Collaborating with Elisa Sugar.

Elisa with collaborator Lohr.
I committed at the beginning of the year to spend some time recognizing the talents of my friends in my art community and to do it here on my blog as well as in my day to day life. 

Once you've met Elisa Sugar, you will know that you want her on your team- your art team, your it's the end of the world zombies are coming, who will help me survive? team.  Elisa is hardworking, reliable, and an unbelievable problem solver. Her ego doesn't get in the way of her work or sense of purpose, so much so that she sent me almost no pictures of her work, I am hoping she will let the ones I supply fly.  She is my protest buddy, a person that I know has my back if I need help.  She is my "I have a crazy idea, can I bounce it off you?" friend. We've worked the past couple years on several People's Joy Parade projects, and many other projects.  She is regular art contributor to Artica and has worked behind the scenes with the Artivists.  You have most likely seen or experienced her work, without knowing it, because she's not in it for credit or recognition. I go to Elisa for advice on activism, living as an artist, collaboration, and just keeping whole.  I hope you enjoy this energetic interview with her.

Sarah Paulsen: I know you are someone committed to working in collaboration with others, what do you like about collaborations and what brought you to this realization that this was your preferred working style?

Elisa Sugar: I see collaboration as a hybrid – a cross combining the people involved, where we all are in our lives and interests/obsessions. Collaboration is social and an opportunity get to deepen relationships by making things and sharing our ideas and dreams; I’m a worker and also a social animal so forming connections on a project is a natural. Collaboration is surprising and fresh and there’s is a permissiveness to it that I cannot grant myself; the experience of working together, the dialogue and hands-on time is equally valuable to me as the outcome.

Why do I work collaboratively? Working with others seems the realest and most honest expression of who I am. I prefer this working style as it balances the solitude of the studio practice.

SP: What advice do you have for individuals wanting to work with others in collaboration?

ES: Go for it! Be patient, check your ego and your expectations, look for magic of the moment(s) and be open to experimenting in areas outside your comfort zone.
Also, bring snacks and be on time, or let folks know you are running late.

In the background Elisa helps a student during a People's Joy workshop.
Her art history
SP: What is your art background?

ES: Art started as a kid with coloring and sewing and more coloring and graph paper and onto silkscreening t-shirts and posters in high school. Academically, I hold a BFA and an MFA in printmaking.

SP: Would you be willing to share some of the story of how, in your words, “you dropped out of the art world”?

ES: Why am i a self-proclaimed “artwork drop out”? I'll try to explain…… Years ago I stopped making art for a while. I attribute it to being alone too much, both in my $$$ work and in my studio practice. To “get through it”, I began overworking and became way too self-critical.

I was on a ridiculous treadmill: “make art, promote/show art, attempt to sell art and then piling up art in your studio and make more”. It was driving me mad and I had to stop; It was an identity crisis and a scary, depressive time for me.
There was more to it though, the art world didn’t make sense to me. It’s a machine and a business for the most part and that’s fine, but art as commodity doesn’t sit right with me and I continue to wonder if commodification kills creativity. Plus I’ve never been a good self promoter and that seems necessary to “succeed”; I see now that i was trying to “make it” in a world i didn’t respect and that contradiction was untenable. The antidote has been collaboration, community work/art and work that is experiential and exists only briefly and then disappears or is recycled. Oh and also not caring as much about what people think - It's a journey!
SP: What are some current or ongoing projects that you participate in?

ES: I’m writing this in the summer so things are a little quiet……more thinking than working…… I have some design work touring with a theatrical ensemble called “Children of the Wild” ( Currently in STL I’m collaborating with a couple of friends on a short video/animation and the beloved People’s Joy Parade. Also getting ready to do some murals and a stage backdrop at Burning Man. I’d love to get involved in some political theater and other art involved happenings in the future. I guess I'm always looking for collaborators!

Head of a Piasa bird made out of recycled plastics by Elisa for PJP.

SP: How did you get involved with making Burning Man artwork and what have you learned through this ongoing experience?

ES: I’ve been going to Burning Man since 2002, when I was invited to work in a staff kitchen run out of cook trailers. It was a wild time and I soon found a set up crew that had paint (I''m a better painter than line cook!), made friends and started painting. That crew took me in and ever since I have volunteered for Center Camp Cafe which is a 24 hour performance space and coffee shop. I am part of the art team and also coordinate a mural project for a 8’ tall fence that is over 250’ long. Last year we had over 50 artists invited and countless walk-ins who are super talented and open to the experience of creation.

Photos of Center Camp Cafe mural project by Scott Williams. 

What I have learned from Burning Man (and constantly have to remind myself) is that making art is an act of love - a gift really - and lives it’s brightest in the making, the “experience” of it.
Here is a sweet little doc. done about our crew a couple of years ago called the love project 

Elisa assembled this Pride Parade float.
Hustle & Health 
SP: We talk a lot about the art hustle, how so many artists are working many jobs, still trying to work, and hopefully be good people. What does your art hustle look like?

ES: My art hustle is more of a balancing act, mostly of my own design fortunately. I’m always open to work and art possibilities. I’m not trying “to get anywhere” since I am a self-proclaimed “art world drop out” - HA - so I feel pretty free.
By nature I’m a really hard worker so a lot of my hustle is all the things I want as a communal being.
being a good person and being involved is good for my health also keeping positive and finding joy and challenge in everything I do.
everything in balance and staying happy and involved. also, not pressuring myself to be or do things that don’t seem important.

SP: How have you maintained your integrity and sense of self through the years?

ES: By being independent and of use, trusting myself, remembering to keep my heart open and most importantly listen to my loved ones and friends.

Elisa with scrabble friend Steve pictured at CAMP.

SP: What things are an inspiring you right now? (music, art, explorations, etc.)

ES: top of my head list:
- being of use
- the non-human world
- my hands in the dirt
- travel
- travel with art involved - music with beats - cooking - working and playing with friends

SP: What does self care look like for you in your day to day practice?

ES: Being outdoors and being physical - remembering that we are animals in the world - being with people i care about, eating well, helping.

SP: I know you share a studio with several artists and that you bought the building several years ago, what does your studio represent for you and how do you use this space?

ES: I use my studio space for art and my picture framing business. Right after I finished college I was extremely lucky to buy part of a building in STL with four other artists. (buildings in STL city were cheap at the time!) Consequently, my entire adult life has had a stable work place. Let me state again that I am extremely lucky. my studio is a home. a work home; it’s central to my existence and it’s a great stabilizer. 

Elisa pictured in her studio under a sculptural form.

St. Louis and beyond.
SP: What first brought you to St. Louis?

ES: I came to STL to go to college.

SP: How have you seen St. Louis change since you’ve lived here?

ES: There's soo much more going on here on all levels........ I came to STL to go to college and have see the city change a lot. “Revitalize “in ways and also continue to struggle and fall part in many others. Currently I am amazed by how many people are coming to STL and loving it for it's easy vibe and affordability (relative to both coasts).

SP:What do you hope to see in St. Louis or what would you like to see change?

ES: STL needs to address racism and inequality and that means improving the resources and opportunities for ALL people. I would love to see a progressive local government that represents ALL the people not just the “old boy network”

SP: How did the Mike Brown shooting impact you and your involvement in St. Louis?

ES: The murder of Mike Brown wakened the activist in me again. The call came to go to Ferguson and stand with our sisters and brothers of color and fight for justice so I did and continue to do so. My STL community is much richer, much more meaningful and my heart has cracked open to the strength of each human being. The Movement has re-affirmed my belief that the action, community and creating is essential to elevating the human spirit and making change. 

SP: You somehow manage to have a life both living in St. Louis and traveling for your various collaborations. How are you able to travel so often? and How do these travels shift your experience of St. Louis?

ES: I'm lucky, make my own schedule and am untethered for the most part. I have chosen family all over the country and value these connections so I make time for them. Travel keeps my eyes and mind open and sharp. Traveling is always an education.


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