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June 11th, 2020
Jesse Gussow


Artist Maren K. Elliott just had her first solo show. In the age of social distancing and business shut down she persevered, creating a virtual gallery show. While her Stringism work is very strong on texture and the desire to reach out and touch her pieces having it done virtually makes the viewer want to reach out even more. The most impressive aspect of her work is how her string pieces feel and look like sketches come to life. The line work is beautiful creating amazing portraits.



Where are you from?

I'm from Edmonton, Alberta, but I came to Ottawa this past fall for an artist residency at the Ottawa School of Art. This created an interesting situation for me doing my upcoming show since half my work for the exhibit is here in Ottawa and the rest of it is back home.



How did you get started in art?

This may be cliche but I don't remember really getting started in art - I feel like it's always been an integral part of my life. When I was four years old, my mother joked that she worried about me going into kindergarten because it would cut down on my "drawing time." I would spend hours and hours sitting at the kitchen table, making art, lost in my imagination. I also grew up in a very musical household. I started viola lessons at the age of four, and I was the youngest of three kids, and we all played an instrument, so I was probably listening to music from before I was born. I think the period I got interested in really focusing in on art was when I was in high school. I did an art IB program which was a lot of work, I never knew how insanely hard art could be. We also did a lot of research, reading and writing on contemporary art and art history. It was the first time I learned that art could be more than just self-expression or a technical exercise, but also a way of examining, questioning, and understanding the world.



Where do you find your inspiration for your artwork?

I find that the little things I observe in my everyday life provide the most meaning in my work.I see light and shadow, faces, stories, human relationships and the connection between self and place. I try to then understand my feelings about these observations and express these emotions through my creative work. I also love finding inspiration in the crossover points between different forms of expression, like how a piece of music can inspire a dance which inspires a painting.



What is the first thing you do when sitting down to a blank canvas?

Sometimes I make it a bit dirty so it doesn't seem so grand and pure. Making the first mark is like ripping off a bandaid.



If you weren't an Artist what job would you have and why?

If I wasn't and artist I think I would go into counselling or art/music/expressive arts therapy. I have a degree in psychology and have worked in mental health in the past, and I like establishing safe, trusting connections with people in a helping capacity. I could also be a teacher, but I think that is a bit of a cheat answer since arts ed is a part of what I do already. I love teaching and the big-picture life lessons that can be learned through pursuing a creative discipline.



What do you see in your work?

I see line work and I see stories, either told directly by the work or just because we all project our own meaning into things. I'm really interested in engaging multiple senses, like visual & tactile.



How long does it take to complete a piece? Do you work on one piece at a time or several?

It depends on what kind of piece it is. For my series of mapped faces in string, each piece took about a month on average to make. It ended up taking years to finish the series though because of barriers like losing my studio space, living with mental illness, and trying to figure out what it meant to be sustainably self-employed.
In the meantime I started a series of drawings on sticky-notes which are a kind of comic, autobiographical visual journalling on being a queer femme with mental illness. They are like the polar opposite  - quick, very self-expressive, and small. I needed that outlet.



How did you adapt for your first show?

To adapt my solo show I have used a combination of an ongoing, interactive 3D gallery as well as a series of live-streamed broadcasts. The opening night will be me doing a tour of some of the work out of my partner's apartment on twitch, interspersed with movement performances by dancers back home in Edmonton that created videos inspired by specific pieces in the series. There will be art. There will be pictures of art. There will be music and dance. On Saturday morning, we will be sharing a yoga practice that was created by Chantelle McNichol of Edmonton's Sweet Kula Yoga. She used the exhibition statement for inspiration when creating the practice and filmed it in her space with one of the art pieces. I also will be broadcasting an artist talk on Saturday.



What is the most fulfilling thing about what you do?

There is something deeply fulfilling about the mere act of creating, especially in those moments where I allow myself to be unencumbered by worrying about technique or what other people are going to think or whether this is something I "should" be making. Cultivating those moments is an ongoing effort. I also am passionate about the capacity art has to tell stories, create community and present ideas.



How would you describe your style?

I have two main styles, one in mixed media which emphasizes layering, fragmentation and textures, and the other is more illustrative. I am often drawn to portraiture and the human figure.



What's the best response to your work you've heard?

Sometimes people want to touch it which makes me happy because I get it, I would want to touch it too! That's honestly part of the appeal to me. If this show had happened in a real, physical place, with no pandemic, I would have liked to create some smaller sample panels and invited people to touch them so that people could engage with the work on a tactile level without damaging anything valuable.



How long does a piece typically take to create from idea to being framed?

So far my experience has been that it can take years. You never know what life will bring between that little seed being planted and the final execution of the piece. I wish it was faster, but the time it takes also allows for deeper reflection, experimentation and development. Sometimes, though, I get an idea that just has to go on paper, and it seems to just flow out of me. It takes little time between that and the emergence of quicker, smaller sketches.



What the biggest challenge facing artists today?

In the age of social media and instant information at everyone's fingertips, it's easy to be bombarded with information. I think the challenge is finding or creating spaces where people will slow down, engage, think, and connect meaningfully with a creative work (whether that be a painting, video, novel or something else). The means by which most people consume content are designed to be addictive, so it's no wonder people get overwhelmed and unable to parse more complex things in amongst all the noise. There is also this capitalist pressure to be constantly productive. It's not a sustainable or fair expectation to live by. Not everything creative has to be about optimization. I try to eschew these things, but it's easier said than done and sometimes I find the whole thing exhausting. It's also hard to get away and enter a headspace for creative flow with all this attentional pull.



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