Featured Artist, Elise Wehle
My artwork revolves around the time-intensive act of cutting intricate patterns using a utility knife. As I cut out each shape and line by hand, my creative process transforms into a meditative act as my hands perform the repetitive motions required by my art. By the time I finish an artwork, my hands ache and I have more callouses than I can count, but like most meditation, I am rewarded with more awareness and clarity, both results I consider an essential part of my art.
Interview with Elise
Who is Elise Wehle? Tell us about your background, where you grew up and what artistic influences you had during your life.
I grew up in California, went to school for my Bachelors of Fine Art in Utah, but really came to understand the art I wanted to make while living 18 months in Southern Spain. When I visited the incredible Alhambra in Granada, my art instantly transformed. The Alhambra is an ancient palace covered in hand crafted patterns and mosaics, and I was completely floored by the amount of detail and attention each pattern required. Looking at the Alhambra’s walls and ceilings where every inch was composed of repeating designs, I couldn’t comprehend the amount of work and focus it would take to create such a building. It was a glorious testament to the power of the human hand. Wanting my art to contain just a bit of the power I experienced there, I began incorporating repeating patterns in my own work. I wasn’t a sculptor, but I realized cut paper required a similar dedication to craft and detail. I soon began my first experiments with cutting paper, and even though I’m often left with a dozen callouses and achy fingers, I just love the process.
I am a wife and a mother, and throughout all the changes those roles have gifted me, I have always maintained my art practice. Being an artist centers me amid the chaos of parenting and brings peace and mindfulness despite tantrums, sleep regressions, and the other unpredictable adventures of raising three kids five and under. The way I create art is in direct response to that chaos, which is one reason I use patterns so often in my work. While creating patterns can be seen as tedious or repetitive, I see it as a way to experience a degree of predictability and order in my life. With a pattern, I always know what comes next, and cutting out patterns has become a form of mediation in my creative process.
Where did your art story begin?
As a child I used art to explore my love for animals, and I filled sketchbook upon sketchbook with crayon drawings of wolves, raccoons, otters, and other animals I discovered through my Zoobooks. I remember how proud I was when a bunch of kids in my first-grade class asked if I could draw a horse for each of them. It wasn’t until middle school that I realized I loved drawing independent of animals, and I started pursuing art seriously.
Where did you learn your craft or how did your interest in your medium develop?
Graffiti and street art interested me in college, and the first time I picked up a craft knife I used it to cut out a paper stencil that I later used for spray painting. Stencils taught me about the patience and carefulness required to cut paper, but it was definitely a learning curve. Initially I cut patterns composed of completely linear shapes (cutting circles was so hard for me!) and only made large patterns. Over time the patterns grew smaller and the designs curvier as I became more comfortable with my knife. I still am intimidated to cut some patterns, but I try to consistently push myself to go smaller and more intricate with each artwork I create.
Even though I don’t engage in street art any more (probably a wise decision with three kids at home), the whole process of cutting paper deeply appealed to me. In my college years social media began to take over the world, and my time spent away from technology became more and more valuable. Ignoring my phone and quietly cutting paper became this essential part of my day. It was good for my hands, and it was good for my mental headspace too.
Tell us about your art business. How did you get started and what has it brought into your life?
A year after I graduated college, I came across an art competition juried by the Jealous Curator. I didn’t care about winning or the prize money…I just wanted to get my art in front of Danielle Krysa. To my complete shock, I won, and Danielle featured my art on her blog a week later. That is when I had my lucky break. The blog feature drove lots of people to my web store, and I started selling my originals consistently. Soon I quit my job as a receptionist and focused on art full-time. Now I work part-time since I want to spend time with my children while they’re so little, but the Jealous Curator is what enabled that kind of flexibility in my life. I owe her a lot!
Take us through your process when you are creating a new artwork.
Oh my, I feel like my process has sooooo many steps. The first step is the simplest and the hardest: the idea. I keep a pocket-sized sketchbook with me wherever I go, and whenever inspiration hits (a totally unpredictable occurrence), I make a quick sketch of the composition along with a few notes. After that I hire a model and tell her what kind of poses and overall vibe I’m looking for. After taking a million pictures, I upload my photos into Photoshop and start laying different patterns and designs over the model’s photo. I’m basically creating the artwork digitally first, so this step entails a lot of experimenting until I get the composition right. Once I’m done with the composition, I enlarge it so it’s exactly the size of the artwork I’m creating, down to the tiniest millimeter. After printing it off, this becomes my guide on where and how to cut my artwork. Finally, I either cut directly into a photograph scaled to the same size or instead create a drawing with pastels and graphite depending on what I think works best for the artwork. I tape my guide with my design onto the back, and the rest is simple. I cut out each little pattern with a precision knife until my artwork is finished. There’s always some panic at the end when I realize something that worked in my digital mock up just doesn’t translate well in the physical artwork. I’m usually scrambling to cut some last-minute shapes to add, but after that final creative push, I can declare the artwork finished.
What does creating art give you?
Creating art gives me a deep sense of fulfillment. After I had my first child, I started to go into a depression a couple of months after her birth. As soon as I started creating art again, that lethargic sadness just disappeared. I’m not sure why, but art makes all the other experiences of my life richer. I can more easily enjoy and soak up how incredible my family, my home, and just my life is when I’m creating art alongside all of the other adventures thrown my way.
Where does your inspiration come from?
Anything that involves a lot handiwork tends to inspire me. I love illuminated manuscripts, embroidery, and William Morris. If it looks intricate and like it took a lot of time, it will impact me.
I also love the human figure and draw a lot of inspiration from other figurative artists and photographers. My current favorite is Nichole Rae Klein.
Describe your art studio space.
On the lower level of our home, we’ve dedicated an entire room to my studio. An entire room! In our previous home I used to work in just a little corner of our bedroom. My studio has all of my favorite things in it—artwork from other artists, my paper collection (I collect interesting sheets of paper whenever we go on a trip), and as many plants as possible (sadly my studio doesn’t get a lot of light, so my choices are limited. I make it work though!). I have a large wooden drafting table that takes up most of the space. My floor is completely covered in tiny pieces of paper leftover from my cuttings, and I track those little scraps all over our house. Since my floor is usually covered in paper, I’ve tried to keep the rest of the space clean and minimal. That lets me enter the studio with a clearer mind ready to create.
What new projects or collections are you working on right now?
Last year I experimented with adding plants and flowers to my patterns. I liked the juxtaposition between the stiff patterns and the more organic, unpredictable shapes of nature. I’m going to continue experimenting with that and see where it takes me! Even with the pandemic, I have a couple of group shows this year, so I’ll also be making art for those too.
Tell us about your commissioned artwork.
I love commissions and have made quite a few. Ranging from someone who found me on Instagram to large art consulting companies with tons of employees, my clients are both big and small, and I enjoy it all. Some of my favorite commissions have been when a client entrusts me with one of their favorite photos, and then I cut my patterns and designs into it. Combining something personal to them with something significant to me creates a really powerful artwork, and they’ve been exciting projects to bring to life.
What are some standout points or people in your life that guided you to where you are now in your artistic life?
My college professor Peter Everett has had a lasting impact on my art. He made me feel safe by reassuring me that sometimes you need to make a lot of bad art before you can make something good. That gave me permission to fail and in addition, not even see those artworks as failures. Instead, he taught me to see every artwork as a lesson that teaches me more and more about the art I really want to make and how to actually make it. Everything I create is in reaction to the last piece of art I made, and hopefully each new artwork takes me a little closer to what I’m trying to articulate.
What is your favorite art tool to use when creating?
My Excel precision knife and blades. It’s through this tool that my meditative process begins, and I can just relax, breathe, and focus only on the next cut. Having used A LOT of xacto knives and their competitors, I especially love Excel because they have the most durable blades and comfortable tools. My number one pick, for sure.
In your artwork named "Revelation," share with us the meaning behind this piece.
I’m a religious person, and consequently I think there is more to this world than what meets the eye. My art attempts to explore that, looking for those crossways where my physical and spiritual experiences meet. Revelation is about a moment like that.