At the age of 13, be-mohawk’d punk rocker Elizabeth McGrath got dropped off by her parents in the desert outside San Diego at a home for girls run by religious extremists. She spent weeks of solitary confinement in the so called “Get Right with God” room.
McGrath used art to fight her way out of captivity.
After pleasing her overseers by drawing morality-themed “Tree of Bad” and “Tree of Good” diagrams, McGrath became the school’s de facto artist- in-residence. She recalls, “The girls would trade me their candy that we got once a week if I would make a card to send to her relatives on their birthdays. So I was encouraged in that way.”
After surviving one year at the now-shuttered Victory Christian Academy, the self-taught artist moved on to develop an astonishing iconography all her own. Showcased in new picture book Incurable Disorder (Last Gasp), McGrath’s sculptures, dioramas and plaques present imperiled beasts and haunted humans that manage at once to be cute, grotesque, sparkly, surreal and melancholy.
McGrath uses foam and the Magic Sculp epoxy-based putty to mold her beasts, than adds fabric discards, found objects, glitter and paint.
Speaking from the downtown loft she shares with her photographer husband and two year old daughter, McGrath talks to Co.Create about the surreal theme parks, boring church rituals, bedazzled lingerie design and audiobook obsessions that inform her meticulously detailed art objects.
Growing up in the foothills of Altadena, California, McGrath early on forged an imaginary bond with animals, including the coyote that attacked her at the age of six. McGrath says, “I did a series where guardian animals lead their human counterparts through the underworld, I guess, or the streets of L.A. The creatures are kind of human caricatures in animal form, like people you might encounter on a daily basis. I’m just trying to make them look a little more approachable.”
McGrath has lived for the past 15 years in in downtown Los Angeles and often builds pieces around the collision between nature and urban detritus. She recalls, “One time I was driving and I saw this dilapidated couch that animals where had burrowed little holes and trees started growing and tangling themselves into it. That was the basis for projects like The Deer House. Without wanting to be too morbid about it, I started with upholstery and imagined these apocalyptic creatures adapting themselves to man’s discarded trash.”
McGrath studied fashion design at Pasadena City College and designed the outfits for her country punk band Miss Derringer after bedazzling clients during her tenure as a minimum wage costumer at Los Angeles shop Trashy Lingerie. The experiences inspired her spectacular sculpture, “The Folly of St. Hubertus.” McGrath says, “I did a lot of embellishing underwear and stripper costumes with Swarovski crystals so I had some lying around. A teenager intern from England stayed with us one summer and helped me do the deer. We used about 72,000 crystals. It’s very time consuming but the piece came out the way I wanted it to. I feel like each crystal has a life of its own, which I find really captivating.”
McGrath cites the saucer-eyed characters favored by gothic auteur Tim Burton, Los Angeles fabulist Mark Ryden and painter Margaret Keane as key influences. She explains, “You can convey so much emotion through the eyes. The expression– or the lack of expression–in these blank stares make you wonder ‘What’s going on here?’ I think sometimes times I’m channeling painful memories of the girls from the school.”
For one series, McGrath carved holes when she ran out of surface area for all the details she’d envisioned. “I felt like I needed to put all these details somewhere and just didn’t have enough room,” McGrath says.”I cut out these little windows inside the creatures to get to this idea of gut emotions and what it might be going on in your belly even though the faces seem somewhat sadly serene.”
McGrath’s objects are often studded with tiny accoutrements that reward close scrutiny. She explains, “When I’m working on a show the details haunt me. I can’t sleep ’cause there always this big, almost like laundry list, running through my mind: ‘Okay don’t forget to put the little hat on the deer, and this one needs a tattoo.’ I might work on something for 24 hours straight. I remember one time I didn’t leave the building for two months. I’d order in food, didn’t go outside, just stayed locked in. I guess the girls’ home prepared me for never leaving.”
Having been raised Catholic, McGrath incorporates the artful decor she absorbed in church. She recalls, “My dad dragged us around to as many churches as were available in Los Angeles. The sermons themselves were so boring that your eyes wander all over the place and you’d see these beautifully dressed saints, their faces are so old, their eyes have disappeared. A lot of my box pieces grew out of the reliquaries and little golden altars of the Catholic Church.”
McGrath pauses. “I also had a fascination with circus freak shows. Though I never actually saw a freak show.”
McGrath welcomes gruesome touches in her sculptures, influenced in part by her childhood visit to a bizarre Asian theme park. “My mom is from Singapore so we went there when I was ten years old and visited Tiger Balm Garden,” she recalls. “You walk through this cave and there would be these almost fish tank type scenarios with people being eaten by demons and swallowed whole. They had this bloody Tree of Swords with a pile of arms underneath it, and the different gates of Hell before you get reincarnated into your final form. On top of this mountain, they had these big, bright life-size sculptures showing the war between the rats and the rabbits who had their arms cut off, on stretchers. It must have stuck with me because look at what I’m making all these years later.”
Several of McGrath’s themes borrow from literary sources. Medieval folklore about deer hunter spurred sculptures of weeping stags while a line from Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 inspired her black and white series “Shadowless Summer.” She says “I listen to a lot of audio books. Once I have a concept and start listening to these books, mostly science fiction, then I get lured into these different stories that influence what the piece looks like.”
In the mid-nineties, McGrath worked as a self-described “art dog” on Tooland Oingo Boing music videos featuring stop-motion animation by the late Fred Stuhr. “He showed me how to make these little miniatures,” she says. “I realized ‘Oh my god, these floors are just popsicle sticks that they scored with X-ACTO knives.’ Everything was pretty low-fi and it made me realize you can make anything with what you have around you look pretty fantastic if you know a few little tricks. You don’t need a lot of experience or some big mold-making machine. That’s when I started making my own things.”