In Studio with Artist Cheryl Ellzysmith
Cheryl is making her Art Basel Miami debut this week at the PULSE Art Fair. In preparation, we spent some time together in her South Philly studio. Along with taking photos, we talked about her process, her motivations, her wife Kyra and their 180-pound Great Dane, Beau (short for Beaucifus), and her hopes for the future.
You can listen or read a transcript of our conversation below. I recommend listening, if you can. Sorry for my laugh (at least I don't hate the sound of my voice, hopefully you don't either).
K: Hi Cheryl
C: Hey Kristen, what's up?
K: Let's take a second to talk about where we are.
C: Well, we're hanging out at my art studio and it’s nighttime.
K: I've never been here at night.
C: Yeah, sometimes I close the curtains because it feels like everybody's looking in at you.
K: You can kind of see into your neighbor's window.
C: Ooo, we can do that.
K: Cheryl also has a lot of paintings with eyes and they all seem to be looking at us. Not necessarily in a creepy way, but just in an intense sort of...very intentional way.
C: Well, yeah, they're definitely looking at somebody...it's probably us.
K: So, Cheryl's studio's on the third floor, I guess, or is it the second? You consider your first floor your first floor? I have this argument with Pat [boyfriend] about which one is our first floor and which is our ground floor.
C: You live in a Trinity though.
K: Yeah, but when you walk in that should be your first floor right? Versus your ground floor and then your second floor is your first. ...Doesn't matter.
C: Definitely first floor, second floor, third floor. You're complicating it way too much.
K: Yeah...It's really cool up here. Actually, I'm going to describe it because Cheryl's too close to it and I don't think she'll be able to describe it in all of its glory. So, there's paintings everywhere. Some in progress, some complete. Paint on the floor. You can tell it's a real working space. You definitely are doing it up here and by doing it I mean making art. ...I mean, maybe other things, but art is the main focus of this room.
And it's just really cool. It's just a really nice space, makes me want to have a space like this even though I don't paint.
C: It's definitely a blessing. I mean we really worked hard for me to have a room like this, but I need it. Now that I have it, I know how much I really need it.
K: Yeah. I think it's super lucky to have it, for sure.
All right. So, now you kind of know where we are. We're going to just chat. I have some questions for Cheryl...
C: ...and I'll answer them.
K: My goal is to make her cry, but in a good way. We'll see if I'm successful.
C: I'll just be honest. I'll be as open and honest as possible.
K: So, the first thing I want to know is how you got started doing all this? Doing art.
C: I used to think that I never wanted to paint. I remember when I was only drawing and someone introduced painting to me and I was like, "That's…I hate that. I'm not going to do that." And now I much prefer painting to drawing. It's faster, you can do more with it, it's more malleable. I think of it as sculpting with color, in a way.
I've been drawing since I could hold crayons, since I was a toddler, and it was the one thing that made me feel like myself over and over again. My mom was very encouraging with me. When I would make a nice drawing she was enthusiastic and I responded really—I am one of those people who learns by positive reinforcement. Not, people like...what's the other way of teaching?
K: Being mean.
C: Being mean. I like the nice kind. And my mom was super, super nice, super enthusiastic, and saw either that I loved making art or that I was good at it. It doesn't matter which one it was. And she helped me do it.
So, my parents introduced me to different art forms. They put me in dance class. I played the trumpet for a little bit. They took me to community centers to do sculpture and mosaics and painting. So [art’s] been a part of my life forever, really. But I don't know the moment when I decided, "I'm going to be an artist." Maybe I never had that moment, because I always was an artist. But I just knew I was going to go to college for painting. I actually had English assignments that I was allowed to turn in drawings instead of papers.
C: I don't know, my teachers were just like, "Sure, turn a drawing in, that's fine." It's always been my language for communication.
K: So, what's your process like?
C: Well, it probably starts with my sketchbooks and note taking—a lot of writing because ideas will come to me when I'm not in the art studio. I'm pretty much inspired by the experience of living—the experience of being a human—and a little bit of injustice sprinkled in there with also absolute joy for what humanity really is.
So, I take a lot of notes and I let the notes kind of fall on the sketchbook in a random order. I let chance be my fate, in a way, or I believe in something called “Divine Timing” where you know things are meant to be where they're supposed to be. So, if I forget my sketch book and I have to email myself instead—there's a reason for that. And then I'll end up finding that email later at a time when I needed it. Things kind of just happen and I let them happen.
It's not about choosing things to be or not to be. I let things be.
K: So, you're more of a channel?
C: Definitely. Yeah. More like I open myself to what's out there in the world. It starts with sketchbooks. There's probably more writing than drawings in my books. My drawings in my books are really little scribbles of images I've seen in dreams. I see a lot of—
K: You can hear...
C: You can hear Kyra yelling at the dog.
K: Kyra, Cheryl's wife, and their Great Dane Beau, are downstairs. I don't know if you'll be able to hear it, but we can.
C: There's a lot of ruckus down there. What was I saying? Oh I...but do you hear Beau? Beau is awesome. He's like my studio lion. He hangs out with me during the day. And actually sits on my feet while I'm painting which is super, super, inconvenient. If I can express how big this dog is to you. He makes it so hard, but I love him.
K: He weighs as much as a grown man. At least.
C: He weighs more than I do, for sure.
So, we were talking about my process. How I do this. It starts with dreams. It starts with sometimes auditory visions or something I call automatic writing where I'll just start writing and let the writing happen. I don't sit down and write a poem, I just have a moment where I'm like, “I have to write this down.” And then as soon as I put pen to paper something comes out of me and I just let it go until it gets bad. Do you know what I mean? I'll go until I'm like, "Alright, that's enough." And it’s the same thing for painting.
It's this openness to: Ok I have an image. I have a vision. I have a flash of something…and then I dive into whatever that flash was. And usually it's somebody...I paint people. I paint people's souls. Whether or not they're living or imaginary or from past lives—that's what I'm trying to capture.
And usually it’s the eyes first. It's all really interconnected for me: the spoken word and the poetry and the painting. They're all talking about the same thing.
K: Ok, but when you go to actually make a painting...walk me through the process of how from beginning to end.
C: I have two kinds of paintings. I have a grouping of paintings that are very fast and experiential and they take 30 minutes or less to make. Sometimes five minutes to make. I have an idea of what it's going to look like and I just trust that.
You know me putting my hand in the paint and putting it on the painting: it will be correct. One of my mantras is there are no mistakes. So as terrifying as that is (because it is terrifying) I'm not allowed to erase things. I'm not allowed to backtrack. If I make a mistake I trust that that was me opening the painting to something better. I try to push forward from that.
And so then the other group of paintings could take months and months and months. And I don't know they're done until they're done. And I know they're done because they sing. I can just feel them being complete. There's this moment of, "OK, just walk away. Don't touch it." And those paintings have a lot of layers and they tend to have this depth of reality and also this depth of the supernatural in them at the same time. But I have a very specific image that I'm going for. There's something in my mind that I'm looking to recreate in reality. I come across these moments where people will be like, "Oh my god, stop, I love the painting exactly how it is." And to me, I don't see how beautiful it is because it doesn't look the way it does in my head.
And so I'm like, “Well I'm not going to stop, I'm going to keep painting it.” So I have "ruined" paintings in some people's opinion because of that. However, you know I think they become believers when they see it at the end. Like, "Ok, I see what she was doing."
But I am altering my process to allow for those moments where people resonate with the painting, because I think that's important. If a part of the process of the painting resonates with someone, I want to pay attention to that. So I am trying to take good quality photographs and make prints at that time and then maybe the painting gets painted over, maybe it doesn't, maybe I stop and start the painting over. That's why there are so many versions of August.
K: August is what...so Cheryl said something a couple of seconds ago about how people may think a painting is done when Cheryl does not, and August is an example of that. I've actually been privy to sort of the inner workings of the thought process behind what happened with this particular painting.
I think you need to start maybe in the beginning even though you sort of alluded to it already. But what happened with August? So first, where she came from. And then also the "over painting" potentially (if you talk to Kyra). Kyra, the editor of your paintings, if you want to talk a little bit about that too. And then how you've gotten to the point now where you are with August. The new August. How many "Augusts" have there been?
C: We can count. There's one there, two, three rolled up over there, four (who got painted over), five? There's at least five. There's a drawing somewhere, so six.
K: And these are all, a lot of them, are these fairly large canvases. What's the size of this guy?
C: That one's three feet by four feet.
K: So, there's a couple of those and there's a couple smaller ones with her on them too. But it's the same sort of figure from your dream, right?
C: Right. Yeah. So I guess I started painting in July. I hadn't been painting for five years. Like we talked about before, I am a painter, I was born to paint. But I graduated college in post-2008 in modern America and I couldn't pay my bills so I ended up doing lots of weird jobs, many of which inform my work now. But it did prevent me from painting. So, I had this kind of wake-up call. I'm walking through a child's exhibit at the Franklin Institute (with my mom) of Egyptian artifacts. We didn't know it was going to be a child's exhibit. We thought it was an ancient Egypt exhibit, but it was it was wonderful, it was phenomenal. And they talked about, in a child's storybook way, the ideas of life and death as far as the Egyptians felt about it. And I had this vision just sitting there with my mom, watching this puppet show of a crocodile sitting in front of an old mosaic of water with an egg floating in it. And I knew the title of the painting was the Crocodile and the Egg. It was this idea: which came first the chicken or the egg? But in ancient Egypt terminology. That painting woke me up and I had to make that painting. So, I went and made it. It's still not quite done but it's right there.
K: It's very cool.
C: Thanks, yeah. So, August happened right after that. We're talking maybe July.
K: Even though she's named August.
C: Well, because I really started painting her in August. I had the dreams in July. And these were dreams that—I feel like we must all have dreams like that. It's just whether or not you decide to wake up. I decided to wake up and this woman just turned and looked at me and behind her was this floating bright red light. It was like this red orb almost like the Egyptian drawings of the Goddess Hathor, no, not Hathor.
K: Was it Ra?
C: Maybe Ra? No, it's the female goddess who has the cow horns.
K: Yeah, but you're right it's not Ra.
[Editor’s Note: It is Hathor]
C: I'm terrible. Forgive me for not knowing her name. But it had this same quality, this like bright red orb. This woman turned and looked at me and scared me into waking. The way she looked at me—she was a real person that I had never met before. So, at first this I was like, "Whoa, crazy, ok."
And then it happened again and the second time she inferred information to me that, "Hey, you need to wake up. It's time for you to do what you do." And I was like, “ok.” So, in my sleep I drew this little scribble of her. Then from that scribble, every time I look at that little scribble, I see her. It resonates her, acknowledges something in my memory that wakes me up to what she looked like.
All these paintings are me trying to capture August. I call her August because I realized that she was standing in front of the eclipse. And this was before the eclipse happened and before Facebook and the TV was like,"Oh the eclipse is happening, the great American eclipse!"
I didn't put two and two together until I heard the eclipse is coming and I was like, "Holy shit." The dream is about the eclipse. So, I have versions of the eclipse where she's standing in the dark and the eclipse hasn't come yet. I have versions where the eclipse has happened and it's turned into a black hole. I have versions where you see the moon and it has silver leaf and it's very decorative. But for me all these paintings are happening at the same time. It's the reason there are so many of her, because there are so many versions of us as humans and there are so many versions of her. I think of her or these paintings as time traveling in a way. But it's a visual language, it's hard to explain it verbally.
K: Well that's how you got to the over-painting, the one version, right?
C: So, I kind of destroyed one of the paintings and it was the one that everyone was like, "Oh my god, we love it like don't touch it." And I was like, "You guys are crazy. This is an underpainting." Like I know what I'm doing.
K: For a second, describe what an underpainting is.
C: An underpainting is like...so a lot of the old masters would do burnt sienna or sepia. Essentially drawings with paint. I do underpaintings that are more value based, but they're with color. And then I do another layer of color on top of them. Usually multiple layers of color, so I saw this as the under layer.
It was this slightly blue tinted structure image and to me—it had color in it—but in my mind, it had not enough color. So, everyone loved it or people were telling me, "Yo don't touch it.” And I was like, "I'm doing it. I'm going to touch it. Don't worry, I got it." And then I painted a hole into it. Literally there's a hole in it right now.
So that happened.
But it was funny because I've ruined paintings before and usually I would have a panic attack about it. And this time I was just like, "Ok, I painted a hole in that. Ok, that's fine." And I started a new one and another one and another one. And I'm so grateful I broke it because if I hadn't I wouldn't have made any of the others. It was no longer precious to me.
So now I can go back to it and repair it. It's repairable guys like, don't freak out. I just have to do some Frankenstein work on it. And then I can go back to finishing it. But it will never look the way people wanted it to look, unfortunately.
K: It reminds me of, and I forget who…but I know where this advice came from: in my college years we would do writing workshops and we'd talk about editing our own work. It was like, I think the phrase goes: "Kill your darlings." The idea being: the thing that you love the most about your piece is probably the thing that's holding it back. So ya gotta kill it to find the rest of it, basically. Kind of makes me think of what your process has been with August so far.
C: Yeah. I try to keep my paintings open, so that means that it doesn't look pretty all the time. I let it be ugly. It has to be ugly for me to make it really a masterpiece. If you let it be pretty the whole time it will never grow. It will never have depth.
K: When you look at your paintings there are just these layers and layers of colors on top of colors, creating the final image. It's really fascinating actually. I certainly could not do it.
C: I bet you could.
K: Oh, yeah, if I tried really hard.
K: So earlier you touched on this a little bit, but I'm interested in sort of—I think you're really passionate about social issues and you see that come across in some of your work. So, if you can just talk a little bit more about the intersection of that part of your being and what you produce.
C: Well I approach social issues from a broader standpoint or "big picture" almost, which can be dangerous because you don't want to single people out or forget people. And I know that that is something I'm working on, being inclusive of others. But there are key things that I try to accomplish in my artwork when painting people. I claim womanhood. I don't care what race you are, but women are women and there's something to be said about that. Women are not celebrated in the way that I believe 2000 years ago we were. So that's a cornerstone in my artwork as well as, again, your race doesn't matter. So, I do try in a way to make the people in the paintings have almost ambiguous races and you can infer as the viewer that they are whatever you want them to be. I use different races of people to paint each person. I use references of all different races for each painting and that's part of why the layers of colors come in because I layer color on top of color. It's this idea of having this universal love for one another that is ancient. And I really believe that humanity is stronger than the hate that we are experiencing in the world right now, that there's a lot of love in us. It's in our DNA. And big picture that's kind of what I'm talking about.
Now, specifically, each painting has its own, almost like, folklore. I guess I would be called an allegorical painter. I was looking up what I might be and I'm thinking maybe I'm an allegorical painter.
I have that painting Lady Justice. And then the painting next to her, Atlas. And the Lady Justice painting is, I'll describe her to you, she's standing, it looks like maybe on piles of money. You're not really sure what she's standing on. And if you know the Lady Justice she's supposed to be holding scales with a blindfold and she has a sword. Justice is blind, whatever, whatever. In this painting, in this version, her scales are being tipped over. It's like someone is pulling on her dress. She's holding the world on her shoulders. There's a heart in one of her scales. And the heart is being pushed up by bags of money and then the other scale's holding a feather. And that kind of links back to this Egyptian legend or religious story that when you die the God of Death weighs your heart against a feather. And if your heart weighs the same or less than, you go to heaven, if not, the opposite happens. And in this image, it's like whoever's heart is being weighed is trying to bribe her in a way. On top of that she has too much on her plate. She's holding the world and the painting next to her is Atlas sitting on the globe, like he’s looking at his phone. I haven't decided if he'll be looking at his phone or not.
And then the way these paintings—they actually can stack. Their big paintings so I can't do it in my art studio. I can get on the floor. But if I had a gallery and I could show it vertically, he could stack right on top of her and it would look like she was holding the world with him sitting on top of it. Those images to me say more than the words that describe those concepts.
And that's just because it's my language and I hope that resonates with other people. But it's more complicated than just putting a stamp of a solution on it. We have to acknowledge the reasons why we are the way we are and maybe come up with new ideas about who we can be. We don't have to be what we always thought we would be.
K: I think something that resonated with me right from the beginning of what you were just talking about was the idea that women aren't celebrated as maybe we once were. And it's funny to me because, I think it was this morning, I read this article about how there are only two monuments in Philadelphia to women. There recently were three because they did this project called Monument Lab where they did prototype monuments throughout the city and artists were invited to express where there might be some deficiencies in the monuments in the city and have some public conversation and dialogue around that.
And this one installation was in Rittenhouse Square. It was these, I think the artist had used pedestals from other monuments that—it held no other monument. It was just the pedestals from these other monuments. But along the rim of them were names of women who should be celebrated, who should have monuments to them in the city. You think about how much public art is in Philadelphia and there's such a lack of women being celebrated.
And then this bigger conversation right now around Confederate monuments. I think in general, wherever you go, it's very rare to see people of color and women represented in monument form.
So just that idea of having more representation is very important—just from that level. But then you just add layers of commentary on to it that I think are really interesting and important.
C: Well, it's also coming from... I think that the human mind and the human soul really have this access to the experience of being human that is centuries old, millennia old.
Simply because we are who we are and what you experience as human nature is the same as human nature was 2000 years ago. And if you work backwards from where we are now, you can have a pretty clear idea of what the beginning really was like. A lot of my poetry talks about this and those poems maybe I wrote them, but a part of me feels that I channel them, that they were not my words. That I was really just a vessel to bring them to life here in the world right now. That kind of links to this idea I have that we're all born to be here now. We all have a place here and we all have a job to do and my job is translating the nonsense of our world to what the real world is, which is a lot more loving a lot more spiritual. There's a lot more intuition in the real world than people are willing to acknowledge.
And I know that relates to what you said I just don't remember how it related...
K: No, it's totally relevant. But since we're getting so heavy I thought I'd switch to a lighter question. This is going to feel like a non-sequitur, but it might not be. We'll see what happens.
Describe your perfect day.
C: My perfect day?
There are two kinds of perfect days, but my perfect "art" day would be like: I wake up and it's really sunny out, so sunny and pretty and the light in here is just heavenly. Sometimes the light in this room is just so perfect that you can't deny that there's something, some truth in all the religions about the universe and God and love and that things are blessed.
K: So, to give a little bit of an idea, there are windows on both sides of this room which is pretty rare in Philadelphia, to have a room with windows on both sides.
C: We looked for like a year for this house.
And what's interesting, I didn't realize this when I bought the house, but it actually has a window at north, south, east, and west. So, I get light from every corner of the world. It really does something to the room.
So yeah, a day with lots of light. Maybe I eat breakfast that day. That would be good. I should do that.
And Beau is not a pain in the butt. We feed him and then I grab my coffee and we come right up to the third floor and I just have a day where the painting just flows out of me. Sometimes you struggle for it and sometimes there are days where you just open your eyes at the end of the day and there are new paintings in front of you.
And those are the best days. I love those days.
K: I think you have a very special relationship with your wife Kyra and also your dog. You've talked about both of them a little bit, but I want you to talk a little bit more about how they both support your practice as an artist and then maybe also support you as a person. But I think those probably intersect, so they probably have a similar answer.
C: Totally. I don't think you can unravel the artist from the person.
I'm like, really lucky to have Kyra in my life. Yeah.
K: Trying to make her cry!
C: We met by accident.
I wasn't dating women. It was literally love at first sight. She was a woman and I was a woman and it was...I had panic attacks about it. But also, I met my soulmate, randomly one day. She has proven to be more and more meant for me every day that we go on. To the point where she knows how to make sure I eat or do things that adults do like clean dishes.
And does it sternly but lovingly and also knows how to appeal to my artist nature without diving in with me. Because when you talk to another artist you just get lost. You can drown in it. And Kyra knows how to converse with me in a way that keeps things light and also still pushes me to be better or communicate better.
She kind of is my editor of my paintings. Ever since I painted a hole in August, we kind of had an understanding that she would come up and look at the paintings every day at the end of the day and then guide me or just give me her thoughts.
They didn't have to be right, they didn't have to be wrong. They didn't have to be artistic or curatorial or anything. She would just be like, "I liked it when her eyes were more squinty. It made me feel better."
However Kyra feels about it. Honestly, her opinions matter so much to me because I realize when I've gone astray from the original image. She sees truth in me and I see truth in her and it's really cool.
And I almost was going to cry, but then you made me laugh, so, sorry.
K: Sigh. You still haven't said anything about Beau. Can I get you to cry about Beau?
C: Maybe! He almost died when we got him which was really sad. We had him for like two months and he got pneumonia and it cost us so much money. We went in credit card debt to save his life.
It was terrifying. I was more worried about losing him. But we found out he probably got pneumonia because once he jumped in the ocean. He didn't know that it got deeper. So he just ran out there like, "Yo, I'm going to go out there," and then just fell underwater.
He was fine. He's fine now, but he does not go swimming anymore. He does not like it. He's great. He taught me how to be a better person. And, granted, he is the size of a human, so it does kind of help, but looking into his eyes there's a soul in there and it's his, it's Beau. This very particular person or being is in there and he...you know I didn't even think to tell you this, but he knows when I'm connected to Spirit or not.
He can tell. If I...I call it "floating away," if I get too connected or too lost in it he starts to really freak out at me and like yell at me and then I'm like, "OK Beau, I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” or sometimes I have to be like, “Babe, it's ok. I know what I'm doing, everything's all right." But he does not always like that very much. He's great though, he keeps me grounded.
K: He's a huge dog. I came in the house today and Cheryl literally laid on him to keep him from jumping up on me.
C: Sorry about that.
K: Oh, I'm fine. I just think it's hilarious. My dog's only...I wasn't there when they met, but she's like 70 pounds, so in comparison...
C: Oh, they met?
K: Yeah, so Kyra and Pat were together, and the dogs, without us
K: All right. I feel like there’s a million more questions I could ask you, but I'm going to ask you one more for right now.
K: You are about to turn 29 on Saturday.
C: That's right.
K: Ten years from now: Where do you want you to be and also, the world [to be]?
C: Well I have a lot of hope for the world.
I know this has been a very hard year for many people and that things seem to be turned upside down in a very scary way. My family included. We talk about it all the time.
But I have absolute faith in humanity. The legends and the stories of humanity tell us over and over again that things will be ok and change is inevitable and we have to just let go and be positive and be kind to our neighbors. And so, I think that in 10 years we'll be writing term papers about this presidency and how modern America got turned upside down and the American ideal was manipulated by greed. All these things that are happening, but people are awake to it now.
I think the presidency, as frustrating and terrible as it is, has a silver lining in that we are awoken to it and many people are standing up against it when previously things that were already occurring were easier to ignore.
So, I do I have a lot of faith in this country and in international communication and ties. I think that things will be much more balanced in the future.
We have a lot at stake. The world is... we're hitting a climax of experience, of existence. And you can either reach the top of the pyramid and reach your full potential or reach Nirvana or whatever you want to call it, or you can fall backwards down the hill and go all the way back to the bottom again. I think if more of us stand up and say, "Hey. I believe in love. I believe in change and I will protect you if I can and have the means to. I'll try." The more of us that do that, the better off we'll be.
And artistically, I hope that I'm painting.
I hope that I still am able to afford to wake up every day and go to my art studio and paint. That's really all I want. Now I would also like to sell paintings. Obviously because we need money to survive in America, but I also can't store them all. There's too many of them.
K: Ok, so this is a side question, spurned off of that one: Ideally would you like all of August to live together or should she be separated?
C: I am up for letting fate decide that. Maybe one day they'll be back together maybe someone will love them and buy all of them. I'm open to any of it.
It's funny, I seem to know that there will be a favorite of the Augusts, a universal favorite, but I don't think it'll be my favorite.
She can go wherever she belongs and if it's here with us, then that's fine too.
K: Yeah. Maybe that means you just sell other paintings so you have more wall space.
C: Yeah, we're out of wall space.
K: Alright, cool.
C: Cool. Thanks. This was really fun!
Cheryl's painint "Navigation" (above) can be found at PULSE Art Fair, 4601 Collins Ave Miami Beach, South Tent, Booth 212. Follow her digital sketchbook on Instagram @cherylellzysmith and visit her website at CherylEllzysmith.com. Interested in a painting? They're for sale! Visit her website for contact information.