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What It's Like To Be: An Independent Artist

Forget the old way of doing things; Elizabeth Sutton is one of the hottest artists in New York, and she's doing it all on her own.

Sutton at home. Photo by A. Wermiel.

Elizabeth Sutton isn't your typical artist. Whip smart, with a degree in business, the beautiful mother of two started creating art just over a year ago. Working out of a studio in Long Island City, Sutton has made a name for herself in New York with her colorful collection of butterflies, bold geometric shapes and original take on pop icons photography.

Sutton explains how she relies on no one but herself, has managed to break the old-school mold of what defines a successful artist, and how art is just the beginning of her master plan.

Journal: How did you get started in art?

Elizabeth Sutton: I grew up in a very traditional home, and art was always my escape and inspiration, be it fashion or otherwise. As a child, I used to sneak away to scrapbook and collage as soon we finished our Friday night family dinner, and I’d be lost in my own world for hours. Now as an artist, I’m inspired by the movement and truly colorful city that I live in - even in the midst of winter. New York is full of style, multiculturalism & mixed media, and art in the form of architecture, cuisine, and fashion. Each day is different and perspective is everything.

What's the most challenging part of your work?

It's difficult to prioritize and manage my time, so that I am able to efficiently run all aspects of my business while also fulfilling the obligations within my personal life. Balancing a 60+ hour work week with my everyday errands, a two-year-old, a newborn, and a husband is definitely challenging. From a work perspective, there are so many responsibilities other than simply creating and painting my artworks that many people don’t realize: constantly maintaining my supplies, overseeing my assistants, networking & attending events, managing sales, responding to emails, doing installations, finding promotional opportunities, seeking partnerships, doing research (I have something new and exciting in the works!) – it’s a lot of responsibility and, as a perfectionist, it’s sometimes difficult to let other people manage some of these tasks. But I’m aware, and working on it because I believe deeply in challenging oneself to improve every day.

Your work is so vibrant and fluid in terms of color and materials; tell us about your artistic process.

My process is very much intuitive. For the most part, I do not digitally plan my artworks – I envision the works, mentally playing over different variations, and I put them straight onto wood. For my latest series, “Icons,” I have had to do some digital prep work to create proper shapes, but even for those works, the colors and shadows are crafted intuitively and are not predetermined. I think my ability to balance color and shape is where my strength lies. And although most who have observed my practice often comment that my work is so tedious that they don’t understand how I have the patience to do it, I find my process extremely meditative and therapeutic. Patience is not exactly my “virtue” and most days I feel I can identify with ADHD, but when it comes to my art I could stand for 12 hours straight painting, perfectly content and at peace. Whereas many artists can work on a single piece for months, unsure of whether or not they are finished, my works definitely have a beginning and an end. And for me, there is nothing more satisfying than placing the final detail.

At Beautique restaurant, surrounded by her art. Photo by A. Wermiel.

How has your degree in business helped you?

Typically, people are either “right-brain” or “left-brain” dominant, and in the past, I used to think I was “left-brain” as I have always found it easier to explain life and circumstances via logic, facts, and numbers. But today, I find it is the creative aspect of my job that makes me love what I do. Many very talented artists are “right-brain” dominant and don’t necessarily have the business acumen to get their works out there and sell, which is ultimately the goal. My degree, focus on sales, and overall nature has allowed me to get my art career off to a fairly quick start, as my education has definitely taught me what it takes to launch a successful business.

What is it about pop icons that interests you?

My original works have always been geometric or focused on visual spatial layouts, as I’ve never had classical training in drawing and, by nature, I’m bored by routine. I am constantly striving for my artwork to evolve and progress so, after I had done many geometric artworks, I tried to think of ways to apply the same geometric style to different types of works, which is how I came up with my “Icons” series. Each of my “Icons” are an homage to modern genius, from style & design, to science, sports, and entertainment; they have all influenced culture in a deeply meaningful way.

How do you balance being a wife, mother and an increasingly busy career?

Finding the balance is extremely challenging. I attended a charity luncheon earlier this year for women in the workspace, and I will never forget the keynote speech. She was the Editor-in-Chief for Glamour magazine and also a mother of two, and I was just launching my career yet I felt that she was speaking directly to me when she said: “Everyone will always tell you to find a balance between work and home. That is absolute bullshit. There is no such thing as balance for moms with careers. One day, your work will demand more of your time and, the next day, your children and home responsibilities will demand more of your time. Be prepared to get very little sleep.” And that is the story of my life!

Part of Sutton's Icons series. Photo by A. Wermiel.

The art world is known for being intimidating and tough to break into; thoughts?

I have never been intimidated by anyone or anything. I believe that with enough ambition and hard work, you can accomplish anything you set out to achieve. You need to be able to handle failure, learn from your mistakes, and get right back up. Within the art world, as within any industry, you need to say “yes” to every opportunity that comes your way, especially in the beginning. I have a brilliant mentor – an MIT-educated woman who IPO’d her first tech company at age 30 – who once told me, “Liz, you will succeed because you are not afraid to ask people for help.” No one is going to offer you your dreams on a platter – you need to go out and make them happen. And as cliché as it sounds, when one door closes, another door opens. I have had a number of disappointing experiences since starting, but if you perceive them as blessings in disguise, you will realize that the closed door allowed for even better opportunities to present themselves. Oh, and I hustle. I hustle VERY hard.

What's your favorite drink?

Is it boring to say water? ☺

You sell your work directly to consumers; why don't you have a gallery representing you?

At this point in time, I do not feel a gallery would be the best next move for my brand. My career began through Instagram, and approximately 70% of my sales are generated through social media and, at the end of the day, this is a business. From a business perspective, it does not make sense for me to start giving up 50-60% of my revenues to a gallery when I am successfully selling my works myself. I have sold over 100 works of art in the past year, and I would rather explore alternative methods of sales – pursuing interior designers, collaborating with hotels, restaurants, and other venues, etc. – rather than going the traditional gallery route. People think that’s what all artists should want to do, or need it as a badge of merit. I also like having autonomy to make my own decisions, and I feel proud of how far I’ve come on my own.

Which artists, brands, etc. inspire you?

Damien Hirst is definitely a role model for me as both an artist and a entrepreneur. There is a stigma in the art world that money should not play a role in the creation of art, which I think is ludicrous. Creating artwork is my full-time work - something I do so I can contribute towards my family's well being. I am fortunate enough to have the luxury of loving what I do, but at the end of the day, I need to earn a living. Hirst successfully broke through that stigma and created a very lucrative business through his art. I also love the aesthetic of his artwork. In addition to Hirst, I idolize Jonathan Adler and Deborah Kass. Though Adler now has a successful home accessories and furniture line, he began his career as a ceramics artist. My long term goals are to follow a similar path and have my own product line one day. I also gravitate towards his aesthetic as well - I like art and accessories that are decorative and colorful, something that I want to see on my walls every day. On a personally meaningful level, I admire the work and message of Deborah Kass - through her works, she has created a commentary on the dominant position of males within the art world. Since beginning my career as an artist, I feel more empowered as a woman than ever. Being able to make a career out of something that I love, and garnering support from complete strangers is something I never could have fathomed a year ago, when I first began this journey.

Interested in Elizabeth's art?

Last week Elizabeth donated artwork to the 92nd Street Y's Annual Spring Gala, and Couture for a Cause. She'll also participate in the 2017 Architectural Digest Design Show, beginning 3/16, tickets available for purchase here.

To attend Elizabeth Sutton Collection's "Spring Fever" Exhibition at Gansevoort Market on March 21st, with live performances by Dan Miz and DJ Nicole Rose, please RSVP to [email protected]

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