Discover / Meet the Artist
Interview with Elizabeth Bergeland
"At the very core of being an artist or a creative person is being curious."
Today, we'd like to introduce you to
Elizabeth Bergeland @elizabeth1
Do you think that creativity is part of human nature or is it something that must be nurtured and learned?
Please explain your answer.
Yes and YES! I absolutely think creativity is part of human nature, and I do think it must be nurtured! (For the record, I could also very easily argue “no” and “no” to this question. I mean, this discussion is just another extension of the “nature” vs. “nurture” debate, and the answer is usually both, but I think I ultimately lean the other way on this matter).
At the very core of being an artist or a creative person is being curious. We ALL start out curious. It seems like the people who end up developing and nurturing their creativity are simply the ones who stay curious. It’s hard to think about things linearly or in a fixed way when you’re always exploring and asking questions. I actually often find myself defending this premise that creativity is something that must be nurtured.
Yes, its true that most of us artists were likely born with a natural inclination or proclivity to creating, but I think it is really important to acknowledge and understand just how many hours have been poured into honing and nurturing that ability. This idea that art is something that just magically appears out of an artist really gets me.:) Yes-the art arrived, but only after hundreds of hours of thought and work and sleepless nights and likely a lifetime of nurturing and developing that vision by studying other artists and honing observational skills. *steps off soap box. :)
What made you decide to follow a creative career choice (though possibly risky) rather than something more stable?
I did work a more “stable” job for about ten years prior to taking the big scary jump into “career artist”. I worked as a designer in bridal, which was creative, but incredibly limiting and at times, deeply frustrating.
Straight out of college I think I lacked the confidence and frankly, the discipline to be able to head straight into life as an artist. Also, I needed a job. The path as an artist just seemed so nebulous and confusing at the time (it still feels that way).
Eventually, I became so starved and desperate to be making and pursuing art in a more serious and fulfilling way, because being an artist is truly all I ever wanted to be, so I finally just woke up one day and was like, “You better do this. You HAVE to do this”. We get one shot here on earth (as far as I know), and I don’t want to waste it.
At that point I had been working toward lining up enough commissions to be able to take the leap financially, and as soon as I was able to devote all my working hours to my art, I just hit the ground running. All those concerns I had early on that felt like such big hurdles, like being disciplined with my time, or finding inspiration, or wondering if I would be able to “figure it out” somehow just weren’t factors anymore. I think I wanted it too badly. There’s nothing quite like throwing all your eggs in one basket to really put a fire under you to just make it happen.
How important is having a personal connection to the subject matter that you choose to paint?
Oh, for me, this is honestly everything. Creating something that is aesthetically pleasing is really just the vehicle for the purpose that the painting serves, which is to create a portal, or a moment or just some space where we can share thoughts and ideas and stories. I paint as a way of putting my world in order, like picking up a messy room, or as a mode of exploring thoughts or ideas or frustrations. I’m always searching for the other side of the coin.
Lately, I’ve been working on a series about American masculinity. Last year, I watched my ten-year-old son, who has always been a physically affectionate child, suddenly feel pressure to stop hugging his friends, to not cry in public, and to not like certain colors or types of play. All of this, despite our best efforts in the home to subdue this masculine indoctrination. Where is it coming from? Where is he receiving that messaging? It put me on a mission to find out. Because I’m so personally invested and connected to the subject matter, this project has just been sailing. I’ve been conducting long interviews with my subjects alongside the paintings and so many surprises keep turning up. It has honestly just felt so thrilling and exciting- like I’m on an archaeological dig or something.:) Masculinity so obviously does not serve women in countless ways, but I’m finding that it also is not serving our boys or men either. Having this type of connection to the work is really such a life force.
Have you ever heard someone interpreting your work in a way that you hadn’t thought of until then? How did that influence you?
I have definitely experienced this. It’s so interesting, because initially, I think I usually feel a bit irritated, and want to “correct” them, but the fact that this happens actually proves the most incredible aspect of art: that’s its ALIVE! It’s a baby! And it lives and breathes and walks around without you. You might have birthed the thing, but you don’t get to decide who it ends up being, or what people think about it. Of course, your essence and stamp is there all over the work, but art shifts and moves and bends around time and social commentary and in and out of relevance and irrelevance. Just like us. It will mean different things for each generation and may have long or short seasons or moments of importance.
This past year was so marked and transformative for all of us and because of how tumultuous it was, I feel like I actually got to experience this [art being alive and shape shifting in meaning depending on the world] in real time. There was a painting I began in April but didn’t finish until October. During the months I was working on the piece, while trudging through the pandemic, my city (and country and world) erupted in protests and riots, and we were all bursting to the brim with fear and sadness but also joyous potential for change. Originally, the work was a very personal story about the things we hide vs. the things we share about ourselves, but it became impossible for the painting to not take on the meaning of what was happening around me as well. Art lives!
Who are your biggest influences? Was there a particular artist or work of art that struck you in a way that contributed to what you do today?
Early on, I would have to site Barkley Hendrick, Kara Walker and Yves Klein as the most prominent influences for me.
Barkley Hendrick’s is who made me want to be a painter. I just love his bold, minimalist portraits. His work reminds me that the things that you choose not put in a work are just as important as the things you do choose to put in the work.
Kara Walker’s work really caused me to explore and understand the power of narrative. The first work of hers I saw was one of her large, installation silhouette pieces. I was just so blown away by the way she transformed the use of the silhouettes (a look traditionally used to depict pleasantly picturesque, often bucolic scenes) to tell true and sad and provocative stories. Be radical with your message!
And oh Yves Klein. His absolute obsessive nature over the color blue just absolutely captured me. There’s something so powerful about exploring a single element into such depth, and for so long. Once he saw blue it was like the only thing he could see. Wow. I really feel that sometimes.
Currently, I’m really moved by the work of Robin Frascesca Williams, Julie Curtiss, Salmon Toor and Jesse Mockrin.
The mad artist stereotype, the popular myth that hardship leads to accomplishment, and -relatedly- that the more troubled the artist, the better the work. It's a very old yet very polarising myth and I would love to get to know your views on this.
There is absolutely madness involved in art making. Oooof. Just thinking about this question makes my palms sweaty. I don’t know that I can speak to whether or not being troubled creates better art, but I think I can say that making art makes you (me) troubled. This question is a bit chicken or the egg, and I’m obviously only speaking for myself, but the battle for sanity and happiness and balance is real.
Art is the thing that brings you to the edge but it is also the thing that keeps you from falling in. How many times have I heard an artist say something like, “art saved me”? It’s like what I mentioned earlier about art acting as a portal- with a strong pull and gravity all its own. Sometimes it’s going to take you to places you don’t really want to go. I think making art requires you to stand on the edge of all that for SURE. Artists tend to be big feelers, and If you think and see the world in shapes and colors it can feel hard to keep your feet on the ground. It feels good and it feels scary to let the work take you.
Do you believe that it is important to be accepted by others as being creative or is just doing what you love to do enough to justify your work? Explain.
I mean, for starters, you are an artist (or a _____fill in the blank) whenever you decide to go ahead and say that out loud to yourself. Just as with anything else in life, other’s acceptance of you only has as much gravity as you decide to give it. Feeling justified in your work really depends on what you want out of your life/career/art. I have high expectations and hopes for my work. I want to push myself and my art as far as I can.
For me, that means I want to be able to use all my available hours to make art, which means I need my art to be producing money, which requires others to accept (buy) my work. The success of my entire career is subjective. There is nothing measurable about art. All we have is someone’s opinion.
Having said that, it is so critical to not take other’s opinions into consideration as you are making work. I find that if I am considering what others might like as I’m producing work, I really lose my center and my voice and start producing work that just isn’t good. It is a balancing act for sure. On one hand, you need to be an original, and unapologetically yourself and true to your vision, but on the other hand you have to be like, “Love me! Look at me! Buy my work!” ugh. It’s tough.
I think that for me, taking on the pressure to produce under deadlines and make sure that the work is really polished has only increased the caliber of the work, which actually just increases my overall satisfaction in the end. It creates a lot of stress, but it does feel good to be pushed.
Name five things you wish you knew as a beginner artist.
How much time do we have? Haha. I wish I understood the value of community and networking and finding your “art crew”. Early on, I think I was so steeped in trying to find my voice and wanting to express the authenticity of it all, that for some reason I really railed against being a part of something bigger than myself.
Also, I think as a young artist I just really wanted the work to speak for itself. It seemed antithetical to me for some reason that anything could add value to the work other than the work itself. That is just in no way how the world works or moves. We are an intensely social species. The success of so many careers often comes down to who you know, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be an ugly thing. We want to feel a personal connection to work, so of course, connecting personally matters.
In recent years, I’ve worked really hard to build my “art crew” with people I respect and trust. This is so important and sooo valuable! You need people you can bounce ideas off, and who will give you an honest critic of your work. I lean toward introversion (as I think many artists do), so this takes conscious effort, but I always feel inspired and nourished when I do make the effort. Go to as many openings as you can! Introduce yourself to gallerists and artists you admire. Make it genuine and it will feel easy.
Most of us artists are just out here making enough art so that we can make enough money to keep making art. Just people, making stuff.
A few additional notes:
• It is never going to be the ideal time to start an art career. You will likely need to work another job much of the time. I began my art career as the primary caregiver for my three small children while working another part time job, living in a tiny row home in Philadelphia with little extra space. You just have to figure out how to make it work.
• Literally NOONE is out there trying to discover you. You just have to sit down and put in the hours.
• I’ll say that one again: Put. In. The. Hours. Make the art. Apply to everything. Develop a body of work. Your voice will arrive! I promise you it will!
Professionally, what’s your goal? Do you think that you would be able to teach what you do?
Professionally, my goal is to have a museum show. Dreams!
I often think about whether I’d be able to teach what I do. I definitely have a desire to encourage and give confidence to people who want to make art, and to remove that mysterious shroud that exists around the “art world” (there’s a real person on the other side of everything! -gallerists, curators, collectors- they’re just people!). Learning technique is valuable and important, but I don’t know that I would enjoy teaching painting techniques because that’s not really the part about making art that excites me. I’m a big believer in just going for it, and even “bad” painters can make GREAT art! Sometimes getting caught up on technique can be a real trap and hinderance (though, it is also true that the more you know and understand about form or composition, the more radical you can be with it).
I think I would love to teach some sort of curriculum around developing content and how to use color and scale to help you say what you really want to say in a piece. How to make deeply intentional art!
If you only had 24 hours to live, how would you spend your day?
I’d drop everything and spend it with my family. I can easily get trapped in the art-spiral of thinking and feeling that art is everything.
I’ve heard it said that artists make art as a way of trying to be immortal. I think about that a lot. It’s true- that my art will likely physically outlive me, but honestly when I zoom out just a tiny bit further I realize that the max is probably just about 500 years (if I’m lucky). Five hundred years in the scheme of earth’s history isn’t really even a blink, you know? We’re all going to die. All the treasures and most precious artifacts and yes even the art. The art will die too. This is actually a persistent thought for me, and one that I find comforting. The fact that all this goes away reminds me to not feel too self-important, and that what I’m doing doesn’t REALLY matter. Either way, making art still feels like the best possible way to spend my earth-hours.