Interview with Elizabeth Tobias 10/30/2020
Elizabeth draws upon multiple art disciplines to create immersive installations and public spectacles that engage the community in social, political and environmental issues. She creates open-ended experiences that unfold as audiences engage with them.
Tobias has received multiple awards for her short documentary, “Survivor! 98 Second Stories, an advocacy project bringing awareness to the sexual assault epidemic. She was previously awarded a Learning Innovation Fellowship from The National Science Foundation to combine art and science to help combat climate change. She earned a prestigious Durfee ARC Grant for The Cupcake Project, a traveling exhibit about the hunger epidemic in America. She has exhibited her films and work at museums and galleries throughout the world including Harvard University, Utah MOCA and Ping-Pong at Art Basel.
Elizabeth Tobias is an Expressive Arts Therapist, Artist, Educator and Community Organizer. As a facilitator and educator, she works with schools, museums and non-profits to create Expressive Arts programs, performances, workshops and events.
Elizabeth currently serves on the steering committee of Rising Arts Leaders, San Diego as well as The Arts+Culture San Diego Community Advisory Council. She received her MA in Psychology from USM and her Professional Diploma from The Expressive Arts Institute.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a community art project called #ChalkUp. We organize chalk drawing events on the La Jolla bike path to provide a place for people of all ages and abilities to process and artistically express what they have been going through during this time. We express our solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement and our fight for equity, inclusion and social justice.
We have been surprised to receive pushback from something as simple as chalk drawings, but #ChalkUp has become a flashpoint between the many people who support our expressions and those who feel uncomfortable with our messages. We hit a nerve. Clearly, the project is something very needed and it has helped our community to start deep conversations about race and equity.
The original artistic inspiration for #ChalkUp came from Rangoli, an art form in India of painting on the ground.
How has this pandemic affected or shifted your practice?
The work I create is about being in the moment and evaluating every situation to determine the best response. Despite my years of training and experience, nothing could have prepared me or anyone for 2020.
The dual pandemics of COVID and systemic racism have centered my attention more on the community than my individual work. As programming co-chair of RAL, my partner Camille and I created events to support and uplift. We created a self care workshop, a BIPOC arts leadership event and most recently, an event honoring the immensity of the loss the arts have endured while offering tools of resilience and recovery.
My practice hasn’t changed, but my response is always unique to the situation. I want to be of service and to help support my community as best I can.
What has your journey been like as an artist?
I experienced a very traumatic childhood and didn’t have a nurturing family environment. Discovering art saved my life. And because of that, I have spent my life learning to create work that heals. The arts have such immense power to uplift people, communities and the world. I hope I can leave a unique mark on the world with the kind of large scale, therapeutic performance art that I create.
Growing up in Chula Vista in the 1970’s, I wasn’t exposed to much art in my family, but my second grade teacher was really special and introduced us to drawing to classical music. That was a pivotal moment. And then, somehow, when I was 8, I discovered Andy Warhol and that introduction to pop and conceptual art changed my life forever.
I was never interested in art in the classical sense, in the formal sense. From my earliest years, it was about the process and not the product. It was always about ideas, experiments and social change. Later in life, I discovered that my style of work is most closely aligned with Fluxus. I am also a feminist and an activist and I create work that challenges systems of oppression.
In practical terms, my journey has been very eclectic and I am largely a self-taught artist.
I went to college in San Francisco, then Paris to be immersed in a culture capital. After college, I moved to Los Angeles and worked freelance on music videos, commercials and small plays. I worked in the art department, costuming and then became a production manager and producer. I loved the indie music scene at that time and I began directing and created a small handful of music videos and promo pieces for record labels. I also photographed live music shows.
As music became more mainstream, I felt unsatisfied artistically, so I began creating experimental photos and videos. I left the film industry and began showing in galleries and curating experimental events and happenings. I also helped develop an iconic fashion brand.
My work today is a reflection of all of those experiences and influences- sets, costumes, video, film, music, performance and theatre.
In some sense, everything I create is a de-constructed documentary. My work is a weaving of conceptualism, current events, crowdsourcing and trauma healing.
Do you have any tips for up-and-coming, or rising artists?
Often the biggest challenge in becoming an artist is radical self acceptance.
Be fully who you are and embrace everything about you; the best, the worst, the most confident, the most insecure. Take the long journey of developing your own voice, your own style and your own path. Innovate. Don’t be complacent. Believe in yourself and stay focused on the process. Be comfortable out of your comfort zone.
Learn More about Elizabeth Tobias