Saturday, April 21, 2007

Questionwork, An Interview With Elizabeth Alley

I was able to sit down for an interview recently with Elizabeth Alley, creator of the 2007 Memphis in May poster honoring Spain, and mastermind behind the blogs Sketchwork and Listwork, for the continued series Get To Know Your Blogger. We met at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, CA, for lunch, where the temperamental artist had a crustless open-face pimiento cheese sandwich, three-minute egg, kale, and one Old Fashioned after another throughout the afternoon. She ordered for me from her regular waiter, Henri, yet allowed me only half a cup of decaffeinated coffee with two Splenda, a baked Cornish game hen breast, kale, and two pieces of rye toast which she had brought with her and produced from her purse. I was told beforehand never to make eye contact with her or her plate of food. As we dined and talked, she greeted and spoke with friends, the likes of Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Alan Alda, Dianne Wiest as well as fellow painters Tony Bennett and C. Thomas Howell, who, it turns out, was there actually painting the walls of one of the other dining rooms and had wandered in looking for the restroom. He was quickly escorted out by security. As the lunch came to an end and Henri limped over (I was told that he was missing half a hip, the victim of a land mine in Afghanistan, though I never would have asked. “French Foreign Legion?” I said, “No, he was just lost,” she answered with an apathetic, too-loud laugh) with yet another Old Fashioned, we opened our laptops facing each other like a game of Battleship and began the instant message interview.

Urf!: Are you ready?
EA: hit me!
Urf!: Here we go ... I’ve been an admirer of your work for some time now and there is one question, when I’m seeing one of your sketches or paintings for the first time, that always springs to mind, so I’d like to just go ahead and get this one out of the way: Who do you think would have won in a bare-knuckle fistfight, Katharine Hepburn or Audrey Hepburn?
EA: You'd be surprised how often people ask me that. Most people expect me to say Katharine Hepburn, because she was one tough broad and had knuckles like Brazil nuts. But Audrey - well she was scrappy.
Urf!: Do you model your own scrappiness off of Miss Hepburn?
EA: Like most short, petite women with dark hair, yes I do.
Urf!: When did you first notice you were sketching?
EA: Probably the first time I got in trouble for it in school.
Urf!: Which art school was that?
EA: It wasn't art school - it was grade school! It was the man keeping me down!
Urf!: I see. Have you ever etched a sketch?
EA: I used to have a 3-D etch-a-sketch. I made sculptures with it.
Urf!: Just like Matisse. Interesting. Is there any particular subject that interests you when you’re sketching? I know your paintings are typically taken from photographs of people like your older brother, but your sketches seem to come from every day life. Is there anything you look for to sketch?
EA: Sometimes I look at something and I wonder what it will feel like to sketch it. Or my hands just want to sketch - like Mom's hands just want to hold some cards. Sometimes I want to sketch and I look around and find something, but I can't always find something interesting - like if I'm in Germantown.
Urf!: Your mother has a gambling problem? Is she an addict?
EA: Not at all. She can stop any time she wants to.
Urf!: What do you sketch on or in? A sketchbook? Spiral notebook? Post-Its?
EA: I carry a sketchbook with me everywhere I go. It's small - a 3.5" x 5.5" Moleskine - so that I can always fit it in a purse. I have been known to sketch on the last page of my legal pad during meetings at work - shhhhh don't tell anybody.
Urf!: So you have no compunction about moles dying for your art?
EA: None whatsoever. What can I say - they work well with pencil.
Urf!: Have you ever found yourself without a sketchbook and sketched on, say, a cocktail napkin or matchbook?
EA: Pretty much daily. For instance if I'm doing something like talking - 9 times out of 10 I will grab something to draw on so that people will understand what I'm saying.
Urf!: You mentioned pencils. Wood or plastic?
EA: Plastic?
Urf!: Some pencils are made with plastic … You're Googling that, aren't you?
EA: I actually do use plastic pencils - mechanical pencils - a lot, but not really for sketching. More for making lists.
Urf!: You make lists?
EA: Boy, do I.
Urf!: We'll come back to that. What do you do for gainful employment?
EA: Direct public art.
Urf!: Is that like direct mail?
EA: Only if I'm mailing something.
Urf!: Do you have a family? Husband? Kids? Nieces or nephews?
EA: A giant one. Yes. No. Four, almost five.
Urf!: Tell me your thoughts on the Memphis art community. Is there one? Is it close-knit and supportive?
EA: There is a wonderful arts community and it is close-knit and supportive when it is not whiny and divisive - and usually it isn't. There is a lot of interesting art being made here and being shown here.
Urf!: Let's get back to blogs for a moment. What was your first reaction to Urf!?
EA: Probably "hahahahahahhahahha."
Urf!: Where did you go to kindergarten?
EA: Richland Elementary for a couple of weeks, then Shady Grove Road Elementary.
Urf!: Who is your favorite artist? Your biggest influence?
EA: I'm going to say John Singer Sargent. Usually I don't say that, but I'm going to say that this time. He could just paint like a son-of-a-bitch.
Urf!: Favorite sculptor?
EA: No such thing. Kidding! I like Giacometti. And Rodin - I went to his house! He's probably my favorite.
Urf!: Was he a gracious host?
EA: Very gracious for a dead guy.
Urf!: Who is your favorite architect?
EA: Probably somebody boxy like Mies van der Rohe, or whoever designed these.
Urf!: Who is your favorite author?
EA: Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Urf!: What music do you like to listen to while you paint or sketch? Any particular artist?
EA: Depends on what I'm working on. While I was working on the Memphis in May poster I must have listened to Miles Davis's "Sketches of Spain" about a bazillion times. Right now I'm working on some paintings that I have titled "Extraordinary Machine" after a Fiona Apple song, so I'm listening to a lot of Fiona Apple. I also like to just turn on the iTunes on shuffle.
Urf!: I found a YouTube the other day of Fiona Apple and Elvis Costello doing "I Want You" live. She seemed very angry about it.
EA: awesome. she has a funny video with a comedian - it's a serious song but the comedian is very funny - i'll see if i can find it.
Urf!: When did you decide that Spain would be the Memphis In May honored country?
EA: here it is. I guess it was after I finished the six paintings that make up the poster. I just stood back and looked at them and thought, "That looks like a Memphis in May poster honoring Spain."
Urf!: Are you wearing something orange today?
EA: I am. But seriously I just like orange and happened to pick up my orange jacket. It was an accident.

Urf!: I’d like to wrap this interview up with the 10 questions made famous on "Inside The Actor's Studio," which James Lipton borrowed from the French series "Bouillon de Culture," hosted by Bernard Pivot. What is your favorite word?
EA: easy
Urf!: What is your least favorite word?
EA: infarction
Urf!: What turns you on?
EA: good grammar
Urf!: What turns you off?
EA: public spitting
Urf!: What is your favorite curse word?
EA: craptastic
Urf!: What sound or noise do you love?
EA: a lawnmower in the distance
Urf!: What sound or noise do you hate?
EA: TV whine
Urf!: What profession, other than your own, would you like to attempt?
EA: professional organizer
Urf!: What profession would you least like to do?
EA: garage attendant
Urf!: If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive?
EA: "Good, you're here. Leonardo is looking forward to meeting you."

Urf!: Okay, I think we’re done here. Are there any questions you'd like to ask me?
EA: Who would YOU pick in a Hepburn on Hepburn bare-knuckle fistfight?
Urf!: Kate. No question.
EA: Sucker.