An Interview with Traveler and Artist: Elizabeth Briel
Our intrepid Arts correspondent, Saskia Kusnecov connects with travelers, artists, and musicians around the world. Saskia recently interviewed artist Elizabeth Briel about art, travel, and her upcoming book . Check out the interview and be sure to watch Elizabeth Briel’s TED Talk below.
Where were you born; where did you grow up; where did you receive your education (grammar school and university)? When did you start doing art?
I always made things. They were made of words or images, often both. They were usually flat, because flat things were easier to share or display or keep hidden, depending on what they depicted. I made them with pencil, ink, markers or, later, a set of smelly oil paints donated by a neighbor that her son had left behind decades before.
They were a way out of a life I wanted to escape. Eventually these things that I made were what gave life meaning. There was no question that this would be the focus of my days and nights. If this all sounds ridiculously narcissistic and introspective, it was, and is. But I look around more now, and the world is stranger than anything I’ve seen in any painting or fantasy novel. Much more interesting, too.
When did you first start traveling? Was your artistic gaze always global?
Traveling is a state of mind. I first traveled solo at age 24, after years of dreaming and saving for it. Much later than most people I know now. The vehicle – the excuse – was a semester studying at the University of Strasbourg in France. During trips from that Alsatian base to London, Paris, Dublin, Prague, and Brussels, I saw great museums and got close to the bones of great writers. Gazed at the same skies and urban landscapes I had only seen in paintings, or read about before. Learned new languages and cultural mores, discovering assumptions from my own I hadn’t realized before.
A global gaze? I don’t think my work is particularly global. I’m just a mid-sized, middle class American, schooled in the Midwest, and curious about everywhere else – destined for mediocrity. So I suppose I’m interested to be in places that are rather different, where the experiences of everyday life are vastly different from those of my home country. My visual arts background was very Eurocentric and conservative, not through the fault of my university so much as my own history of obsession with the books, illustrations and printing available through my early years.
Where have you traveled? Your focus seems to be on Asia – why is that? Are there any cultural complexities that interest you?
I’ve traveled a little in North America (Cuba, New Orleans and Montreal are personal favorites), a bit more through Western Europe and China, and throughout most of Southeast Asia.
Why Asia? Two main reasons: One – because this is the part of the world which is changing the fastest. Two – the world’s gaze, particularly that of the USA, is being directed here. It is a fascinating point in human history to live in Asia. With the communication and translation tools now available, and our global ties closer than ever before, I can’t imagine living anywhere else at this point of my life and career. Cultural complexes are part of the territory, wherever we live. It’s just more obvious when we’re not at home.
What would you say is your main medium? You seem to enjoy making paper – why is that? Is there something unique to each country in how they make paper?
Main medium? I have several: books, ink, paint. But the most distinctive is the Cyanotype, one of the earliest forms of photography: with the help of iron salts and sunlight, I etch blue images into paper and other materials.
Making paper? I’ve tried making it for my art/book projects, but soon realized I was better off finding others to make it for me, and wrote an illustrated travel book about my search for papermakers. It’s called Paper Pilgrimage: Bombs, Bandits, and a Vanishing Art in Southeast Asia and will be released by Things Asian Press at the end of this year.
Paper – and other items of material culture – are created out of necessity with available materials. These vary depending on diverse factors like trade, geography, and warfare. I.e. the secret of paper was spread to the west via the Muslim world, after a group of Chinese prisoners/papermakers were captured in Samarkand.
You seem to focus on the state of women in the countries you visit – why is this? In what medium do you like to capture them?
Every work I make is a result of my experiences – often from a bad day – though those pieces don’t tend to sell as well. I don’t set out to ‘capture’ anything about other women, but am happy when people identify with something in my work.
What are “disappearing places” and why do you choose to depict them? In what medium?
“The past is another country,” write L. P. Hartley in the Go-Betweeners, a novel I’ve not read. As these places where I live and work transform, their context changes. , Like the bricked-out silhouettes of destroyed hutong-style homes, ghostlike against high-rise buildings. I am drawn to the traces of what was, before it’s gone. What medium? Whatever suits. Sometimes Cyanotype photos or prints, sometimes words or full-color digital photos. The medium is only the beginning. What matters is the end.
For more about Elizabeth’s work you can check out her website Art for Travelers