne Hill in 2019) began by looking at a Google Earth image of the pattern of gardens in Herne Hill, the area in which Victorian art critic John Ruskin spent much of his life. I wanted to think about how the area had changed in the 200 years since his birth, and how it might continue to alter.
Who or what are your biggest influences?
My father was a science teacher, fascinated by how things work and the forces around us. My mother loved painting and used to take me to galleries and show me paintings in books and we used to paint together. I guess that all collides. I made a long list of artists as an answer to this question, but I’ll just mention Michael Landy’s ‘Break Down’ which had a huge impact on me when I saw it in 2001.
Environmental issues inform the context and materiality of your work. Could you talk further
I’m drawn to waste as my background was one where nothing was wasted so everything seemed to hold potential. I’ve also always been interested in a position at the edge of things, and by the process of disintegration that breaches those edges and opens up the possibility of change. I make work that spills off the wall and out of the frame so naturally engages with everyday concerns including the environmental.
My practice reflects my personal interests, the things that are close to my heart and home - food, cooking, the miraculous working of a compost bin, but at the same time I think alot about food waste, one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, or the way in which our thinking about ecology might shift.
‘100 Harvests’ (a work I showed in the John Moores in 2018) began with a Paul Klee watercolour that I had seen years before in the Hayward show ‘The Nature of Creation’. My work referenced a newspaper article that discussed soil exhaustion and the possibility that our farmland might only support a further hundred harvests. I wanted the work to connect specific issues, but also be beautiful. In a still gallery it moved gently as the air moved around it, so appeared to be breathing. I think a gently moving work can provide a contemplative space, room to be still.
How important is the choice of material in relation to realizing the concept of your work?
My materials are very slight; thin layers of watery paint, fine silk thread and seeds. The compostable cornstarch I’ve been using to make large work is made from crops such as corn or potatoes and designed to throw away food in the form of food waste recycling bags, so I think it embodies contradiction as well as an intention not to last, a sense of wanting to disappear. I’m drawn to it’s transparency and interaction with air movement and light. I colour it with water miscible paints and with vegetable dyes I make from kitchen waste and I sew it together with silk. So the materials I use seem to me to be loaded with meaning, but they’re also quite beautiful so invite people to spend time with them, and I think that creates space to consider the narratives in the work. Seeds point to the future, compost seems to me to be full of hope and possibility. Waste goes in the compost bin and sweet smelling crumbly compost emerges, ready to grow vegetables.
What is your most important tool? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio?
Four metres of wall space and quiet time. Actual tools include some beautiful big paint brushes and plenty of clips for quickly hanging work so I can sketch out ideas in the air.
Can you give us a book recommendation that has been important in your practice? And tell us why it’s important.
Finally, is there anything new coming up that you would like to tell us about?
I’m looking forward to a Mark Rothko Memorial Trust residency in Daugavpils, Latvia next year which has been postponed over lockdown, and I’m also going to be showing some work in the Outer Hebrides. I have some new work in ’SUPERNATURE’ at White Conduit Projects which runs until January. Earlier this year I did a digital workshop called ‘Armchair Traveller’ for a fantastic arts and mental health charity called Hospital Rooms (viewable on their YouTube channel) and also took part in their fundraising auction at Hauser & Wirth. The work they do is amazing and I’m really hoping I’ll have a chance to work with them again in the future.
Image Order: Credit to Artist
‘Tender’ Compostable Cornstarch, Vegetable Dyes from Food Waste, Food Colouring, Food
Supplements, Water Miscible Oil, Silk Thread, Seeds of Native Medicinal Plants, 295x295cm. Shown in
John Moores 2020
‘100 Harvests’ Water Miscible Oil on 100 Compostable Cornstarch Food Recycling Bags, Dimensions
Variable (approximately 300x364cm). Shown in John Mooores 2018.
‘Compost Bin Image 33, Mixing Greens and Browns’, Archival Quality Pigment Print on Hahnemuhle
Photo Rag, 14.5x19cm
‘Hill’ Compostable Cornstarch, Vegetable Dyes from Food Waste, Food Colouring, Food Supplements,
Water Miscible Oil, Silk Thread, Seeds of Native Medicinal Plants, Dimensions Variable (approximately
350 x 500 cm)
‘After Image, Harvest’, Archival Quality Pigment Print on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag, Edition of 10 (Image
of Original Work ‘Harvest’ 250cmx400cm, Compostable Cornstarch, Vegetable Dyes from Kitchen Waste,
Food Colouring, Silk)