A Conversation with PlantingSeeds’ Artist-in-Residence Elyssa Sykes-Smith

Enriching our programs and impact, PlantingSeeds welcomes our new multi-award winning Artist-in-Residence Elyssa-Sykes Smith.

Elyssa is an interprofessional artist working across sculpture, installation, performance, socially-engaged projects, education, and health research.

With an upcoming sculpture at Sydney’s prestigious Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi, Elyssa is in demand and those who experience and engage with her PlantingSeeds’ works no doubt sense her expertise, passion and creativity.

School children at Sydney’s McAuley Catholic Primary School in Rose Bay recently engaged in an interactive artwork that Elyssa inspired and set up for World Bee Day. Supported by a materials grant from Responsible Wood, an organisation dedicated to the sustainable maintenance of wood and forests across Australia, the children helped create colourful collages of wooden butterflies, bees, birds and other pollinators for the school’s exterior walls.

Elyssa talks of change and how it inspires her. ‘I often feel like I need to change’, Elyssa says, laughing.

Elyssa is wearing her distinctive black eyeliner, bold red lipstick, and lightly dyed shoulder-length pink pastel hair. She's wearing an uncharacteristically all-black outfit, although it is balanced by fun accentuated sleeves and ankle flares.

Graduating from her undergraduate degree with honours at the National Art School in Sydney, Elyssa has had her sculptural work exhibited at Sculpture by the Sea, Cottlesloe in Katoomba’s Scenic World, in a solo show in her hometown (Shoalhaven), and even on a London Live produced TV series titled ‘Next Big Thing’ during her time completing a master’s degree at the Architectural Association's School of Architecture in London. For her work, she's won prizes, grants, commissions, mentorships, and fellowships.

Elyssa's earlier works, like Dissolution (2014) and Alliance Amongst Adversity (2017) depict human-like figures and abstract geometry in movement. Sometimes suspended around rocks on a beach, other times suspended in a forest, Elyssa's work uses previously neglected, now recycled pieces of timber, giving it a distinct sense of texture, scale, and meaning.

‘Around 2017 I started to feel a real sense of stagnation in my own practice’, she reflects. ‘I realised I had been working in one way for so long, that I kind of got stuck in that way of thinking, and I found it really hard to change that.

‘It was quite different to how I used to be when I was younger, and I was like - what is a material? What is a process? It was all a very fluid thing.’

Now, more than 10 years on from beginning her professional career as an artist, Elyssa has just begun transitioning her career. She's recently commenced an internship at the Arts Health Network in NSW and the ACT, started teaching across art studios in Sydney, and - of course - is the new Artist-in-Residence here at PlantingSeeds.

‘I did have a good run as an emerging artist, and I was following that wave. But then, I think if anything becomes too repetitive, it's concerning.

The ‘wave’, Elyssa says, is one felt commonly by emerging artists once they've started gaining recognition for their work. A wave that, if it's not capitalised on, would be a waste.

‘Once you get on a good roll, it can feel like your career is in a state of flow. So, there is a threat that is posed when you realise something is not working on a deeper level, that would jeopardise momentum and business success.’

Today, being a career artist is challenging. Personal, social, and cultural expectations have to be delicately balanced with ongoing financial obligations to clothe, feed, and house oneself - each of which is becoming increasingly inaccessible by the day. ‘Of course, money isn't the goal’, Elyssa rectifies, but she states, “it is a reality”.

‘Because I don't come from a wealthy family, I'm always relying on myself or crowdfunding to keep things going. All of those opportunities and those networks build on this process of momentum, that as an individual, you have to self-perpetuate.’

As you could imagine, this builds pressure.

‘As an artist that would lead you to being pigeonholed into one thing. As a person, that leads to being pretty unsatisfied.’

But taking that step back and re-evaluating your career, Elyssa says, is ‘a choice’.

‘I don't believe we're all just here to have a career. That's not who you are. And I think that my identity was getting a bit lost into that.’

Reflecting on the successes and challenges of her practice meant coming to terms with her mental health, although she's been lucky in that regard. ‘Mental health has always been a really big part of my life. I grew up in a family of therapists and other health practitioners, like nurses, doctors, psychologists, and social workers’, she says.

‘Over my life, I've definitely struggled with mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and complex PTSD,’ says Elyssa. The health professionals in her life helped her manage those crises, and continue to help her to this day.

An example Elyssa brings up is when she became sick with the coronavirus while trying to complete her Master’s studies in London. Alongside its physical symptoms, Elyssa experienced short- and long-term memory loss which lasted for quite a while.

One of the steps in her recovery from the disorientating experience that is memory loss was reflecting on her previous work. She says she could now respond to her work with a fresh set of eyes. A piece that she particularly responded to was Canopy of Thoughts, a piece Elyssa made and displayed at Scenic World in Katoomba in 2015.

‘I went really deeply back into that artwork, but as a metaphor,’ she says.

Instead of viewing Canopy of Thoughts as simply a work of sculpture, she developed a research framework surrounding it. Elyssa conducted a study that asked participants to create their own ‘canopy of thoughts’ by writing their own interpretations superimposed an image of Canopy of Thoughts.

The results are fascinating, and offer a glimpse into how we understand art through metaphor.

New perspectives and intentions like these are aspects that Elyssa strives for. Not to say that she isn't working on new art Elyssa points out, but rather that her interests are becoming more diverse.

‘I wouldn't want my career to go back, say, like five years ago and be functioning in the same way because it's unsustainable.’

Elyssa says that her work with PlantingSeeds allows her to push boundaries. She has sculptures in the works that intend to physically support pollinators, like a manufactured beehive habitat or an insect hotel sculpture, that move beyond aesthetic purposes to be functional. Introductions to individuals such as Ku-ring-gai Council’s native bee specialist, Dr Alexander Austin, sound engineer Nigel Christensen, and horticultural expert, Cody Rengger, all generate interesting ideas that can foster collaborations.

These creations come at a time of immense environmental insecurity, as Elyssa points out. About the climate crisis, for example, she’s anxious. ‘I don’t know if we’re moving in a positive direction’, she says. She sees the importance of science surrounding the climate crisis rising in the collective conscious as being a good thing – and a far cry from when she was teased as a child, called a ‘hippie’ for ‘running around with signs’ step in step with her mother.

Within the ambiguity of temperature targets and environmental destruction, however , Elyssa finds herself hopeful - especially when she grounds it in ‘some kind of action’, be it art and/or activism.

Elyssa prefers the medium of sculpture in particular because it has ‘to survive in the real world’, rain, hail, or shine – and one could wonder if this extends beyond the physicality of sculptures to their purpose? With the sculptures that Elyssa develops increasingly being focused on conservation and environmentalism, she asks: should their roles be changing too? Sculpture has to ideologically ‘survive’, and imbued with PlantingSeeds' biodiversity and conservation goals, Elyssa has the opportunity of turning a new leaf; in her practice, her work, and her life.

‘I do think that beauty and visual expression in the physical form has the power to mobilise people’, she concludes.

We do too, and are eager to see what's next.

Author: Gautam Mishra