Interview by Becky Stark
Portrait by Cameron McCool
“It is very important to me that we leave behind the idea
of a tormented artist as an archetype and move
towards the idea that everyone can and should thrive.”
— Elena Stonaker
A Los Angeles-based fine artist and designer, Elena Stonaker makes soft sculptures and wearable art pieces using intricate quilting and beading techniques. Her works are inspired by myth and storytelling and have been shown in galleries as well as national and international publications.
Becky Stark is an LA-based artist, singer and songwriter who performs as both a solo artist and lead singer of the band Lavender Diamond. She was featured in Vanity Fair as one of Annie Leibovitz’s “Folk Music Heroes” and wrote songs for the film City of Ember (2008), starring Bill Murray and produced by Tom Hanks. Stark has also collaborated with The Decemberists.
Artist As Muse
Artist As Muse, pictured above, is an ongoing workshop series hosted by Elena Stonaker and held in various locations. Participants are invited to draw, photograph and observe models, referred to as “living sculpture,” posed in and around Stonaker’s creations.
Elena Stonaker is a rare bird whose works of art are stunning, inspiring and gloriously strange. The first time I saw something she made, I felt an awe similar to witnessing a beautiful flower—how is it possible? There is such mystery and virtuosity to her creations. It truly amazes me that she is real.
In meeting Elena, I was astounded by her kindness and warmth. She had made a crazy beaded hat that matched perfectly with what I was wearing, so she put it on my head. A sense of joy and love seems to move through her and her work. As I’ve come to know her better, I can say that her existence has been a relief to me. She is a woman of great integrity, true beauty and wild energy.
Becky Stark: Can you tell me about growing up and finding your path as an artist? I think Colorado is the most beautiful countryside I’ve ever seen. What was it like to be a child in such a beautiful, natural place?
Elena Stonaker: I was born on my grandparents’ big farm in Northern Colorado where the Rocky Mountains meet the plains. People’s minds are deeply affected by the geography they are raised in. The expansive sky in the east and the immense mountains live deep within me and shape my perception of the world. My hippy parents farmed vegetables when I was a baby, and I grew up crawling through the fields and eating dirt and whatever I could get my hands on. They split when I was young and both of them moved frequently. I always had outdoor space to explore. I spent a lot of time alone in gardens making elaborate homes for fairies among the flowers.
My childhood wasn’t difficult, but I was often lonely. In the void where loneliness lives, there is a portal to great creativity. My imagination was wild and became an open channel that filled me with magical visions. I read constantly and loved telling stories. My earliest years were in a Waldorf school where there is an emphasis on each child connecting spiritually and holistically with their education. I was sensitive and shy, so I can’t imagine how things would have turned out if I wasn’t treated so gently.
“In the void where loneliness lives,
there is a portal to great creativity.”
— Elena Stonaker
Art was how I eventually began to emerge from my introversion because it gave me the most confidence and felt the most natural. I had a difficult time relating to being in a physical body, and making physical work helped connect the real world and my dreams. Although I’ve always had lots of other interests, it is the practice of making things and telling stories that has always acted as the backbone to the rest of my life’s pieces.
BS: Some of your creations are so complex they have the same magic as nature—a sense of wonder at their possibility. Can you tell me about your process?
ES: Living in Los Angeles, there’s really nothing more fascinating than the diversity of plant and wildlife in this ‘desert’ city. How does a land in drought sustain such a rich set of ecosystems? It feels like a miracle. I am so turned on by plants; the shapes, colors, smells and textures are so sensual. So ingeniously evolved.
My process is generally extremely organic. I try to let it unfold as naturally as possible. I do very little planning and I move with intuition. Often a piece will begin with the symbol of an eye. The eye is like the seed… Once the eye is open, it sees the rest of its own form and expands upon itself. I often feel very much like a vessel to the work I make.
Because I sew and bead everything by hand, the physical process is very labor intensive and a bit exhausting. There are very few pieces that I have ever felt are finished. I will often return to a piece, and it evolves over time through form and function. For example, four years ago I spent three months making a seven-foot quetzalcoatl bird as a soft sculpture. It was completely covered, front and back, with hand-embroidery and beads—a real masterpiece. A year after I thought it was complete, I cut off its head, removed its stuffing and turned it into a hat and coat. It has continued to evolve as I add pieces, cut pieces off and give it life in performance and ceremony. I think it’s really important to balance being very precious with very fearless. Living and working in a natural manner, you come to accept that change is growth and that it is inevitable.
BS: How do you approach being at a crossroads in creativity?
ES: It is very important to me that we leave behind the idea of a tormented artist as an archetype and move towards the idea that everyone can and should thrive. I have experienced deep depression and living in survival mode and have little interest in returning there. So I am learning to adapt how I think in order to grow. If there is one thing I believe, it’s that the only thing we have complete control over is attitude. In the past it seemed that my work was in control of me. Like I said, I felt like the vessel for something larger. I’m coming to realize that while I get to be a physical human being, I want to enjoy and experience what it’s like. I want to embody the messages of my work. I want the work to take care of me the same way I take care of it. I’m still figuring this out, but the guiding principles are there.
BS: Can you tell us about the masculine/feminine balance in your work?
ES: I believe that we’re at a point in time when the masculine power has reached its limits and we are moving back into a place of feminine power. There has been so much emphasis on worth based on what we produce: How much? How fast? Many of us have forgotten how to follow the feminine properties of receptiveness. I think in order for our society and earth to heal, we must learn how to give and receive equally. Balance is vital. In much of my work I try to balance elements, whether it is a more literal illustration (for example, my “Together” soft sculpture dolls: a man and a woman connected by joined arms and legs), or a matter of balancing color, texture and form as hard and soft. As I have started experimenting with performance, I’m attempting to explore more masculine areas of myself that I feel less comfortable with.
“My door will always be open for mystery
because that’s where the greatest freedom lies.”
— Elena Stonaker
BS: You have said that the artist is responsible for playing a healing role in society. How do you understand the healing power of myth and the role of artists to create mythologies?
ES: Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of teaching, of passing important values from one person to the next. As artists, we generally have the capacity to see possibilities that may seem impossible or invisible to others. It is our job to fuse timeless symbols with new stories and weave them into the living myth that carries us to the world we dream of.
BS: What brings you the greatest joy in life?
ES: I love the juxtaposition of beauty and humor, of unexpected relationships. I find joy in indulging in simple, sensual pleasures and following natural rhythms. I find joy in making ridiculous objects and seeing them enjoyed.
BS: Do you have a discipline about fearlessness and engaging mystery?
ES: Perhaps now at 30 I have started to discover the liberation of discipline. But up until now what has engaged me is an intuitive force that says, “With fear you will be stopped, and you are not meant to be stopped!” In fearlessness, you enter the void of mystery with an open heart and a sense of wonder. I love the unknown; in the unknown there are no rules to bind you. In mystery there is magic, a potential for infinite possibility. My door will always be open for mystery because that’s where the greatest freedom lies.