A recent graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Liz Wikstrom is a Florida-born artist now living in Providence. Liz’s work is multidisciplinary, including portraiture, drawing, book illustration, and printing. Liz’s influences too are many and disparate, spanning Eric Carle and Tim Burton.
In the past few years, Liz’s work has been featured in numerous exhibitions—from the Refuge in Allston, MA, to Gallery Nucleus in Alhambra, CA—and will be showcased in 3 x 3 Magazine’s Illustration Annual No. 10, due out this winter. Liz has recently finished illustrating the children’s book Empty Bowls, to be sold online, in paperback, and e-book this November at emptybowlsbook.com.
Assets for Artists intern Harry Gilbert interviews current A4A participant Liz Wikstrom on warping the realistic, representing the perversions of celebrity and iconicity, and Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
A4A: Did you draw or produce art as a child? Does your current work bear any marks of resemblance?
LW: I always loved to draw pictures of people, and I found myself doing it all the time as a kid. I drew on my notes at school, and inadvertently became an expert at using my favorite .5mm Pentel mechanical pencil. To this day, I consider myself best at black and white drawing. Every project I do begins with a pencil drawing, and I still use that same pencil. My works looks the same to me, and it still feels fun, which I love.
A4A: The Wall Breakers published a short feature on your work nearly a year ago, and I found some of their insights to be quite astute: they note the wonderful mixture of “whimsy and weirdness” that’s “kind of Like Norman Rockwell drawing for the New Yorker while tripping on LSD.” Do you feel like their characterizations capture the aesthetic of your project well?
LW: I think they’re pretty accurate. The more freedom I have on a project, the weirder my work gets. To make portraits interesting, I often start realistic (read: conventional, wholesome) and move towards warping and exaggeration (read: trippy, dark); the result is something accessible yet decidedly “off.”
A4A: I found myself particularly engrossed by your portraits, which primarily feature meticulously drawn caricatures of a disparate set of cultural icons–whether Barack Obama, NeNe Leakes of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, designer John Maeda, or the “reading” Zebra Katz. How do you select the subjects of your portraits?
LW: I have a silly selection process. As soon as a cultural icon invades my personal life, or rather, as soon as I think about one for more than five minutes, I’ve basically decided to draw them. I think I become obsessed with trying to figure out why I’m interested in them, and I try to encode that interesting aspect in their faces as I draw them. I think it boils down to their personality, at least as I’ve absorbed it. It’s amazing how little I’ve actually absorbed, yet it’s also amazing that I’ve absorbed anything at all about these people.
A4A: These portraits too have a disturbing quality, not unlike that described by The Wall Breakers. It’s as though your subjects found themselves within the frame of a Burton-esque fantasy, their features contorted into gothic versions of their former selves, yet they remain perfectly familiar because of our cultural consciousness. Can a critique of celebrity and its perversions be found in these works?
LW: Oh, absolutely. The thing is, I’m not usually trying to make any kind of statement when I draw a caricature. When I reiterate a public figure I’m proliferating his or her image and personality–I help to mass-produce their goods–and I inevitably also magnify the things about them that are already striking. These striking qualities may transform into overwhelming or grotesque. Yet, my drawing style is kind of smooth and polished, and it’s often high-contrast too, which can be an even glamorizing effect. So, I produce an image both revealing and nicely packaged. But I’m really only working with material the subjects themselves have put out there.
A4A: I noticed a similarity between your illustration style in Empty Bowls and that of Eric Carle in The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Both stories involve hungry creatures, too. Is there a connection between these books?
LW: There is a connection there. The idea for this book was a collaboration among publisher, author, and illustrator. We wanted to address hunger, and I wanted to address it with inviting visuals–and a cat!– as a way to invite others of all ages to address it too. I had a timeline that couldn’t accommodate meticulous pencil drawings on every page, so I had to do something inviting and quick. I decided to create round cutout shapes in a kind of Eric-Carle-meets-Hello-Kitty situation. It was a fun challenge, and I do like to collage when I need a break from the highly-rendered stuff. Furthermore, the Carle reference did lend a nice conceptual bend to the story. In the story we have a well-fed cat wanting a second helping of breakfast, and going outside to get it for himself for the first time in his life. Outside he encounters other hungry creatures—people who are not regularly fed— and he learns about the nature of real need, and the value of sharing. So while The Very Hungry Caterpillar is about healthy hunger with regards to growth, this book tries to touch on insatiability and false hunger that can be created by excess.
A4A: How did you get involved with Assets for Artists? Did you enter the program with a certain goal or set of goals in mind?
LW: I heard about this program from RISD, my alma mater. I wanted to keep absorbing information nonstop, post-schooling! Especially regarding finances and business planning. I think everyone should have at least one business class in their education.
A4A: I know you’ve just begun, but have you found the program to be helpful thus far?
This program has been fantastic! Information is such a powerful tool. I’ve done so much already simply by eliminating ignorance. The speakers and educators who come through here are truly inspired, and I leave each workshop feeling empowered. I’m truly happy to be in this supportive community.
Interview has been condensed and edited.