Ford model Elyse Saunders has an overactive imagination that leads to some wildly beautiful artwork.
As Ford’s Elyse Saunders sat in hair and makeup preparing to shoot for Joey No. 3, we couldn’t help but notice that the Canadian model was intensely focused on a small notebook she held in her lap. Its pages were filled with sketches—dreamlike scenes of faces, creatures, flowers and trees. Elyse, it turns out, is a lifelong artist, and after learning that she’s never really shown her work (she does maintain a blog, Tree and Treasure), we pressed the model to explain her creativity. She has a lot to say.
When did you start drawing?
I first remember drawing when I was about three or four. I had this cookie tin full of crayons and always had a stack of paper around. I’ve always had an overactive imagination, and when I found out I could create stories and characters and impossible landscapes, I was attached to my tin of crayons and craft supplies. My dad got me my first sketchbook for my fifth birthday, and I was so proud to have it. He gave me a little speech on how special this book was and to take good care of it and not to waste my pages. He said it didn’t matter what I drew in it, so long as I made each page count because I could only use one page a day. I remember I got more serious and would plan, even practicing on scrap sometimes before I started in the book. That’s when I first started drawing my dreams. The first picture in it was of a dream. I still have that book to this day.
What do you remember about the first piece you did that you were really proud of?
One of my first pieces I remember being really proud of was this nude drawing I did when I was 10. It’s sort of a funny story, but I remember watching Titanic at home on my living-room floor while I was trying out my new charcoals. I remember watching the scene where Jack was drawing Rose. I thought it was really beautiful, the way the lines from the pencil moved so easily to create the naked girl. I wanted to do the same. I probably watched that scene three times before I started, and though I wasn’t squeamish, my dad was probably a bit concerned that I was playing the nude scene over and over.
After I finished I showed my dad, and he took it and showed it to anyone who came by, surprised that I did it—more because it was the first time I made something like that, and though it wasn’t Rose, it was a nude on a couch.
I remember being really proud of it because I spent so much time on the shading, and it was better than anything I had made that far. It was also the first piece of art I’ve ever sold to anyone. One of my dad’s friends bought it for $10, and when you’re 10 (well, when I was 10), it felt like a lot of money! I bought Pokemon cards with it.
When do you draw?
I usually draw whenever a story or an image or a feeling that could be interpreted as an image pops into my head. I always walk around with at least one little sketchbook in my bag just in case that happens. I’m very much an observer, and throughout a day, I try to take in as many things as I can. If I’ve taken something in before, then I try to reabsorb it from a new angle, if that makes any sense. I like to keep an eye from multiple perspectives, so I can imagine the emotions of not only the characters in my drawings and their relation to one another, but also the viewers’ relations to them—and even sometimes, my characters’ relation and understanding of the viewer. I like multiple dialogues, on multiple layers and dimensions, even if it’s just a feeling or emotion.
What inspires you to draw?
I base a lot of my work around my dreams. It’s the digestion of my day. It’s the subconscious making nonsense to make sense. For me, it’s often riddled with plotlines. There are elaborate and repeat characters, strange grotesque monsters, beautiful moments, adventures, war, pain, euphoria, triumphs and tragedies. Sometimes they are more real than when I’m awake. Everything that isn’t always seen in a day happens in my dreams. I feel that the only way to hold on to it forever, or to purge what haunts me, is to put it somewhere outside of myself. That way, I have the choice to reflect—to either hold on or banish. Once a dream is done, I know maybe I’ll dream it again, or maybe I never will. But putting them somewhere the moments after they happen allows me to go back to being the observer—trying to understand while keeping a distance.
When I’m in my dream, I am my dream. All the situations and dialogues are my own on some level, and there’s nothing outside of that. I am inside myself. I am not just the watcher, but I’m being watched by thousands of other parts of myself, trying to digest and figure out what is happening and why. Watching myself be the bad guy, the good guy, the dead person, the wind, my brother, the changing colors, the changing faces, etc. I am never really just myself (the “self” I am when I’m awake), and at the same time, I am all of and even more of myself. And it’s sometimes shocking to see that not all of my “selves” are quite the person I thought I was.
To reestablish who I am, I have to draw. It’s the way I make understanding, and I have to express that somehow. Or even express my lack of understanding. I have thoughts bubbling in the very back of my head, and though they don’t have words, I know that by putting a tool in my hand, I’m making a door for them to come out, and it just flows. I sometimes don’t know what’s even going to happen until something is done. Then I can look at it again as the observer, removed. I try to understand from a fresh perspective instead of trying to fumble with it in my subconscious with a thousand different perspectives. I suppose that is what inspires me. Not just dreams or the subconscious, but also the strange aspects of reality that I strive to understand. The amazing thing is, there is never really only one answer, there’s never only one side. Reality means so many different things to different people.
I suppose my curiosities are in trying to see things from as many sides as I can—to grasp all perspectives at one time, but not completely lose my own.
Describe your work in exactly 10 words.
A literal depiction of figurative experiences, within many human dimensions.
How do you work?
When I draw, I prefer to do variations of collage or make a very detailed scene or scenario. I love to work with ink, but also oils, watercolor, crayon, glass, different fabrics, plastic, found objects, Photoshop, cut-outs, etc. I have a trunk that looks like a treasure chest stocked with art supplies, and when I find a new medium, I try to add to it. That way I’m never short of a tool when I have an itch to do something. When I do get an itch, it has to be scratched immediately. Usually I get it out in my little sketchbook; then when it’s out, the ideas can get elaborated on, taking on different forms. It usually starts as an elaborate sketch in my tiny book. I like making three-dimensional pieces in varying styles and textures, too. For example I’m working on a puppet version of an old drunk man who I have as a drawing, and he’s made of a collection of old and unwanted materials and objects—perfect for the elaboration of this character. To help things flow more easily, I listen to my music, but as far as location goes, I can draw anywhere any time. There are times when I become a hermit, determined to stay inside and close to my trunk. I’m also prone to insomnia, and during those surreal in-between hours, I feel most creative. The slanted-awareness is a comforting atmosphere for someone needing craft-catharsis. Unfortunately, it is not so great if I have to work in the morning. Sometimes I see a full story from start to finish and make it just as I see it in my head. Other times, it’s a gamble.
You draw a lot of faces. What do you like about faces?
You can look at a face, and from thousands of pieces of visual information, you can see so much. Without them saying a word, you can learn more about them than you think. You can see where someone has been in their life based on where their wrinkles are. You can see how someone is feeling based on how they hold their face. You can see warmth or coldness in their eyes. You can see how comfortable or awkward they are. You can see if they are trying to figure you out as well. I almost always include faces in my drawings, even if they’re not always human. It’s the best way I know how to establish a mood.
What visual elements do you find yourself repeating?
I’ve always had an attachment to nature and grew up surrounded by it. Something about the pure and natural way life and death just happen is humbling and beautiful. I like to bring that to my artwork because amid the chaos, I like there to be a humbling end point—a reminder that though everyone is trying to work out their own chaos, growth and change, life and death, is something everything alive has in common. It’s calming to have that awareness. It’s grounding. To me a tree represents so much strength: their roots, age, size and durability; their ability to grow and survive through so many changes. They seem to accept everything that is happening around them, even death. I like to remind people (including myself) that though we get wrapped up in our own worlds, we are still much like those trees. That’s why we should take care of the environment. At the end of the day, what is left to calm us from chaos? Nature balances that.
Is there anything you struggle with as an artist?
I think I’d be completely insane if I couldn’t create in some way because even now my dreams and reality can get confused sometimes. My struggles are in finding a way to express the way I am learning about the world, both inside of and separate from myself, in a way that others can understand. I want to create a transcendental dialogue between as many layers as I can, but in a way that also makes sense to others. Sometimes I end up just rambling. But rambling in one way or another is part of the dialogue anyway I suppose.