Next up in Juliette Furio’s monthly artist interviews is up-and-coming sculptor Elyssa Sykes-Smith on strong women, the power of imagination and red lipstick.
On a Saturday in early August we sit in Elyssa Sykes-Smith‘s Marrickville home on plush leather couches that have clearly seen more of life than we mere humans. Afternoon sun dapples Elyssa’s face as she examines bits of timber and leather cut-offs. These treasures make up the loot from her most recent expedition to Reverse Garbage in Marrickville, a paradise for artists and craftsman who work with the cast-offs of society. Elyssa softly pulls at the leather, examining its dexterity and holding it up to her nose to inhale its rich scent.
We begin our discussion with her background – her parents, their values and their influence on her work. Elyssa’s is a predominantly female family. “Everyone is really warm, and quite caring. They are also quite independent women.” Elyssa divines that the source of this particular feminine strength stems from her demurely eccentric grandmother. A deeply caring and resilient woman, she overlaid the members of her family with a profound and unfeigned touch, not least of which, Elyssa’s mother.
“My father was nothing to go by in terms of a stable father figure. I always saw that (my mother) was a single woman, doing everything.” What seems to have struck Elyssa most is that this status – of being a single woman – is in no way an incapacitation. “She managed to do a lot. Raise kids, build a career. She finished studying psychology, just before I was born”
With this last comment, Elyssa trails off into a reverie. Taking a moment to step into herself, she smiles tremulously before launching into the destructive nature of her parent’s relationship and its effect on her mind and art.
For the first six weeks of her life, Elyssa lived in a commune with her parents away from the “real” world in a sub-temperate rainforest. A a child she would often go back to visit her father until a suite of disastrous and intensely traumatic kidnappings. “He was severely malicious a lot of the time,” Elyssa says of her father quite frankly, taking a breath as if to ready herself for an uncomfortable sensation. “He is someone who has a very, incredibly strong sense of intuition. A quite incredible person, even if somewhat toxic.” Neglecting her most basic needs, he punished the mother-to-child bond by preventing contact between them.
Unable to sleep and exhibiting manipulative behavior towards her classmates, it was she who made the decision, at age eight, to cease contact. It was also at this age that Elyssa began an intensely strict mental discipline. Choosing to move on with her life, she sectioned off parts of her mind. Although this would indeed help in propelling life forwards, the problematic aspect of such mind-control manifested themselves years later. “I lost my ability to fantasise. With that comes the ability to go on any kind of tangent,” she admits with traces of chagrin. “I could make art because I’ve never really had the problem to be able to make. If I can’t imagine, I just play and then things go on from that. Creativity gets pulled out from the physical act of playing. But I really…missed those moments where I would lay down and think about a project. Hours would go by and you just fall in love with it and I just remember – that feeling – is so aligned with just falling in love…it’s the thing that gets me, how could you not want that?”
Sculpture became a method via which Elyssa could continue her exploration of life. Timber especially seemed to facilitate the flow of imagination. “I would get in the position not knowing what I was doing, but it felt like a way to work directly from my mind. I really loved that. I create often out of personal need to, and for the process of teasing my imagination out. In that sense I am making for myself, but it’s not enough for me to be by myself with my subject. I want it to be viewed; it’s for the general public.”
“At Sculpture by the Sea, I like the fact that you are getting such a mix of people. There were, what, 500,000 people that came, over the last few years? I love hiding behind the rocks and just watching people interact with my work. Where I’ve made work for those sites, the only way I come up with the idea is if I physically go there and play around with the site. By feeling around and suddenly, it’s like a piece of the puzzle locks in and it’s like ‘Yep! This is how I naturally respond to the site and that’s what I should do.’ At that point I’ll get someone to take some little snaps, then I’ll draw it up but it’s all based on the physical response. Doing that process really takes you into the present moment of being there and your physicality helps the interaction.
“What I saw with last year’s work, so many people come by, and it’s one of those cheesy things, to get your photo taken next to the sculpture, but a lot of people would stop and mimic what the sculptures were doing. It’s such a snapshot thing to do but at the same time, as cheap as some people would view that that makes my work, I’ve just achieved what I wanted because they are engaging with what I was doing in the beginning. It’s such a simple thing, it happens in an instant and it’s not necessarily a profound thing, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a moment. It’s a moment of taking them out of walking by. So I do create for a general public. So they can walk by, feel it, get a bit of a buzz out of it and that’s that. Who’s to say that it doesn’t penetrate them in some way – that it gave them a feeling or connection?
Elyssa Sykes-Smith’s signature sculptural style is, for the most part, comprised of just-over-life-sized figures constructed from segmented pieces of timber. It was the first of these series of this signature style that earned her a place in 2012’s Sculpture by the Sea as well being awarded the Clitheroe Foundation Mentorship. The following year saw her work included once more, this time with a pair of figures. She was then also awarded the 2013 Staff Choice Prize. You can be sure to expect her sculptural presence in Sculpture by the Sea 2014 (23 Oct – 9 Nov).
When rendering female forms, her subjects are quite rounded but always strong. Alongside possessing muscular definition, the positions of the figures are also quite emblematic of inner or physical strength. There is almost a certain discomfort in the poises they adopt, for as Elyssa explains, “They are not ‘presenting’ to be feminine.” At once curvaceous with “big butts’” (artist’s own words), Elyssa’s timber figures are a testament and demonstration that soft sensuality and strength can coexist in perfect harmony.
As for a signature trait of the artist herself, one cannot miss Elyssa’s trademark red lipstick. “It lifts my mood. It makes me feel like I’m in control,” she reveals with delight. “It brightens me up.” The shock of bright red provides her with visual power and even perhaps self-affirmation. “Today I was just feeling so down and out of it this morning and I was like ‘No! If we’re going to do this I’ve got to switch somewhere else.’ It does that for me. And I love the look of it. Some make-up you can use to try and accentuate things subtly but red lipstick is so clearly make-up, but it’s like a bang! It’s there, and yes, I’m wearing make-up and not trying to hide it! Yeah, I dig it. Big time, for where it puts me.”
To the last, Elyssa can be most perfectly described as “powerfully feminine.”
See more of the work of Elyssa Sykes-Smith on her website.
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