Work in Progress: Elizabeth Tolson
Elizabeth Tolson, our November WIP resident, and I recently sat down to talk about her growth as an artist, her current and past work, and the ideas that she’s carrying and changing throughout her practice.
How did you start working with textiles?
I started making wearable pieces during my MFA at Parsons. First, I had made a pillow that was designed to help girls keep themselves pure, it was an alarm system for their bed. I brought it to my Studio class, and my professor, Ted Byfield, suggested I make it a wearable. What if a woman wore an alarm system that watched her body and watched her movements? That’s when I dove into creating wearable pieces. It was a lot of research and teaching myself how to do it, researching patterns, and that’s when I made my first series of dresses. I really loved it. I had been working in video art before, and I love video art, but it’s different because you’re at a computer a lot, or you’re filming, and then you spend a lot of time in post-production. That’s when I decided to go full force into creating these props, in a way, for my videos — that’s how I was thinking about it, in the beginning.
I researched female sexuality, and America’s obsession with purity, exploring the use of purity pledges, chastity rings, chastity balls. These inventions supposedly help women be pure, but not educating women, or educating people in general. It’s just like, don’t do this, here’s this alarm system, stay pure, be good. That’s how it developed into the dresses. The dresses are an extension of the pillow, because the pillow had a light and heat sensor. When the room got really dark, it would light up. When it got hot, it made a lot of high-pitched noise. I took those ideas and brought them into the dress. There are simple circuits and hardwiring. When I started really getting into the idea of making wearables, I stepped away from using Arduino and focused on incorporating the lights into the dress. My designs before — you know when you make a piece, you think I could have done this, I could have expanded on that — that’s how I reflected on those pieces and started developing other works, thinking about the pieces more as sculptures, not just clothing.
I saw your costumes for Arch Contemporary Ballet. What was that experience like?
That was in 2015. The way I made those dresses was a little different, because I use actual wires in my dresses, and for that piece, I decided to create it using conductive thread. But what I didn’t understand was how much the dresses would be pulled and worn. The conductive thread, as it was pulled, was getting weaker and I constantly had to repair the dresses where the LEDs were. I was inspired by geometry and shapes, and I still continue with that idea of shapes within my work now. Shapes in different areas, different environments, and how we can blend into spaces.
I had never made a series of clothing for somebody else like that. I was still learning how to sew then, but I was very happy with the results and what I learned from that piece.
Your dresses are very extravagant, they have a ball room gown shape. They look very Met Gala.
That’s what I was sticking with it at first, because I wear the leotard underneath. The way I was making, I was trying to figure out how, how can I use fabric, because I really enjoy making with fabric, how can I push myself and learn more about it. I did a residency at Open Wabi in Ohio, where I made Reflections. And as I make one piece, I always end up thinking, ‘oh I should have done it this way, and I should be working in this way,’ and that’s how I came up with the second piece. But I think The Things We Carry is so different because the lights are removable. Especially, The Discovery of Venus, I was really thinking, I’m a sculpture in these spaces, but then when you look at the videos, you can tell they blend into the space and that’s how I expanded this concept of really wearing the space, becoming part of the space, taking over the space with my light, in a way that’s not physically there, because light takes up space in an intangible way.
When you talk about the dresses, you personify them.
Yes, I see each one as its own living thing. A lot of my making is just exploring, how can I do this, and I want them to be larger, more stand alone sculptures. I don’t want to use dress forms anymore. The piece I’m working on now, I’m trying to make it thicker, heavier, so it’ll be stand-alone. For The Discovery of Venus I built a custom pedestal for it to be displayed on.
How will they be displayed in a gallery?
When I displayed this one, I display it with a projection of my performance but I imagine when I have multiple pieces, the room would only be lit with the dresses and perhaps low-lighting. And the projection of the performance. And in the performance, there are moments when I’m not even there so you see the landscaping of the area with the actual sculpture of the dress there. They’re almost shells that I’ve left behind in the space. I’ve worn them in their habitat and I leave them there for the viewer.
What is your everyday routine?
Normally, I make a game plan for the day. What do I need to accomplish? For example, today I want to — especially with these pieces, because the process can be repetitive and tedious — [I think] okay, I have to make 80 of these circles today and I sit down and make 80 circles. I start off doing the design, and then thinking, okay, how will I incorporate the lights, and then I have to think about the design of the dress from that, like how am I going to create the pockets for the lights and the wiring, how will it sit inside the light? Because I want them to be places that last for a while, I cover up where the wiring is — thinking a lot about that, and I work on the fabrication of how to sew it together and then I end it doing all the electrical. For example, soldering the wires, cutting the wires, putting the lights in.
Would you ever stop using lights? They seem like an essential part of your work.
I feel so drawn to light as a medium because for me, it does go back to the idea of purity. And it does embody the space in this different way, so we are able to go and reclaim these spaces. When I was creating this, I was thinking a lot about the male gaze and how we can reclaim how we see ourselves.
I have thought about moving away from light, because I am so fascinated with the fabrication of textile pieces and textile sculptures, but I really love working with light. And even more so now, because I’m thinking about creating my own lights and making my own style of lighting.
Where do you find inspiration to create the work you do?
I would say spaces, and experiencing the world. If that makes sense. A lot of it lately has been nature and my surroundings. This one, I did at an artist residency in Italy at Benaco Arte. The location of the residency is near Lake Garda in Sirmione, Italy. I was thinking about that space and water, and I displayed this piece with water, because it creates reflections, and this ongoing light. I was thinking about waves and movement of water, and that’s how I came up with the shapes, and where to place the lights, to emphasize that moment when the wave hits.
The piece I’m working on now pulls a lot from my time at a residency in Pennsylvania in the Poconos at Lacawac Artist’s Residency, where I hiked and was outside a lot. And I was inspired by the colors, it’s very mossy there and thinking about the landscaping, with the greenery, the water, and the sunsets. I was so fascinated with the moss. It’s just these little things that I encounter, and also ideas. When I teach, I talk about that too, that you can sit and research for a long time, but sometimes ideas just come to you. For example, I had been casting lights for a while in resin, which is difficult to do, to find a space that allows you to do it. It’s a toxic material, so I wanted to move away from that and find a more sustainable way of making lights. As I was thinking about that, I was watching a morning talk show, and the guy said, today we’re doing DIY crystals. And I thought, that’s genius! Now, I’m growing crystals for my lights.
It’s a bit of everything, and always being open-minded, and feedback from people, and always thinking. Maybe I think about my work too much.
What kind of impact do you want your work to have?
I want people to think about how they navigate in the world, and how the spaces we live in aren’t created for everyone. They’re created for a specific kind of person. So, thinking about how you exist in the space, how you navigate the space, and how you can reclaim it.
Many of these spaces are male dominated. The structure of it isn’t set up for everyone – it’s set up for a specific kind of person. How can we step into those spaces, reclaim those spaces, and reclaim how we see ourselves. We’re told to see ourselves in a certain light, so breaking away and unlearning that is very important.
That reminds me of a map in Nonstop Metropolis, the third in Rebecca Solnit’s atlas trilogy project… One of the maps, titled “City of Women,” is of the New York subway system, where each subway stop is named by a woman who lived in that area. And the project was also included in the NYPL podcast, where Rebecca shared responses to the map, so one woman said something like, “I think I would stand taller if this street was named after a woman.” And someone else answered, “If this street was named after a woman, I don’t think I would be assaulted on this street.”
It changes the whole mindset. I’m going to look that up.
Are there any environments you want your work shown?
For me, audience-wise, my work could be related to — I’ve had mostly female identifying people that can understand and relate to my work. But I think overall, a lot of people are drawn in, first, by the materials I’m using and then slowly, they understand what I’m doing in the space. But I think it’s an open range of who I create my work for. Even with the younger kids, having them come in, and talking to them about it, what do you think my work is about? What do these shapes mean? It could relate to anyone that would be interested in talking about the work, talking to me, or looking at it, and examining it.
Tell me about your teaching.
I am a teaching artist and I’m also part-time faculty at Parsons. As a teaching artist, I’ve taught everything from painting, fiber arts — I even taught a coding class once. Working with pre-K to high school aged children, thinking about how we talk about our work, why are we making work. Because that’s the big question: ‘Why am I doing this?’ When you’re with little kids, and you ask them to create a self-portrait, a lot of the time, they wonder, ‘Why am I doing this?’ It makes me sit back and think, Why am I making work? But I think it’s the idea of having passion for it, for these ideas that come up, for making, to fabricate, push yourself, push the ideas that you’re thinking about, and I move a lot of that into the college courses I’m teaching. I teach Integrative Studio, which is a foundations class for first-year students, and even this semester I felt it more that the way I teach them is, here’s the skill, now how are you going to use it? We did video editing for our first project, so the setup is, this is how you video edit, now show me what you can make with it. Thinking about the skills you’re gaining and how you can apply them to your work, because you’re not going to use everything in your pieces. I put a lot of that into my teaching, and also my passion and excitement for art, and what other artists are doing. I always do ‘artist inspirations’ where I show different artists. And talk about why they’re making work, what their work is about, and why it is important. It’s a lot of different things that play into making your lesson plan, because you have to inspire them to want to make work, you have to give them the skills to make their work, and then you have to give them the feedback to help them develop their ideas, and push them to learn how to research on their own, and experiment on their own.
What was your journey as an artist?
I took a ceramics class in high school, and I loved my teacher. He was very passionate about ceramics. When I decided to go to college, I chose Alfred University, which is known for their ceramics program, but they’re also known for their Electronic Arts program. While I was there, I took video art classes and I got really into creating and learning about video art. I had an amazing professor, Peer Bode, who really pushed me to find opportunities after I graduated. From there, I started looking for opportunities within that field of art, and learning more about it, and that’s how I ended up in New York City. I’ve always loved creating work, and sharing what I’ve made with other people. That was the whole reason why I decided to do a master’s in Fine Art because I wanted to learn more. I think it’s all about learning and pushing myself, and seeing what else I could create. Maybe I’ve always wanted to be an artist, I think that’s the bottom line. And I always wanted to be a teacher too, to be honest. That was always in the back of my mind. But being an artist, part of it is always being a teacher, even if you’re not in a classroom. You’re always with your peers, critiquing each other, giving each other feedback, you’re always learning, always researching, always growing.
When do you decide a work is finished?
I think, never, honestly. [She laughs.] This is what I say to my students too, I always believe that you shouldn’t look at your piece being finished, you should look at your piece and go, I should have done that, I should have thought about doing this. Like when I see this piece, I think, next time I’m going to show with this crazy pedestal I’m going to fill with water. I don’t think you can ever look at a piece and say it’s finished. Because you should always be critiquing yourself and pushing yourself.
Do you have a sense when your message is getting across, or that you’ve successfully translated it into this material form?
I think for my earlier work because it was a bit more literal, the Vessel pieces, and even then people were still confused, because they thought I was serious, that I was really making these pieces to control women. Now, I’m viewing these things more abstractly. But then, in a way, the dresses are a bit grotesque. The way they’re shaped, and how large they are, and I want them to be very heavy, but I think if someone didn’t know what I was working on, they’d be able to pull away that it is about body, which is a key element of it.
When I read about your work, I feel angry. I feel that you satirize that a lot and draw attention to it, even the quote you use, what would the world be like if it didn’t hate women?
I totally agree. With these pieces, I’m thinking about the male gaze, and how we see ourselves, and how we’re supposed to conform to what we’re told to be like, and then unlearning all of those things, and breaking out of it, and feeling more comfortable with ourselves. Most of my friends, and even myself, I didn’t feel comfortable with myself until I said screw this. Why do I have to be a certain way? Why can’t I be happy with my body, and who I am, and how I look? Why am I constantly told to be a certain way? And I’m trying to play with that idea within these pieces, like this is my body. And also for myself, personally, breaking through this idea of I was never good enough to be in my own performances. Viewing myself like that. And pushing myself to perform in my work. I’m making these pieces for myself. Which is also fascinating too, in teaching fashion, a lot of my students don’t want to make work for themselves because they don’t see their body as being this perfect body to be wearing the work they’re creating. And I think that’s a huge issue and something I work on in my teaching. When you make something, make it for yourself. Why do you have to make it for this idealistic body?
I think it is important to talk about that, when you’re teaching. These are the people of the future. And also, within making. You make something, but why aren’t you making it for yourself? Why would you make something that you would never wear?
Which books/artists/podcasts would you recommend?
I really enjoy Shana Moulton, Kate Gilmore, Gareth Pugh, and Nick Cave. For books, I love the author Jessica Valenti. She’s a genius. I was going to say, Ways of Seeing by John Berger. Actually, put that on there. The Rei Kawakubo at the Met, that was beautiful. Iris Van Herpen within the wearable technology field. I met this woman Samantha Schloss, who makes clothing for curvy women. We did a studio visit with her while I was doing my residency at Benaco Arte, and she was so inspiring the way she talked about our bodies, and how our families would treat us about our bodies, comment on your body, and how it’s not really their fault because that’s what they were taught. But the idea of breaking that. Especially being in Italy, in the area she lives in, is very different culturally, to be a more a voluptuous woman.
What do you think about being at TAC?
I love it! I love being able to see people walk by, and people coming in. On Saturday, a few people came in. Getting feedback from people that I don’t know is important. Because when you get critiqued by the same people, it’s different than getting feedback from someone with fresh eyes. I’m excited to have the space and time to do my work, and to expand on the size of my work, because I want to make them larger. And having access to everyone that’s here. Being in a community of fiber artists is really important for me, because I don’t have that right now. I’m having a wonderful time.