Tell us about yourself.
My name is Liza Sylvestre and I am a visual artist. I was born and raised in Minneapolis,Minnesota. I studied Fine Art at the University of Minnesota and then moved to Miami after I graduated. I wanted to escape our long, dark Minnesota winters and to experience a di!erent corner of the world. In Miami I worked as a fashion designer for several years (and also for a stint in London). My heart was never really in the work though, it’s all so fast paced and I like to take my time with things and to have more freedom to experiment. My dissatisfaction with my fashion design job really drove me to get an art studio and to start putting more time and care into my artwork. I feel that I became a professional artist in Miami. I worked solidly for a couple of years there, honing a body of work that I felt conﬁdent with. But Miami is a bit crazy, it takes a long time to get anywhere because of urban sprawl and bad city planning, rent prices are sky high and there are cockroaches in all of the art studios. I got around the city on a scooter until it was stolen from our driveway, not even a week later our bikes were stolen during Art Basel. Events seemed repeatedly tell us to get out of Miami! It felt like a natural decision to return to Minneapolis. So, almost a year ago my boyfriend and I packed our art studios into a giant U-haul truck and set o! across the country. For the ﬁrst time in almost 7 years I’m living in the city I grew up in.
What is beauty to you and how did you get to where you are today?
In my artist statement I talk about how beauty is important to me but how the idea that beauty grows out of a place that cannot be completely planned or controlled is even more important to me. My intuition is vastly important when I’m art-making. Sure, there are ideas I have, plans I make in my sketchbook, and concepts I carry around in my head, but I need to surrender to each piece as I make it. My best work comes when I let go of my plans and assumptions, when I follow the natural pattern that each piece makes. I cannot force things. Learning how to do this well has been incredibly important in my work and I think has allowed me to make things that are beautiful.
How did you come to work with watercolors and gouache?
I was drawn to watercolor and gouache because of the spontaneity of the medium. No matter what I do, I can’t completely control the paint- I can’t always predict how it’s going to change as it dries or how certain colors will mix together in their liquid form. I get to “help it”, to shape it and to manipulate it, but I’m just a caretaker and the paint is doing what it does best. Also, there is something elemental about watercolor and gouache that oil or acrylic lacks. Sometimes when I’m working I literally feel like I’m painting under the surface of a lake or a slow moving river. When I work sediment settles on the surface of the panel, currents of color pour into each other, and as the paint dries sometimes it cracks just like soil does when it lacks water. I see these kind of cyclical patterns everywhere in the world, I’m drawn to them and recognize them as a central theme of my art, both the process and the ﬁnished pieces.
Most of your paintings are on gessoed panels. What does it mean to be ‘gessoed’? Why do you prefer this form of platform as opposed to regular canvas?
Gesso is a type of paint used to prime surfaces. I use a white gesso, but would actually like to experiment with di!erent colored gessos in the future. I spend a lot of time prepping my wood panels before I even begin to work on them. I usually work in big batches of panels (20 or so at a time); I start by putting a layer of gesso down on all of them and then waiting for them to dry. I might put a few more coats of gesso on and then I sand each panel down with really ﬁne sand paper. Then more gesso coats, more time drying, more sanding. I do at least 5 cycles of this. I end with a “wet sanding”, which is a super ﬁne grain of sandpaper that actually requires the surface and the sandpaper itself to be wet during sanding. This gives me a surface that is actually smoother than paper to work on. Gessoed panels allow the paint to run smoothly over the surface and also allows me to go in with pens and really ﬁne paintbrushes and create detail without the resistance of a typical canvas texture.
Communication is a crucial theme in your work. I understand that at a young age, you endured some difficulties with hearing. How did your former experiences affect your artwork?
I grew up losing my hearing gradually. The problem started in the high pitches and slowly made its way over to the mid-tones and then the low pitches. I was fortunate to lose it so slowly because my mind was able to kind of ease into working overtime to ﬁll in the blanks I experienced. I was able to use my brain and and my heightened sensitivity to visual clues to compensate for what I wasn’t hearing. I’ve learned that communication is only part verbal, so much is said by a person’s expressions, and by the way they interact with you. My hearing loss has made me very internal. Today I am almost completely deaf, I have about 5%-10% of my hearing in my left ear, in my right ear I have a cochlear implant, which is a surgically implanted bionic-computer-ear of sorts. I rely on my cochlear implant and on lip reading in order to verbally communicate. I don’t make artwork that is directly about my lack of hearing, but I know that I can’t separate that part of myself. It’s always there, so a part of it is in my artwork. In many ways I’m grateful for it. It has given me a speciﬁc lens through which I experience the world. I can’t tell you who I’d be without a hearing problem, but I know I would not be me.
What role does color play in your work?
Color is a tool. In my new work I’m combining color with my pen and ink drawing. Previously they have been separate from each other- drawings on one hand and paintings on the other, with no cross over. It took some time to ﬁgure out how to combine the two. But now I feel like color is the movement and wildness and the emotions of my work, while my detailed pen and ink lines are the weights and anchors that hold everything together.
Your work is very abstract and amorphous. What inspires your work? What do you think of as you paint?
My work is instinctual. It requires me to be really present and focused and tuned into what’s going on in front of me. I get into a meditative-like groove when I’m working and I love this. It’s not always easy to get there, I get distracted or tired or my hands and arms will start to ache. I’ve had to learn that each piece, no matter how good it feels when I ﬁrst start it, is going to give me some grief, either technical or emotional or both. Making art is emotional for me, it has great highs and shadowy lows and I respect that. I’m inspired by many things- the patterns I see in nature is a big one. I remember taking trigonometry in high school and learning about sine and cosine, and mapping out their particular waves on a graph and thinking “this is the pattern the world makes!”. I feel like I’m always looking for that; that cyclical pattern. I see tides swelling, moons orbiting, eco systems growing, I see human behavior, I see my own relationships. I ﬁgure if you could look at everything closely enough, or from a great enough distance, everything would have a similar pattern and shape.
When beginning a new painting, what is your creative process?
After I ﬁnish the gessoing preparatory work, I usually lay out several panels on a ﬂat surface and start by putting color down. I don’t think much about it, I just put the paint on the surfaces. Sometimes I pour the paint directly from the containers I mix them in, sometimes I use a dropper, sometimes I spray the paint on with a spray bottle. As the paint dries I can start to manipulate it. I use di!erent tools to push it around, rags, forks, chopsticks, old brushes, etc. After everything is completely dry I either go in with another layer of color or I start making details with my pens. I go back and fourth with the color and the pen details, working at various stages of dryness. I also work in reverse, lifting paint with a rag or sanding it away.
Let’s talk about your monochromatic drawings. Why do they lack color?
Drawing is natural for me. It’s simple, uncomplicated and paired down. My smaller, monochromatic drawings are often done to take a break in between larger pieces and because of this I usually really enjoy working on them.
How do you title your drawings? Some, for example, have long quotations as titles: “Rain grows heavy and thick and so close together there’s hardly room to breathe between the drops”.
I write on a daily basis. I often wonder if I’m an artist or a poet because I “think in words” instead of in images. Words are the things that come to me, but then I create things that are visual. It feels like there is this exchange that takes place inside of me between my words and my images. So, the titles are a connection to the process. They feel like natural extensions of myself and of my artwork.
How did you begin creating illustrated stories? Which are your favorites?
It started with a birthday present for my sister. I wanted to create something for her, so the ﬁrst story, which is my favorite, is about us. Since I grew up reading avidly and because I have this connection to words and writing, an illustrated story seemed natural. I want to explore this medium more and be more experimental with the idea of a “graphic novel” or “illustrated story”. I’d like to make illustrated poems, I’d like my writing to loose it’s form on the page and twist into something that’s more than writing.
Who and what inspires you?
There were several people who’s work hit me like lightening. I grew up reading the poetry of Mary Oliver and she taught me so much about the beauty of language and about the inspiration found in the natural world. Her words deﬁnitely shaped me from an early age. I remember seeing an exhibition of Ruth Duckworth’s work when I was in high school. There was this interview of her at the end of the exhibit and she was talking about how she could never be married because she was already married to her artwork. That struck a chord with me. Kiki Smith is also an artist who’s work I really admire. I spent a lot of time thinking about what these women must do on a daily basis- what their work schedules were like, how their studios were organized, how many hours and hours did they put into each piece? What did they think about when they weren’t making art? They, or the idea I had of them, made me think a lot about how serious this whole art making business is, how much it demands and how much space it takes up in an artist’s life.
What’s a day in the life of Liza Sylvestre? Are you one to work for ﬁve hours straight or in increments?
I spend most of time in my studio. My boyfriend, Luis Diaz, is also an artist and we have shared a studio space for almost 3 years now. He’s a work-a-holic and so am I, so between the two of us and our deadlines it’s easy for us to work straight through the weekends.
What songs are on your personal playlist?
A Comet Appears / The Shins
Let it Go / Blue October
Intuition / Fiest
What are three things most people don’t know about you?
1. I have distinctly webbed toes.
2. I often throw things out or give things away and then regret it later.
3. I cry easily.
For more of her work, check out her website.