Interview: Elody Gyekis

Elody Gyekis earned her BFA in Painting and Ceramics from Penn State. Her artwork includes painting, drawing, and sculpture and has been exhibited widely throughout the US. She completed an artist residency in Sibiu, Romania in 2014 and has taught intensive painting workshops as part of an artist residency in both Costa Rica and Honduras. Elody is also an active muralist, having created several community based projects throughout Pennsylvania. She splits her time between living in Pennsylvania, Central America, and New York City, where she will begin her Master of Fine Arts studies at the New York Academy of the Arts in 2017.

What first drew you to art or inspired you to become an artist? 

That is a difficult answer for me, as the impulse to create is as old as my first memories. I had an isolated childhood, not always but in the sense that I did spend many hours alone. I lived on a small mountain in central Pennsylvania that had only three houses on it and both of my parents worked, so after day care or school, I spent my afternoons largely alone (my older brother was around but not usually engaging with me). I read, I drew, I collected fossils. I dug clay in the stream bank and made pinch pots. I made fairy houses out of twigs and leaves. I drew. My parents were creative and encouraged me. My grandmother was an art teacher and so visits to her always involved arts and crafts. Later, in high school, I would spend hours on drawings and paintings after school, creating enough work of high enough quality that I was able to get into a phenomenal program that sadly does not exist anymore: The Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Arts, a prestigious full scholarship summer art program that was in Erie, PA. There, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by many talented and creative kids, many of us the "misfits" of our own schools, and together we found belonging and encouragement and inspiration and our creativity and passion flourished. I was 16 when I went, and it changed my life, giving me confidence in myself and planting the seed of the idea that I could pursue art as a career. 

How did your early career develop and where did you study?

I studied at Penn State University. I applied to and got into MICA, Pratt, SFAI and other art schools, but decided on Penn State for financial reasons. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they had a strong art program, great faculty, and as part of the Honors College I had access to wonderful academic classes to feed my intellectual curiosity, which in turn fed my studio practice. I earned a double BFA in Painting/Drawing and Ceramics while I was at Penn State.  I started organizing and creating community murals during my freshman summer break, which almost inadvertently turned into a significant portion of my career and income out of school as I was trying to figure out how to make a living as an artist through a combination of painting sales, public art, commission work, and teaching painting classes. 

Figure painting in particular has such a long history, how does your work fit into this canon? What is your interest in this subject and especially the female form?

My work is fueled by collaboration, driven towards beauty, and preoccupied with the feminine experience. It explores the internal battles faced by women as we confront society’s prefabricated narratives, realize our unique identities, and compose our personal responses to the emotions that shape the human experience. I am particularly interested in the conflict that emerges when the contemporary female experience collides with the narratives that we have inherited through myths, folktales and fairy tales. In my compositions, reality merges with the mystical, allowing me to recreate historical fables and invented tales from the perspective of the heroines living the stories today.

My first use of myths as a source of visual allegory resulted in a painting series informed by my fascination with animal-human hybrids, exploring the idea of two distinct and contrary entities sharing the same body. I wanted these hybrid creatures to visually manifest feminine beauty as but one facet of a complex entity that also embodies power, wisdom, strength, grace, magic and even the threat of danger. In my most recent work I use the language of myth to represent intimate stories of modern feminine experience in a series that began as a process of personal catharsis and later expanded to include the cathartic explorations of other women. I asked each of my collaborators to help me create compositions expressing their personal stories informed by fable and myth. I wanted the paintings to act as both sacred space for our characters to inhabit and safe spaces for them to reveal themselves to the viewer. Photography was an invaluable tool that allowed me to combine locations and subjects that I could not physically bring into my studio. Even more, it facilitated dialogue with my collaborators, translating ideas into a useful form of visual communication.

Visually, the paintings are informed by a centuries old tradition of depicting archetypal female forms in natural spaces and in private interiors through painting. Historically, such images have been created by men to appeal to the male gaze, in the words of feminist scholar Laura Mulvey, making women “the bearer of meaning and not the maker of meaning." My paintings are created collaboratively with my subjects; the women within my compositions enter that domain with agency and consent as makers of their own meaning and narrators of their own stories. I seek to continue the tradition of storytelling using familiar visual elements while elevating the narrative content and process to examine the complexities, strengths and beauty of women today.

I deliberately place feminine beauty as a central visual element in my work to celebrate its power and to challenge the viewer to look past it in order to discover deeper emotional material and narrative content. The female subjects that are central visual elements in my compositions inhabit a sort of dream space, balanced between reality and the fantastic. They appear simultaneously bold, confident and overtly self-conscious as they engage in the struggle between the need to conform to and the desire to rebel against conventional societal pressures. 

Have your works taken on new meaning (for you or your audience) in the current political climate?

Absolutely. Whether or not it comes across to the audience, my passion for women's rights is a huge influence on my approach and content of my work. Many other political human rights and environmental rights are important to me, but as a woman those issues are closest to my heart and in my work I am always trying to give voice to the female experience. 

The paintings you create seem very involved based on the scale and attention to naturalism. What is your process like? Your studio space? 

My process varies from piece to piece, but I rely on photographic references frequently, either combining references form photographs I have taken in my travels or having an idea, elaborately creating a scene in a space with props and photographing it to work from. I frequently work from life in small paintings to stay fresh, but logistical challenges prevent me from working from life in my larger and more complex compositions. I paint in layers, starting with a colored ground, laying out the composition, blocking in the lights and shadows, and lastly painting the final work on top of those preparatory layers. 

I have had the luxury of a large studio in my home base in PA over the last 8 years, though I have also set up tiny studios in which I have created huge works while painting abroad in Central America. 

You have traveled quite a bit, including residencies abroad. How have living and working internationally affected your work?

Enormously. My experiences abroad have shaped me as a human being, given me an ever growing and deepening perspective through which to understand the complex world we live in. My travels also influence the content, scenes, and color palette of my work, and it is often my experiences abroad that give me my inspiration for my paintings. 

How do you see your paintings progressing over the next few years?

I'm about to enter the painting MFA program at the NYAA. I expect my skills to develop, as well as my content, and my relationship to my work and its content to become at once both more nuanced and stronger and more clear in its voice. I am open to great change in my work, but I am positive my work will still largely involve the female experience and exploring figuration in contemporary art. 

Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects you are working on?

I currently have a solo show in Williamsport, PA of my latest body of work "do not reveal me" that will end in August at Gallery 425. It is the culmination of my last year of work. As I am entering a graduate program, I did not line up any shows for this coming year, but will participate in shows and open studios at NYAA. I am also working on a 6-painting collaboration with a wonderful artist named Joanne Landis that we will show at some point once we have completed the paintings. 

What has been the most interesting or memorable reaction to your work? 

It is too hard to narrow it down to just one. I love it when people tell me their emotional reactions to my work, when a piece speaks to their soul. i have also had extremely meaningful reactions to the public art projects that I do collaboratively with communities. 

What do you love most about being an artist? 

I feel unbelievably blessed to have thus far managed to live as an artist. There are so many challenges and struggles, learning the logistics and trying to make it financially viable, and an unbelievable percentage of my time is spent not making art. But at the end of the day, I have the great fortune to dedicate my life and much of my time to the act of creation. When I am painting, I am lost in another world, I lose track of time. when I am getting ideas and talking about them with other artists, I am filled with passion and excitement and joy. When I do not have time to create for too long, I become dissatisfied, restless, stressed, and cranky. Perhaps my work is not making big changes in the world, or even helping other people much at all, but it helps me to be a better person in this world.