Interview with Elaina Swanson

Elaina Swanson is an artist working in the Sacramento area with a passion for sincerity and awkward phases. Her work typically is a blend of the kitsch, the girlish, art history, and high church motifs in an effort to form romantic relationships that are complicated and multi-faced.  

AA: So, I hear you're an artist. What is your first childhood memory involving art? 

ES: I remember always spending any free time in preschool digging through craft boxes of felt, cloth, and construction paper. I don't remember exactly when I started to sit down and try to draw because it feels like something I just always did

AA: Your color palette is playful and reminiscent of a 90's toy commercial- Barbie pink with accents of fun gold sparkles. What initially drew you to this palette? 

ES: I’m so glad you noticed! That aesthetic is actually really important to me. For me, this palette is indicative of naivete, innocence, sincerity, and vulnerability because of their heavy association with girlhood (specifically my own in the 90’s). I use this palette to frame all of my work in a perspective of girlhood while thinking about my subjects and themes. There is something really important to me about taking something with a low-brow or kitsch reputation to talk about serious ideas and questions. I don’t use this pallet to be ironic at all, I use it earnestly and with much love.  

AA: What role does romance play in your work? 

ES: Romance has become a really important and integral part of my work because it is something I have never actually experienced first hand but it has been a presence in almost all of the media I’ve ever consumed. The romance narrative is what we tell little girls about, and even though there is something strange and dangerous about this practice I have found that it is important to me. I would even venture to call romance my muse, as well as fantasy. I find myself gazing at romance. Romance feels so familiar and foreign to me at once, so I try to solve it and explore it the best I can while removed. Being a young woman, it’s easy to always think of myself in reference to my romantic experiences and feelings even though they are almost exclusively self-driven.  

AA: In addition to paint, you incorporate the use of found objects and elements of collage in your work. How do you choose which objects to include in a piece? 

ES: I’m still trying to figure that out myself…. I apprenticed under the very talented artist Barry Krammes who is an assemblage artist that creates what are essentially narrative tableaus and narratives using assembled objects and such, and his work and process influenced me greatly. For some reason, I always gravitate towards objects while working, something that has actually existed in this world and had a life aside from being an image on a wall. Sometimes they’re antique objects, and sometimes they’re little girls toys from the last ten years. I just love being able to mash up such seemingly different things from different places and times to say something that is coming from my individual perspective. 

AA: What does your process entail? 

ES: Layers. Layers and layers. I’m a very tactile person, and so I always want my work to have a very physical, bodily presence. A lot of times there will be at least two or three almost finished works under the one you can see. I act on a surface towards a thought until I feel I’ve reached some sort of natural pause and consider the work for a while and sometimes I even consider it finished (it never is). I almost inevitably come back either unsatisfied or with a fresh perspective and continue on my way forward. It’s also not uncommon for an older finished work to be added as an element of a new one. 

AA: What are you working on right now?

ES: I’m currently working on a large body of abstract work to keep me going after finishing my most recent, very taxing, body of work. Just today I started working on a new fabric piece with the working title Virgin’s Veil. 

AA: Who or what do you listen to when creating work? 

ES: Today specifically I watched endless Disneyland videos, but often times I’ll either put on Podcasts (Simple Sophisticate, Greatest Generation, MBMBAM) or classical music (Tchaikovsky’s Ballets are my go-to). Songs like Hello by Lionel Richie and I Will Always Love You by Dolly Parton are both important to my practice too.

AA: What are your favorite movies and do they inspire you creatively? 

ES: Babbette’s Feast for its boring, peaceful narrative about community, hospitality, and the spirituality of food. Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame for it’s swirling narrative, confused self-serious/childish tone shifts, and emotional intensity. Barbie in the Nutcracker, though, has to be one of the most informative movies to both my personality as well as my practice. Tchaikovsky's score set to an altered Nutcracker narrative (dare I say a vast improvement) that chronicles the exact way it feels to fall in love in a dream paired with a coming of age. Plus it’s Barbie at her absolute best, with a shout out to Arnie Roth, the composer.  

AA: When you're not making artwork, what are you usually doing? 

ES: I love to brunch and look at model homes with my girlfriends like a bunch of old white women, go to the movies on discount Tuesdays, playing Skyrim, going to church, thrifting, talking seriously about mediocre film, and of course working part-time in a retail job at the mall. 

AA: Who are your favorite artists? 

ES: Jim Hodges for sure, then Annelie Mckenzie and Mark Bradford, and of course masters like Rothco, John Singer Sargent, Van Gogh, etc.…

AA: Do you have any advice for a fellow artist who may be reading this? 

ES: Do not let anything stop you from making. There are no excuses. Paint on cardboard. Draw in a tiny notebook that fits in your pocket. Collage. Do anything to make. See everything in your life as an extension of your studio practice. Don’t ever be afraid to make something and then hate it; you can always start over or make it better. Making bad art is NEVER a waste of time. You learn more that way anyhow. Maybe even do it on purpose. 

AA: I like to think of artists making artwork the same way as chefs cooking in the kitchen. At first, it may seem intimidating, but once you gain a little confidence, the possibilities of creating tasty meals are endless. With that being said, every famous chef has a catchphrase. What’s your catchphrase in the studio?

ES: One of my favorite professors, Jonathan Puls, used to have quite a few; one of them always stuck and has become important to me too: “Have a good time!” It’s easy to work yourself into a trance in the studio.  Art is hard, and art is taxing. When I realize I’m not even enjoying myself, I hit a reset button. Even if I am working hard and for hours on end, I can at least have a good time. My art is fun even when it’s really serious. Oh, that and “If Home Depot doesn’t have it, Mark Bradford doesn’t need it.”

Connect with Elaina Swanson through her Instagram @elainaflorence and view her website