The multi-hyphenate mastery of Elise Peterson
On a warm summer afternoon, Elise Peterson is standing under the Manhattan Bridge. Even as trains and cars rumble past overhead, she looks up and her gasp is audible. “There it is!”
Her collage “Grace Meets Matisse” stares down at her from the sky, having been placed on a billboard the night before by the organization Save Art Space. Originally commissioned for the site Lenny Letter to accompany an article about the release of Grace Jones’s memoir, “Grace Meets Matisse” features a sleek Jones placed in the center of the gaggle of pale dancers that make up Henri Matisse’s 1909 painting “Dance I.” It is part of a larger collage series Peterson completed called “Black Folk,” in which she placed black icons like Tupac Shakur and Lil’ Kim inside works by artists like Matisse and Pierre Boncampain in order to, as she says, offer agency to black figures in the often white spaces of historical fine art where traditionally they would not have had any.
Save Art Space creates public art spaces from places that normally would be dedicated to corporate advertising. Peterson is one of 10 artists selected for this distinction in Save Art Space’s latest show, The Future is Female. Her “Grace Meets Matisse” billboard by the bridge is accompanied by another of the image on a phone booth nearby, on the corner of Grand and Ludlow Streets. Did she ever think her work would be on a billboard? “No,” she says. “Definitely not.” And yet, here she is.
It’s an amazing feat for someone who wouldn’t call themselves an artist until just a few years ago. “I just didn’t think it was a viable option for me,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone like me that was making art and making a living and was able to sustain themselves.” In actuality, Peterson had long been interested in making art—in fact, being an artist was one of her first career decisions as a child, along with being a preacher—but she had an on-again-off-again relationship with the field for a long time. As a 19-year-old sophomore at Howard University, she got into graffiti, which led to art shows around Washington, D.C. But after moving to New York in her twenties and working as a writer (with bylines in Elle and the aforementioned Lenny, as well as a later stint as Music Editor of Solange’s Saint Heron), attending Parsons for graphic design, and ultimately ending up at a desk job that bored her, she needed a way to challenge her visual side again. This is how “Black Folk” came about, but it would be another two years before Peterson says she took herself seriously. “I realized I just had to give myself a chance and if I didn’t take myself seriously who else is going to?” Peterson says. “I was like, ‘Alright, let’s do it. You’re gonna rise to the occasion or you’re gonna crumble?’ And I’m just really not one to crumble.”
She is now an artist full-time, and has been featured in New York Magazine’s The Cut, Brooklyn Magazine (on their list of Brooklyn’s 100 Most Influential People), Nylon, The Fader, Juxtapoz, Paper, Dazed, and countless others. Her visual work, as she writes, “is centered on reinterpreting the past in the framework of the evolving notions of technology, blackness, intimacy and cross-generational narratives.” Peterson says she is also curious about two questions in particular: Is it the black artist’s responsibility to express optimism? And is the black experience a choice or an existence? She is sorting out the answers with her work, and she says the experience has been cathartic. “Art is a lot of times a thing that you are scared to say out loud,” she says. “It’s just the things that you feel, but what I’m finding is more than anything it’s just important to always tell the truth.”
Peterson prefers not to limit herself artistically and employs a multitude of mediums, continuing her writing practice as well. “Whether I’m writing or whether I’m creating visual work, it’s all storytelling. What story do I have to tell and what medium am I going to use to tell a story?” she says. “Right now it’s just been manifesting as visual work, but I don’t think there will ever be a time in which I don’t write or will be a time in which I don’t create visual work, and now a lot of times I’m trying to figure out how to bring the two together, or how do they look separately.” She has been experimenting with everything from collage to clay to, most recently, an animated video collage series. A partnership with Red Bull that’s tentatively called “Talking Heads,” the series is inspired by Peterson’s desire to understand her family as people and facilitate difficult conversations in light of her biological father’s recent passing. She created the animations from recorded conversations with family members and sets the audio to original photographs. Also, in July, she will head to Quebec for a month-long artist residency with the 35th annual International Contemporary Art Symposium of Baie-Saint-Paul, where she will be recreating her “Tupac Meets Matisse” collage as a life-size installation. For early 2018, she illustrated the children’s book How Mamas Love Their Babies, written by Juniper Fitzgerald and published by Feminist Press. “I don’t ever want to be one box. I don’t ever want there to be limitations on the things that I can do,” she says. ”I get bored really easily and I also love a challenge, so life managed to possess me with these things.”
Possess, indeed. In addition to her multidisciplinary work, Peterson is also an arts educator with Urban Arts Partnership, an organization which brings working artists into underserved public schools in order to close any achievement gaps by advancing students’ intellectual, artistic, and social development. And she has also modeled for the likes of designer Mara Hoffman, online Afromodernist design retailer OXOSI, and Vogue. “I used to be really self-conscious about the fact that I had multiple interests and I constantly was doing new things. I was like, God, am I a Jill of many trades and master of none? And getting to know my parents better through my work, I’m noticing I just come from a family of hustlers, you know? It’s just in my blood, I can’t help it,” she says. “I have a lot of things left that I still want to do. One of my ultimate goals was always to be a professor, to get my doctorate, to write lots of books. I wanted to be Oprah, I still want to be Oprah. I mean who doesn’t want to be Oprah? I just realized I totally can do all that. Why not? You can manifest whatever you want, you create your own reality. I want to do all of it. And do it well, hopefully.”
See Elise Peterson’s “Grace Meets Matisse” on view in New York now via Save Art Space.