It’s during Sydney Fringe Festival I first see Elyssa Sykes-Smith’s artworks. She is exhibiting works as a part of Art Pharmacy’s pop-up gallery The Lab, and the whole of the mezzanine is dedicated to Elyssa’s sculptures created especially for this space.
Ten days after The Lab pop-up is disassembled and the sold artwork has gone off home with their proud new owners, I’m meeting Elyssa to talk about her exhibition and her work in general. To go with my first artwork, which I not-so-coincidentally bought at The Lab, this is my first interview, and I come prepared with research, questions and a brand new recording app on my iPad. This is going to be a successful interview if it kills me.
Elyssa has only spent a year outside of the university bubble, and is sympathetic to my general air of eager confusion. With my own Life After Graduation in mind, I ask her what kind of advice she would give graduating students. She considers the question. ‟My advice would be to have something going on,” she says. ‟That way there will be something to do after graduation, rather than suddenly standing on a cliff edge with no idea what to do next.”
I wonder how she makes a living as an artist, and she laughs. ‟Well, it’s a puzzle process, really. Getting everything to work out.”
‟Like your artwork?” I ask, feeling very clever. The artwork I bought is named Puzzled 3. It is part of a series of Puzzled 1-5. All of them are pieces of wood and drawings on wood that Elyssa has puzzled together and played with until the pieces fit the way she wanted them to.
She grins. ‟It is doing research and finding out the deadlines of everything, being very organised and prepared, and also being able to do things last minute, such as the Lab. I think you have to be organised in order to be able to do things last minute.”
Her work has been in Sculpture by the Sea twice; this year will be the third. I naively ask her if she knows what she is making, and she laughs. ‟If I didn’t, I’d be in trouble!” I blink and she explains that you have to apply early in the year if you want to be a part of it. Being an artist is apparently not just making things. It is learning how to fill out application forms as well. She tells me that the first time she got in to Sculpture by the Sea, she had already made the sculpture. ‟Now I have a portfolio, but if you don’t, I think it’s important to show that you’ve thought about how to install your sculpture and how it will be built. Show that you’re not going to accidentally kill people! It doesn’t matter how good your idea is if they don’t believe you can do it.”
We talk about her artwork. I am fascinated by the kinetic energy of her sculptures. They are frozen, but they seem as though they could start moving at any second. I ask her about that. ‟I use the human figure to express emotions and situation, and the most important thing I try to capture is movement,” Elyssa explains. ‟If I can capture a sense of a paused movement, I’ve done my job.”
‟Wood is a living material, unlike steel, so to me it is a natural material to use.” Her sculptures are site specific. Both the ones she made for the Lab, and the ones she’s making for Sculpture by the Sea. She takes me through the process. ‟I go to the places, and try poses, taking photographs or getting other people to take them, and then I start sketching.”
Once the sculptures have been put together, she doesn’t edit them much, but she does make sure they fit into and interact with the environment they’re placed in. ‟Making sure the hand’s not hovering awkwardly over a stone, that kind of thing.”
The sculptures have to be moved in a car, because they’re so large. ‟There is something almost sexual about it,” Elyssa laughs. ‟I grab their legs, their breasts, everything — I’m covered in bruises from them all the time — and it is funny, because when I was moving the Lab sculptures, the woman sculpture and the man sculpture just fell into each other in the car. I guess they are made for each other, after all!”
Interview by Tonje Andersen