Shortly before graduating from Sheridan Institute's Interpretive Illustration program, Elissa Barber packed her bags and headed out with two friends on a road trip. "We based ourselves in Belfast for a summer and toured Ireland in a rental car," she says from her studio in Hamilton. The car, they crashed into a rock near Limerick. "But I fell in love, was offered a full time job and ended up staying for almost five years," she says.
During her time in Northern Ireland, Elissa dabbled in different creative pursuits. She worked as a fashion buyer, styled shows for Belfast Fashion Week and launched a fashion editorial for a local music magazine, spending chunks of time travelling to Spain, Italy and Egypt. "A stark contrast to my life now!" she says of her experience. She continued to sketch all throughout her time there. "I was trying new things, figuring out where I fit in the world. But I was not really making any art and at this point," she says, "And I started to feel it."
In her last year in Belfast, Elissa started illustrating for a magazine. Shortly after she returned to Hamilton, and to Sheridan Institute, to finish her degree. Right out of school, Elissa worked on images for the book, A Circus Mind, with American poet and journalist Ryan Cox. "I was particularly honoured to have my work alongside other great illustrators like Dushan Milic and Jackie Oakley," she says of the project, "I was also given a lot of freedom there so it was a dream."
Elissa Barber's bold, fluid drawings first caught my eye my eye on Instagram. So much so, that I decided to commission an original piece from her. I caught up with Elissa at her light filled studio on Ottawa Street. We instantly connected over mid century modern furniture and her latest finds from Mizener's Antique Market. When she framed my painting, I was so over the moon that we exchanged hugs.
You currently live and create in Hamilton. What is your perception of Hamilton as an artist?
As an artist... even saying it feels weird. It's only recently that I've started to feel part of the city and wider creative community because I was never really around it. But I love it. It's a special place and I've grown into it. I'm putting down roots now. I'm almost ready to face my experiences and channel them into my practice. My husband and I bought a house on Ottawa Street North. I have a home studio filled with natural light and for the first time in a long time things feel comfortable.
How do you approach projects and what influences your process?
I've been gradually getting back into the idea of 'personal work. My background in illustration makes visual problem solving through art very comfortable. Whereas connecting with who I am and what I have to say is extremely uncomfortable. Technically in my approach, I keep some degree of gesture (looseness and immediacy) in my work. I like when things feel a bit unfinished. It's a challenge for me to force myself to step back and be done.
Are there artists that have influenced you personally?
Growing up I loved looking at the pictures by illustrators like Eric Carle and Charlie Harper. I've always been drawn to work that has a sense of urgency and a more graphic, defined shape. Though I've moved away from it for now, I love life drawing and figurative work. Alice Neel was my biggest inspiration. Her work feels of its time, yet completely fresh. I also have an affinity for drawings and printmaking done by famous artists like Picasso and Matisse, as well as their pattern and surface design. There have been so many but these are the most notable.
Speaking of influence, where do you draw inspiration from?
I love things from the past and how cyclical trends are. I don't have much interest in creating anything entirely new or innovative. There are artists out there who do an amazing job of that but it's just not natural to me. I'm inspired by my travels, family and friends. I love antiques and flea markets. Living on Ottawa Street is a dream. I walk the dog through Gage Park every morning. I weave and cook in my spare time. I've always been into fashion and have diverse taste in music. I think all of these things start to come through in my images. I've also been obsessed with interior design since we bought our house and can't leave Houzz or Apartment Therapy alone.
What is your advice to young artists?
Don't put pressure on yourself to be something you're not. Figure out what you love and what comes naturally, Continue to challenge yourself and try new things and you'll feel much more satisfaction in what you do. Above all don't give up. You'll find your tribe.