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Hollywood-born mixed media artist and sculptor Elizabeth McGrath has absorbed a frightening amount of humanity in her time, having lived and worked in the Skid Row area of downtown Los Angeles for the past twenty years. As the daughter of a disaster manager for the L.A. County morgue, a rebellious teenage Liz could be found helping Dad tie toe tags onto the deceased (as court-ordered community service she earned for her antics). Not only has she seen her share of corpses, McGrath has experienced the plight of the less-fortunate firsthand: “My heart breaks for the homeless people of L.A. who walk around terrified of their environment, disheveled, dirty and crazed.”
At thirteen, Liz spent two years at a Baptist reform school for girls, where her religious parents hoped she’d depart from her interest in punk rock culture. Instead, she learned to dissociate from the school’s severe forms of discipline (which included locking Liz in a closet for three months) and mentally travel to imaginary worlds: “Through my experiences there, I live mostly in detailed day dreams. The times I feel I am truly present are when I am creating these things that I imagine.” A few years later Liz was back into punk, performing as the lead singer in the 90s band Tongue, and later with her husband in their band Miss Derringer.
So how does McGrath convey this fearlessness of spirit – this grit – in her art? By making creatures that are “inspired by the relationship between the natural world and the detritus of consumer culture.” Creatures and worlds that are heavily influenced by her childhood visits to the wondrous and dark Tiger Balm theme park in her mother’s Singapore, and the style of “visual masterminds” like Tim Burton and Stanley Kubrick.
Read on as I speak with Liz about her influences, techniques, and creative process, as well as her adventures in punk rock.
“No art is possible without a dance with death.” Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five
Influences and Favorites
I read somewhere that your influences are Vincent VanGogh, Stanley Kubrick, and Tim Burton. What are your top three favorite films and what is it about these three that inspire and amaze you?
I think that the environment you grow up in influences you and sets your aesthetic taste for better or worse for the rest of your life! But when I was younger at a time when the internet did not exist they were some of the artists that I admired – I was intrigued by VanGogh cutting off his ear and how he slowly went mad, which you could see through his art – he didn’t paint to make money I think he painted to have visual control over the existence around him to anchor him to something real as he was losing grasp of reality- this resonates with me as I do the opposite. I try to preserve my sanity by escaping reality and creating distracting new worlds that I have some control over. Kubrick and Tim Burton are visual masterminds and have been huge sources of inspiration for me – 2001 A Space Odyssey and The Nightmare Before Christmas were my favorites by them. It’s so hard to narrow down my three favorite films – I don’t go to the movies that often – I’ve been to about 10 movies in my life in a theater – but I was a big VHS collector for a while. A few films that really haunted me throughout my life were Fantastic Planet, this really creepy French cartoon that is unsettling, Santra Sangre by Jordorowsky the movie is beautiful and visually stunning, John Waters Desperate Living- the title sequence to Blind Woman’s curse – there are so many to name!
If you could live in movie which movie would it be and why?
Anything by Busby Berkeley. I would love to live in his costumes for a day and participate in one of his kaleidoscopic dance numbers (even though I can’t dance at all)!
On your thirteenth birthday, your parents took you to a San Diego Baptist reform school for girls. Tell us about this bizarre, scary experience and how it influenced your art, and your ability to get lost in other worlds.
Yes, this was a big event in my life that had definitely shaped my art. On my 13th birthday, my parents told me we going to the wild animal park in San Diego but instead took me to Ramona San Diego to a Baptist girl’s home. They took me there for dressing punk and listening to punk music. I spent two years there. It was in a one-story FBI communications building with cement brick walls painted half blue and white like a hospital. It sat on miles of nothing but yellow fields of weeds and the only road in was a two mile stretch of dirt from the front gate to the freeway.
The gate was 11 feet tall and wrapped with barbed wire and an alarm, and was electrocuted (or so we were told). We weren’t allowed to talk about our past, read any books but the king James Bible, no TV or news from the outside world, no going outside without a guard, no phone, no visitors, and if you were “good” your family could call you after you had been there for three months with the staff listening on be phone, and your family could visit you once after 6 months while you were chaperoned. If you said you didn’t like the place your time started over (one year was the length of the program). You had to write letters once a week but they were censored – as was mail coming in. You were allowed one drawer for clothes (women weren’t allowed to wear pants) and toiletries were inspected daily. There were no paper or pencils outside of designated times and everything you wrote was inspected including your Bible to make sure you didn’t draw or write anything that was ungodly. Some of the punishments were withholding food or force-feeding, and there was the GR or “get right with God” room, which was basically solitary confinement in a closet.
I spent my first three months in the GR room and that’s where I was really able to imagine getting lost in imaginary worlds to drown out the religious tapes they blasted outside the door. There were 50 girls in one dorm, a laundry room, a showers room (which was a row of shower heads along a tile wall), a bathroom, which was a row of bathroom stalls with the doors taken off, a small kitchen, and the main room, which doubled as the dining hall, a school, and chapel. The Palmers and another family lived in a camper next to the building and we weren’t allowed to make friends or eye contact and there was no talking outside of designated times. So I spent a lot of time day dreaming through the endless chores or mandatory hours of pretending to read the Bible or hours of chapel that were mostly about women being evil and the end of the world coming to punish all the unsaved Christians. Sermons were given by one man, Brother Palmer, and often peppered with phrases like “God loves all chinks (this is where he would make me stand up along with the other girls of diverse ethnic backgrounds, and he’d use the inappropriate slang to describe their heritage). I truly think this was done in ignorance as the Founder, Brother Palmer found Jesus in a McDonald’s and was not a well-educated man. After he found Jesus, he decided that his calling was to open a home for wayward girls.
A year after I was released a girl died doing some of the “chores” and the FBI raided it, declaring it a cult, and ordered that Brother Palmer not be left alone with minors, but he managed to escape with a bus load of girls to Mexico. After a few months, Mexico shut them down, as they were diligent there about not having cults crop up. Then he took them to Jay, Florida where it flourished and his ministries grew until it was finally shut down 5 years ago. I can’t say that I enjoyed my time there but I was there the first years it had opened and I think at that time they truly believed that they were “saving” us, and they dealt their rewards and punishments fairly. They weren’t intentionally malicious, which made the whole thing easier to swallow, but after those first years I heard the place became much much worse. Through my experiences there, I live mostly in detailed daydreams and the times I feel like I am truly present are when I am creating these things I imagine.
Wow, that’s an incredible story. I am sorry you had to suffer through that, and at such a young age. Is any of your art work based off of dreams you’ve had? If so, can you tell us about a specific piece inspired by a dream?
Everyone and then I get ideas in my sleep but I think it’s because sometimes I go to bed thinking about what I should do next with a piece and then the idea will come to the next morning – but I can’t think of any interesting dreams I’ve had lately!
On your website, elizabethmcgrath.com, you have a plethora of links to your favorite artists. Tell us, who are a couple of your favorite visual artists and why do you love them?
My website is pretty outdated unfortunately! I have so many favorite artists and I discover new ones every day. I was offline for a while and when I got back on I noticed beautiful.bizarre and was hooked! I’ve been introduced to so many new artists through following you guys -but I have a soft spot for anyone who expresses themselves creatively in any way!
Wow, thank you! An excerpt from a paragraph describing your art books on Amazon tells of your “eye for the strange beauty in the grotesqueries of life.” What is about the creepy and the strange that appeals to you?
I don’t think that my work is particularly creepy or strange but maybe I think at the time that I started to make these things they were a bit unusual and so the creepy thing has kind of stuck – I don’t think they would qualify by today’s standards -creepy has come a long way! But when I was growing up I was certainly attracted to the dark side- I think because I always had religious authority figures trying to influence the way I thought and it made me curious as to what evil exactly was- and so I was defiantly attracted to the stuff on the dark side . My dad worked for the LA County morgue and when I was growing up I was kind of a bad kid always getting into trouble to a point where the judges began to know me and sometimes my punishment was to do community service with my dad at the county coroner’s office like putting toe tags on the bodies. My dad was the disaster manager/ like if there was a heat wave and the electricity went out, and the rooms full of bodies and parts were melting, they would call my dad. Or if they found a baby partially eaten by some kind of flesh eating fish in the McCarther park lake in the middle of downtown LA they would call my dad. He was one of the people who came up with a gift store idea – anyway when I was a teenager I soaked up anything I could find that I thought was this “evil” which basically shortlisted to humans who do bad things to each other or animals but it didn’t seem real to me – I didn’t see the suffering behind it till I experienced death and tragedy myself then I regretted filling my head with these things because it’s true what they say about the things that you put in your head: they are there forever. As you get older, it’s those thoughts that are noisiest that get remembered the most – of course these are the things my brain wants to release but I consciously try not to generate more of that in the world – so maybe my work comes off a little creepy to some people but I’m really not aiming for that!
You have expressed interest in become a more skilled painter. Have you been working more within that medium? Do you take any painting classes?
I went to Pasadena City College for fashion design in the 80’s but I took a few painting classes as my sewing was a disaster. The first class I took the teacher wanted us to paint in a traditional way and I ended up dropping the class. Later, I took another painting class and the teacher wanted us to explore a variety of mediums, which really inspired me to experiment. My first paintings weren’t as successful as my dioramas and though I loved painting I pursued more of the 3-D mediums but there is something relaxing about working with paint – not having to lug out boxes of stuff or hunt down specific items to finish a particular piece. Multi mediums can create so much messy chaos in the work place.
You live in California but you have shown your work in distant places such as Spain and New York. How do you package your work for shipping, and what advice to you have for other artists who work in fragile 3-D mediums which are tough to ship?
My pieces are actually really sturdy – I still have some pieces break here and there but if I’m shipping internationally or even locally I am really thoughtful as to how the pieces will hold up – sometimes I may shake the piece to see what falls out and then I know I have a problem. Two part epoxy glue, stable bases, and boxes within boxes are the key!
I saw one of your recent works in progress on your Facebook page. You had a wire armature covered in duct tape, and Styrofoam balls for the foundation of the heads. Is this the typical “skeleton” of your animal pieces?
It depends on how big the piece is but if it’s really big I’ll make an armature from wood and wire or wood and Styrofoam but anything can be used – I used to use plastic bags (but now they aren’t as easy to find!) and duct tape. I like to use two part resin epoxy clay like magic sculpt over the armature then I airbrush or cover it with clothing or jewels.
In your popular book of collected works called Everything That Creeps, you have incredibly clear photographs of your artwork. Can you give us other 3-D artists some tips about photographing our dioramas and sculptures?
Thanks! That book is pretty old and was back in a time juts before digital was popular so I had them shot on 4-5 film transparencies which were a huge headache because then you had to go through the expensive process of getting them scanned and then working with the digital- but now a days you can get pretty good images through your phone!
I read the customer reviews on Amazon from folks who have purchased your art books – they all extremely positive, and there are many remarks about your attention to tiny details. Do you create miniatures and dioramas because you loved them as a kid, or do you do it to help your viewers feel young again?
My mom is from Singapore and when I was a kid we would visit the tiger balm gardens – it was kind of a semi theme park and part of the park had a man-made dark cave you walk into and set into the sides of the cave were illuminated dioramas that showed the 13 gates (I think 13) of hell that a person has to go through before they are redeemed- it was quite gory and fantastic. Also, my aunt had a collection of Easter sugar eggs and I always loved the fact you could pick up an egg and then peer inside and see a whole world.
I read that you use foam and the Magic Sculpt epoxy-based putty to mold your sculptures. I’m a mixed media artist and sculptor and I had never heard of Magic Sculp. Tell us a bit about this medium and why it works so well for you.
I think it was first created as a taxidermy clay to set in glass eyes and such – I really like this medium it’s a two part resin epoxy that gives you an hour working time you smooth it down with water and when it cures its weather sustainable outdoors or in. You can add to it, drill into it it’s very versatile – the downside is that it’s really hard to go small and it destroys tools, so I usually just use my hands, toothpicks, and wet Q-tips, which don’t give you a lot of detail. I also like polymer clay, paper mâché, and good old ceramics.
You sometimes carve holes in your animals when you run out of surface area for all the details that you envision. I read that you do this to illustrate the idea of “gut emotions” that are present under what is sometimes false serenity. How do you cope with your own sense of internal/external incongruence at times when it’s necessary to perform on stage or attend a group event?
I like that description! I used to get extreme stage fright. There is this ride at Magic Mountain called Free Fall and basically it takes you up to like a 30- story building and you just drop – I hate this ride but my friends always wanted to go on it and getting on stage always reminded me of this ride. The long anticipation then the final moment before you step onstage, close your eyes, and then drop – it’s over before you know it. I think it all ended when one time we played this show with my band, Miss Derringer (which was kind of a country goth band (but goth like American Gothic like Flannery O’Conner rather than musically) and we were slated to play a punk show at a big venue – I was in a hardcore band in the early 90’s for over a decade and I told the guys in the band we should not do this show – it was going to be behind the orange curtain filled with skinheads – but I was just the singer so they didn’t listen to me. One song in and the crowd of 1500 people erupted in “boo’s” and for some reason I just got the biggest smile on my face – somehow I was able to heckle the crowd back, and they booed as they laughed, so they didn’t throw bottles of piss at us (as was the custom) but I really felt liberated when we finished our set and everyone was practically in tears. But for me it was like being set free – I wish it would have happened when I first started to play in bands. So maybe if you have to do public speaking or something, go to where your worst fears will be realized and let it release you.
You have poetry, audiobooks, and movies playing in the background when you work. Tell me about an “Aha!” moment that hit you while you were working and listening.
I think when I first try to come up with ideas I like to go to the library or a coffee shop or sit on a bus and just start to sketch and once I have an idea of where it’s going I’ll listen to music but in a different language that I don’t understand so I stay focused on the task. But after I know what I’m doing, and once I’m into the process of making stuff, then I like to listen to audio books. The longer the better, as the work takes so long to produce and a lot of it is repetitive. I find when I listen to music, I start to keep track of how many songs went by, but a good story keeps me anchored in and helps me to finish.
Getting these guys ready for my show with @coreyhelfordgallery Nov 5th #coreyhelfordgallery #workinprogress #beastsandbunnies #shmoo
Posted by Elizabeth McGrath Art on Monday, August 1, 2016
Do you keep a notebook nearby to jot down sudden, fleeting ideas?
I used to but since I had my daughter, her stuffed animal of the week has replaced that!
Audio books can really lure you in and influence your work. Do you mostly listen to science fiction and fantasy on audio? What are a couple of your favorite books?
So many books I love! Right now, I’m listening to the Skits of Avalon series by Marion Zimmerman Bradley. I love Arthurian tales and this one is from the point of view of the female characters- but I also love Jim Thompson, Flannery O’Conner, Dylan Thomas poetry, Dune, of course Steven King, Phillip K. Dick. I guess it depends on my mood and what I’ve listened to. If I listen to too much fantasy stuff then I have to hear the news for a while or something completely different.
I read in an online article that you used to live in some “less than safe” apartments and lofts in Los Angeles. What have you learned from living here and how does this living space inform the statements you are making with your work?
I moved to the skid row section of downtown about 20 years ago and I’m still here! But they took down the skid row sign and put up a “Gallery Row” sign. Below me, there used to be two ‘Triple X’ theaters but now they are bars and restaurants and music venues. I lived down here because back then a 1000 foot loft was $300 and had bathrooms down the hall (but that made you just get to know your neighbor better). Now I just use it as a work space and share with other artists. The area was unsafe in the way an area populated with homeless people can be, so you learn how to navigate through this environment. I feel more unsafe now that the area is gentrified because people are coming down here with the specific goal of trying to rob you. Before, the homeless people were just trying to live their lives and they weren’t out to get you. It got so bad my other neighbor started to put a bucket in the back of his truck to encourage people to use the bucket instead of his truck bed – but that was when it was a ghost town here. Really, the bigger problem is mental illness.
Fun & Freaky!
This is a two part question: first, what are your two favorite animals (I myself think picking just one is impossible), and second, If you could wave a magic wand and create a new species of animal based on two existing ones, what would that animal be and what would you call it?
So many!!!! I love hairless animals. I have two hairless Chihuahua’s so maybe my favorite animal would be the two of them combined into one, but they don’t poop or bark, and they will live forever till I die.
Not only are you an artist but you are in a punk-blues-country band, Miss Derringer, with your husband Morgan Slade who is a songwriter and a photographer. Your band has put out five albums since 2004, and you toured the east coast with the Reverend Horton Heat in 2010, and opened for Bad Religion in Hollywood that same year. I didn’t see any upcoming tour dates for the band – are you still playing music, and if so, when will you be touring next?
We’re not really playing anymore since we had a kid but we will probably so something someday for fun. Our last US tour was with Blondie which was amazing and after that who needs to go on! I was in a punk band called Tongue, which started in ‘89 till about 2000. We toured and played with bands like TSOL, Raw Power, Fear, Dickies -trying to make it on tour selling our cassettes. We just did a 15 year reunion mini tour to Mexico and we may do a few more shows for fun – it’s like a high school reunion seeing all my old friends again since I dropped out in 7th grade!
I read somewhere that you stayed in your studio making art for two months straight. But you have also played in a band and toured all over the place, which puts you in front of hundreds of people and pretty much takes away a lot of quiet contemplation time as well as time to sit and make art. Are you happiest when you are alone in the studio or when you are out on stage (or do both of these satisfy the different sides of your personality equally)?
I like going out best but I drink too much. I have a love hate with my studio: I love when I have the moments where everything is flowing but I hate that I miss everything I can’t go out and drink casually because I won’t stop, and then I’ll get a few days of hangovers it turns out that I’m allergic to my favorite thing- beer- though that doesn’t usually stop me once I start so I have to hole myself in and go on lock down. I also get terribly distracted by everything.
What are some of the comments you’ve heard when people view your work? What’s the best comment (good or bad) you’ve ever received?
Well someone recently told me that when they look at my work they think my pussy stinks!! I don’t know what they mean exactly and I hate the P word but it’s definitely been a comment that has made me stop to think what the hell am I doing!