In Conversation with Elise Peterson: Using Her Artistry to Highlight Black Icons in Public Spaces
Visual artist and writer Elise Peterson creates magical compositions of Black icons inserted in the works of Henri Matisse and Pierre Boncompain, in her enigmatic digital collage series 'Black Folk'. Peterson pulls from pop culture and music history, like using Grace Jones' Island Life album cover (shot by Jean-Paul Goude in 1985) and placing Jones in Matisse's La Danse. Other legends include Prince (from his 1988 Lovesexy album cover), and Sade in her signature red lip and oversized gold hoops, paired with Matisse, resulting in fluid and sensual scenes. Peterson's homage to these Black superstars epitomize Black joy and beauty, especially since people of color have been historically erased and excluded from art spaces for so long. Peterson celebrated that idea when she displayed 'Grace Meets Matisse', which was blown up on billboards and pay phone booths all over Manhattan this past summer. I speak to Peterson about this, other incredible recent projects, and her approaching mommyhood.
Gallery Gurls: First off congrats on your latest public art project, the inaugural edition of Art Sundae with Art Production Fund and Fort Gansevoort which features your sculpture 'Dream House'. How did it come about and what's special about it to you?
Elise Peterson: Thank you! I’m incredibly proud of the ‘Dream House’ public work as it’s a culmination of my passions; working with the youth and making art accessible. I connected with Kathleen Lynch and Casey Fremont of Art Production Fund after Kathleen and I spoke on a panel together. They asked me to join their new initiative, Art Sundae, where they would pair working artists with NYC youth to create work that would then live at Fort Gansevoort.
The actual concept came to me in a dream. My partner and I had a conversation about how important it is for our future child to know how to utilize their imagination to turn a cardboard box into a spaceship versus being heavily reliant on technology for entertainment. That night I had a dream that I created a life-size home out of cardboard filled with imagery from dreams. As my ideation process evolved, I felt strongly about the concept of the work itself evolving over time. That’s why children are able to continuously leave notes and illustrations of their dreams in the house that I then wheat paste on the interior and exterior throughout the duration of the exhibition.
"To have it at that scale, on a billboard, on the Manhattan Bridge, was a platform I had never fathomed for my work. It was definitely an opportunity that allowed me to dream bigger. "
This is not your first foray into public art, over the summer you participated in Save Art Space's 'The Future is Female', which featured your collage 'Grace Meets Matisse'. It must've been incredible to see your work at that scale and be a part of feminist messaging visible all over the city.
Save Art Space was an incredible opportunity that came on the heels of my first New York public work in collaboration with Tictail and Absolute Art. The work depicted a female form at the intersection of Mammy and Mami Wata along with African/Afro-Latinx/indigenous religious imagery. It was that much more satisfying to have my next public work to be Black and woman-centered with ‘Grace Meets Matisse’ via Save Art Space. To have it at that scale, on a billboard, on the Manhattan Bridge, was a platform I had never fathomed for my work. It was definitely an opportunity that allowed me to dream bigger.
"So, I quite literally then placed Black figures that resonate with me into works of fine art to show that not only can we exist in these spaces, we can thrive and be at the forefront."
I've always loved your series 'Black Folk', your pairing of blackness against Western art. The feeling and gestures in those collages are sensual, intimate, vibrant and really celebrate the Black body. Can you talk about why you created this series?
Historically, there are so many spaces and institutions that were established without considering Black people or the Black experience. The world of fine art is not absolved of this fact. In my personal life, I very much felt I did not have agency in the spaces I was navigating. So, I quite literally then placed Black figures that resonate with me into works of fine art to show that not only can we exist in these spaces, we can thrive and be at the forefront.
Recently I had a conversation with a female artist and she said she would love a financial mentor. Do you have one or what has been the best advice you've been given about finances and your artistic practice?
I do not have an official financial mentor, however, I do have quite a few mentors that help guide me on a broad spectrum of life happenings. My mother has been a great asset in discussions of finances especially with wanting to build a solid financial foundation for my child’s future. Save and invest in things you truly believe in have been some sage words to live by.
Very soon you will be a mother and you're also a full-time artist, what are your views on motherhood and balancing an artist career?
I’m not sure yet, as I’m still very much just Elise at this point. I have been reading, HOW WE DO BOTH : Art and Motherhood ,which is filled with honest accounts of balancing (or not) art and motherhood from some of today’s prominent artists who also share the privilege of motherhood.
Why is intersectional feminism important to you?
What’s important to me is living my purpose, cultivating my divine feminine energy, honoring my ancestors, being free, and aiding in the freedom of my people.
Follow Elise Peterson on Instagram: @eliserpeterson