Elyse Graham is keeping time. She builds shells of permanence around the illusive and the invisible. Using her own breath as a measure of time, Elyse’s sculptures bring structure to a fleeting moment. Elyse creates these Geodes—literally over time—with layer upon layer of urethane, resin, plaster and sand–materials to last millennia—over clusters of her own breath. Elyse’s Geodes are florescent-hued masses that range in size from as small as softballs to as large as boulders. Once formed, Elyse saws these “rocks” open, releasing the breath and revealing a colorful history and intricate interior landscape. They serve as her personal record: a means for her to make time tangible.
Time has always seemed evasive to Elyse. As a native, Angelino, she has always struggled with the subtly of the seasons. Los Angeles is playfully referred to as “Lala Land”—it’s a place to escape, whether that is winter or the past.
“I’ve always wanted to be an artist,” she says as we sit down in her Brewery studio. “I didn’t think that it was a possibility, though: I went to prep school, my parent’s are in medicine. Up until recently, I felt like I had to try to do everything else and, if I still wasn’t happy, then I could commit to making art. But maybe I was just too timid to do what was really in my heart.”
Elyse began college at a small school in Washington State. “There was a foundry in town and maybe 1300 students on a wooded campus in the middle of rolling wheat fields. It sounded great,” she explains. She eventually found that her interests in art were a bit bigger than her school could accommodate. So, she left.
“I’m really not that kind of person: I’m not a frivolous mind changer,” she says with a laugh. She transferred to Brown and was thrilled to be able to take classes at RISD. “Brown was amazing. I couldn’t have been happier. I’m thankful to have had a Liberal Arts education, though at the time I thought I just wanted to go to art school. Being exposed to so many ideas and disciplines and socially active peers really shaped the way that I think about the world and see my role in it. I studied Art and also Semiotics–so, a lot of theory. Learning how to be critical of art while in the process of making it was a real challenge. I think it probably took me a good five years after college to get my head straight. This is the first body of work that I’ve made that is free of that intense thinking and analysis…maybe.”
Once she finished school, she moved to North Carolina where she created the art curriculum at a summer camp. “I had just finished taking a lot of education classes and was very enthusiastic about experiential education and intentional communities. So that summer I created a class called ‘Community Art.’ We made nothing that the students could take home—no tchotchkes! We did a lot of work influenced by Andy Goldsworthy so there was a lot of throwing rocks in ponds, cairn building, and flag making. It was a lot of fun and I really think the kids enjoyed making art the whole community could appreciate.”
This camp job led into a full time position as a resident at the camp’s year round program—a semester school for 10th graders. “The year I spent out in the woods of North Carolina gave me a lot of time to think and digest my education. It was an interesting, but somewhat lonely experience,” she clarifies. After a year, she realized she wanted to move back to Los Angeles–to make art.
“I realized that I wasn’t quite ready to give all of my energy and time up. I still needed to do things myself. I wasn’t ready to teach even though I thought I was. But, at twenty two, my perspective was pretty myopic.”
She moved back to Southern California and started a jewelry business. She split her time between LA and New York and eventually moved up to Bend, Oregon for a brief period of time where she was “working three jobs and barely scraping by.” She came back to Los Angeles in 2006 and hasn’t left since.
“It’s been really fun re-experiencing Los Angeles as an adult,” she says. “Downtown and the east side of LA were totally uncharted territory for me. It’s really neat to see how much the city has changed. Los Angeles went through some trying times in the 1990s—we had riots, fires and earthquakes. The reasons didn’t really occur to me at the time, but I left Los Angeles in the late 90s feeling really down on the city. I didn’t realize how incredible this city is until I returned in 2006.”
Elyse’s relationship with Los Angeles is very interesting because she is an artist living in a city she never thought was for artists. “Growing up, I really thought that I couldn’t live here if I wanted to make art: I’d have to move to New York or Europe. Los Angeles seemed isolated and left out of the conversation. I am so excited to see people really starting to pay attention to Los Angeles and take it seriously.”
Living in Los Angeles again, Elyse can see more clearly how the city has shaped her thinking and her art practice. She sees a correlation between her work and her surrounding: it all comes back to her sense of time in this city. “The Geode project came about because I had returned to Los Angeles and had been struck by how subtle the seasons are and how sly time’s passage seems. I was having a lot of trouble finding a cadence to my time here in Los Angeles. I was working alone and I felt like I was losing track of time. I think that feeling was amplified by no longer being a student with a strict calendar to abide by. My days just seemed to all run together.”
“I felt an inherent need to find a way to mark time and understand how I was changing and growing. I started making balloon clusters, using my breath as a unit of time. I take about eight breaths a minute, therefore–counting my breaths–I have a sense of how much time a Cluster contains. Measuring that time in a volume was interesting because I had something tangible, something that I could see shrinking which made me aware of time passing, slipping away. Breath—so essential to survival—reminded me of the importance of time. This is time that I need to be spending on things that are worthwhile and satisfying. As a reaction to the absolute impermanence of that project, I started making the Geodes as a way to ‘save time’.”
“Making these pieces is almost meditative. It takes hours and hours to build up the layers [that make up a geode]: it’s a slow process. Sitting alone in silence while I’m creating these pieces allows me a great deal of time for thought and reflection. I try to recall the order of the colors as I’m building up the layers, but inevitably, I forget. I am always glancing backwards as I continuously move forward, thinking about the next step.”
Elyse’s Geodes have gotten her a lot of attention lately. She’s been able to show them everywhere from New York to Los Angeles and most recently in Essen, Germany. Elyse’s first solo show in Los Angeles just closed at Fifth Floor Gallery. She also sees that her work in jewelry and fine art are finally converging in a comfortable place.
Despite time’s relentless march forward, Elyse doesn’t see anything changing (as far as her location is concerned). She’s going to stay in Los Angeles and continue her Geode project. Elyse does however; want to push them a bit further. “I’m really looking forward to working on a larger scale. I feel like this impulse has come from my being more committed to staying in Los Angeles. This is where I am going to be: I don’t have to be able to carry around everything that I make anymore. I can make something that can be here and not be moveable, or moveable–but only with great effort,” she says with a smile.
“I’m interested to see how changing the scale of the pieces will re-define the project. I’m excited to see how viewers will respond to pieces that are a little more confrontational. Looking toward other projects, I’m intrigued by the idea of choice versus chance. I feel like I’ve dipped a toe in with the Geodes and I want to continue down that path. Surprise, anticipation and excitement are all really important aspects of my work.”