“My pieces are like messages, a mental map of an experience told through symbols.”
Elaine Wendt’s home feels like walking into a small European apartment. It’s old with reused/repurposed furniture and art on every wall. It looks lived in and cozy, where imperfections proudly and confidently state “there’s more to life than a picture-perfect house.” Plants decorate every corner, hang from the cabinets and ceilings, sit on shelves and counters. Her kitchen/studio is filled with canvases...some finished, some in progress. I want to buy them all.
Elaine is an environmentally conscious, contemporary abstract painter in Boulder, Colorado and here’s her #freelancelife true story…
"I JUST DON'T THINK THERE'S A WRONG WAY TO DO ART."
Mandy: Tell me about your path into art. How did you get here?
Elaine: I’ve always really enjoyed music and art history and painting, and when I first got to college, I studied art for a couple years. But when it got into some of the more technical stuff, I felt like it didn’t work for me. I just wanted toplay around and see what would happen if I sat down for two hours and just figured things out on my own. I just don’t think there’s a wrong way to do art. I learned a lot and I look back on that time fondly, and it works for a lot of people, but it just didn’t give me what I was looking for.
I changed paths a few times in terms of schooling, and I actually just got a degree in environmental science. I moved up here to Boulder (from Houston, where I’m from) to be with my husband and will be starting grad school in the fall. I intended to get a job or internship or something this year, but so far, it hasn’t worked out.
This entire time, throughout college and ever since high school, I’ve been painting in my free time. So recently I’ve just been doing that more and more. I didn’t really plan on doing this, it just kind of happened, so I’m just thinking, “Alright, maybe I’ll just see where this goes for a little while.”
M: So interesting that your degree is in environmental science! How does that affect your work?
E: I feel this immense obligation to try and save the planet. There’s some scientific research I feel a calling to do (that’s what I’m going to grad school for), and I plan to have a career in that in the future.
Right now, I have this desire to bring something into the world that’s beautiful, has meaning and brightens the world in some way. I want people to realize that so many amazing things have to happen for you to just wake up in the morning, so my approach with a lot of my pieces is to convey that. Or to communicate messages around needing less or appreciating things the way they are, not needing to be perfect—a lot of ideas that go into a mentality of sustainability.
"ONE THING THAT IRKS ME ABOUT THE ART COMMUNITY IS ITS ELITISM."
My senior thesis was on waste, so I try to be as sustainable as possible when I paint. It’s not easy all the time because paint is pretty bad for the environment. But I try to reuse things as much as I can. I buy canvases from Goodwill and just paint over them. I shop at Refill Revolution, a bulk and reusable store, and Art Parts, a secondhand art supply store. I recycle as much as I can, and I get paint from the recycling center sometimes.
And I often make my own canvases. If you go to Hobby Lobby or Michael’s and buy a 48” x 48” canvas, it will be wrapped in plastic and will probably be $80. But you could go buy the wood yourself for like $6 for 10 ft of wood, get a 10 ft by 10 ft roll of canvas for like $20 and some staples and stuff, and make your own canvas. It’s really not as hard as it looks.
Because I use a lot of secondhand supplies, it’s also cheaper for me to make art. And I can charge less for it. One thing that irks me about the art community is its elitism. If I can keep my material costs down, people can afford to buy my work that might not be able to otherwise. That’s one reason I really love Instagram. You can get inspiration and see amazing art for free, which makes it more accessible to everyone. Not everyone can afford to go to MoMA in New York.
M: I love that idea! Why should art only be for the wealthy?!
E: Exactly. For example, I love early 20th-century abstract expressionism, and all of those guys were great but almost all of them were white European men. I don’t hold a prejudice against that—they just happened to be benefactors of the system—but at the same time, I hope that their messages aren’t going to be reserved for only people in that category. Like for example, Mark Rothko’s abstract paintings are so huge and immersive, and I love them, but that’s a very wealthy experience. If you’re worried about where your next meal is going to come from, you might not be able to connect to that. With Instagram, I can connect with people all over the world that I might never have the chance to meet in real life...and people who might not have had access to this kind of art in the past.
"MY PIECES ARE LIKE MESSAGES, A MENTAL MAP OF AN EXPERIENCE TOLD THROUGH SYMBOLS."
M: Where do you draw your inspiration from for your work?
E: In my degree, I studied a lot of geography, cartography and digital mapping. And in that process, there’s a lot of creative decisions that have to go into color schemes and layout and symbols.
So, say you have a map demonstrating malaria outbreak and tracking migration of animals that carry the disease. You convey it on a spatial piece of information with shapes and colors and patterns. When I was studying, I spent a lot of time in the lab looking at maps on the computer, and I’d think, “This looks really cool, all the shapes and things.” So I spent the last few years looking at them and studying visual information.
My pieces are like messages, a mental map of an experience told through symbols. Like this conversation on a patio with the sun on our faces and a nice coffee. I don’t quite know how to explain it yet, but that’s what I’m going for.
M: I can see that! Wow, that makes me appreciate your pieces on a totally different level.
E: Thanks! And I just love doing it. I really feel great for the rest of the day if I’m up and painting by like 9:30am. This year has been so incredible for me to just really have time and space to experiment and gain confidence in a lot of ways. I’m really lucky.
M: What’s something you wish you’d known before you started that could help other people?
E: The first thing that comes to mind is just to be patient. Be really, really, really, really patient. And believe yourself. Not believe IN yourself, although that’s good too. But believe yourself. Believing yourself, in my mind, is being able to truly believe the self-talk you say to yourself and telling yourself things that you believe will come true through your hard work. If you want to do something, do it. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? If you fall on your face or mess up, who cares? Just try it. I have found this monumental in finding the strength to be a confident artist.
Great advice for anyone, not just artists or freelancers! Thanks so much for sharing your story and wisdom with us, Elaine! Best of luck in the future...I can’t wait to see where your art and passion for the environment leads you!
Follow Elaine’s journey and see more of her amazing art here: