On My Art
Across my career, I have come to find my art being increasingly interwoven with story – and most particularly, people’s desire to participate in story. When I look back, it seems that I was always walking a particular narrative path, even when I did not yet know it.
I began as artists have for millennia – drawing and painting landscapes, still life, figure studies and portraits. I used oils and pastels, watercolour and printmaking. But I found the early still life and landscapes I created to be unengaging. I loved portraiture but it felt like a fragment separated from a greater whole. When I turned my hand to illustration, the possibilities of art began to open up, but most of the stories were very narrowly focussed and intended for a narrow age group.
And so I began to draw without first setting a narrative, to see what would happen.
These imaginative artworks were drawn purely for myself, collected into a small sketchbook. They were a strange blend of everything I had come to love – portraits within landscape, animals and realism, history and surrealism, created in etching-like drawings with flashes of colour. To my delight, I discovered a world was emerging. This first collection grew to fill several sketchbooks, and finally in 2010 I had my first solo art show “Strangely Familiar” which visited those same worlds in rich tonally realistic oils.
The show was success – but what was most notable to me about the artwork and exhibition was hearing the stories people related to me about the worlds in my art. Whether this was the spontaneous stories people narrated when flipping through my moleskin sketchbooks or normally silent teenagers and lawyers shouting their stories to be overheard in a gallery, the importance of story to these people was reflected in their desire to share them.
This made me interested in not just story, but in storytelling as a creative act. Because although our world is rich with stories, people are often hesitant to tell their own, real or imaginary. We carve off imaginative storytelling into a part of childhood, to be abandoned when we move to adulthood. We are presented with stories after that, but we rarely participate in them. This exhibition showed me, very clearly, that this isn’t right. Not only do people crave storytelling, but they delight in it and given the right prompts, it comes naturally and honestly. I believe that working with imagination - giving it time, space and attention - is actually a necessary part of being a balanced human being. And it doesn't matter who you are, your age or what you do for a living.
And it's fun.
So I decided to focus on what I call “imaginative narrative art” – artwork that attempts to draw from people an imaginative act of story-telling inspired by illustrations of rich, though only glimpsed, worlds. These worlds are usually a blend of the natural and surreal, and are all interconnected. I incorporate fragments of the real world, but mix them up. There may be parts of historical cities, with encroaching elements of the natural world. Many different cultures may intertwine on the same page. Characters may be human or animal. Through illustration I came to know the power of anthropomorphism, the use of an animal substitute for a human character. I found these characters to be the ones that excited the most diverse storytelling. Because such characters are free of gender, age and nationality – people would take their cues from the actions and environment of the image, and involve their own ideas and preconceptions of those animals. Thus, a solitary rabbit in a coat sitting in a café can elicit laughter or tears depending on the viewer. What they “see” is unique, because so much of their experience is brought by their own imaginations and the connections they forge.
Between regular books, I worked on my sketchbooks and presented them to publishers and friends in the industry. I am particularly grateful to Neil Gaiman who a decade ago encouraged me to continue with this work with the (as it turns out, prescient) pronouncement “one day we will work together”. However, although publishers were genuinely supportive of my artwork, they were not confident that such a book would find a market. Finally, in 2018 I began to collaborate with author and publisher Kobi Yamada. Through conversations with Kobi, we explored the ideas of imaginative narrative art and the act of storytelling – ideas which slowly coalesced into my latest book to be called “The Storyteller’s Handbook” (the title was his idea).
In this book the artworks are created as complete worlds with incomplete narratives, thus involving the reader in the storytelling. Additional characters move through the pages, symbolism abounds and the worlds are a peculiar blend of the familiar and fantastical that continually challenge the viewer to make sense of what they are seeing. My aim is not to tell stories, but to offer worlds, moments and seeds to help readers recognise and grow the stories they carry within themselves. To do this I have created fifty-two visions of different worlds. I hope that at least some will kindle wonder within the reader, and in that moment of wondering, free the reader to leap into their own imaginative stories. The book is introduced through a short story on the act of story telling by Neil Gaiman. It is a perfect and gentle welcome for what is to come. I have also contributed a letter to the reader and scattered some thoughts on story-telling, if people want to pause and ruminate.
This world I have created gives me such joy – not just for the scenes I get to play in, nor just for the characters I bring to life (although these give me such joy) – but for the connections and the stories that I hope will come. I hope people will laugh, and daydream, and perhaps write and draw. I hope some will share their work, and begin to build worlds of their own. I hope that I can continue to create work like this, to give people a door and watch them step through.
Elise Hurst, 2022