PHONE NOTES AFTER A STUDIO VISIT WITH LIZ ELTON:
A practice of peelings and offcuts, materials designed to be discarded
compostable cornstarch (food waste recycling bag material)
vegetable dyes from food waste, food colouring
pink – avocado stones
yellow – pomegranate skins
blue – outer leaves of red cabbage
golden yellow – onion skins
seeds of native medicinal plants
talked about bread-making (tip: knock back sourdough properly to get air bubbles)
n.b. ‘knock back’ isn’t the right phrase, more a gentle folding/stretching
ancient grains, soup from surplus veg, can’t bear food waste!
bread and soup; ingestion
skin, the human body, surface as form
found branches for supports, framing the work
how does it travel? Uber, public transport (folds down small)
compost – biodegradable – disintegration…
Liz Elton’s hand-stitched drapery hangs uncertainly between painting and sculpture, delicacy and robustness, past and future. In her bright studio, overlapping pieces of compostable food waste bags, dyed with plants sourced from the artist’s own kitchen waste, are suspended from silk threads, hooks and found branches. The pigment, which is often applied with a paintbrush, is derived from avocado skins and stones, red cabbage leaves, onion and pomegranate skins, and other leftovers.
The inescapably organic aesthetic in Elton’s work points back to the waste-bags’ vegetal beginnings before their industrial transformation into discardable vessels. Moreover, the delicate appearance of the works acts as a reminder that they will eventually break down until they are indistinguishable from their surroundings.
The pieces flutter and drift, as if they have snagged on a branch as they floated across the landscape, their journey arrested only for a moment in the studio, gallery or garden. Their constant motion recalls the designed impermanence of the materials used to make them and creates a sense of ongoing disintegration. Hovering tentatively between their own past and future, they remind viewers of the fragility of ecosystems in our hard-pressed present, where future ruin seems to press so closely against the unfinished legacy of extractive capitalist history.
Elton’s works are hand-stitched with silk thread, a painstaking and time-consuming process that evokes a politics of care and attention. It also suggests a concern with the domestic, compounded by the use of kitchen waste as sources of pigment; where art and life overlap, as here, domestic activities can provide materials for creativity. Moreover, in the case of the ancient-grain and sourdough bread Elton makes, they can supplement the viewer’s access to the work during a studio visit or private view through ingestion. However, these are not generally works made on a domestic scale, and they have been shown in a gallery, a church, a garden, and flying free over the beaches of the Isle of Harris. Elton’s work consequently suggests the applicability of ecological beauty and environmental urgency on every scale.
In the studio, some sheets sway in the breeze while others are wrapped up in festoons of white cloth. Translucent and thinner than paper, these works are all surface, but they also exist insistently in three-dimensional space; even when hung directly on the wall they billow into the room, skin-like tendrils raised in the wake of the viewer’s movement.
Although Elton’s painterly constructions are apparently fragile, they are stronger than they seem. They can be taken down and transported bunched up in boxes or even bin bags. They can be treated with a refreshing lack of concern for conservation that is still so prevalent in the fields of painting and sculpture; destined to end up as compost, they exist in a state of ongoing metamorphosis, very slowly biodegrading before the viewer’s eyes according to the environmental conditions.
During lockdown I have had this piece of writing in the back of my mind. I can’t get the photographs developed until the shops reopen, and it is difficult to clear enough headspace to write about a conversation that happened before we were overwhelmed by our current anxieties and fears. Like many people, I’ve spent much of my time baking and sewing and soup-making. Like perhaps slightly fewer people, I’ve also been dyeing old fabric with kitchen waste. I am making a quilt for my niece, a semi-abstracted mountain scene.
As I finally sit down to write this, I realise I’ve got Liz Elton’s work in my head. My quilt pattern strongly evokes the softly geometric arrangements Liz creates out of her dyed compostable bags. My bread-and-soup lunches (though not as good as Liz’s) are perhaps inspired by our earnest conversation about food waste – a prompt that has particularly taken root in these strange times, when I am doing all I can to put off my next masked trip to the shop. My lunchtime offcuts are being put to good use in fabric dyeing – a hobby that is slow, satisfying and nearly free (all things I appreciate more than ever in these financially straitened, homebound times).
In the slow percolation of my thoughts, I’ve come to recognise that Liz Elton’s art is generous, mutable, recyclable, and cared for – and that it feels particularly relevant in this time of corona-capitalism and the climate crisis. As some of our old certainties disintegrate, there’s a chance to build something new along these lines of care and compost.
LOCKDOWN NOTES BY LIZ ELTON:
“At the start of lockdown, like many I felt thrown into reverse gear. Having been in the studio making large work, I’ve begun to think about my practice in a more intimate way, rooted in cooking, growing vegetables in pots where I can, making compost, giving plants away to anyone who wants them. Anna invited artists to join her VEGETATE project, sending out handwritten texts like diary entries, thinking about the movement of plants, and receiving a physical rather than digital reply. My response was to also make a diary, photographing our kitchen waste on its way to the compost – onion skins from a rescue box bought when the local market reopened, flowers brought back from a funeral when they couldn’t be given away. Maybe it’s lockdown, but I see paintings in the scrapings and skins from food preparation, reminders of where the food came from and what we made from it. Prints go out with a simple recipe; carrot soup, ice cream from over-ripe bananas, onion tart. Responses come in the form of discussions about food, gardening and composting, generating new ideas and connections.”
Words by Anna Souter