In this multi-media world, where ubiquitous screens blare at us at every second, it’s easy to overlook more traditional media like painting. It’s easy to think that such “media” is irrelevant to our fast-paced, interconnected, digital universe, and that paintings exist solely as objects of beauty or curiosities.
But the work of Elena Soterakis proves that painting can be totally relevant to our changing world. Starting as painter of landscapes and cityscapes, Elena’s work now focuses on the theme of environmental degradation -- a subject more relevant to our modern world than probably any other. Using classical painting techniques, along with a keen eye and brilliant imagination, her paintings capture both the ironic beauty and abject horror of what humanity is doing to its own home.
Elena was kind enough to tell Mr NYC a little bit about her background, her work, and her thoughts about art, environmentalism and NYC.
Tell us a little about your background and what made you want to become a painter.
I’ve always really wanted to be an artist. I can’t imagine being anything else. I’ve known this since the sixth grade, the years when you have to make dioramas and posters to go with every report. I loved doing poster board projects for my science class, and I realized through those that I loved making art. Those projects honestly inspired me more than my middle school art classes, which were very structured and unexciting. I actually got poor grades in art class, because they wanted me to do boring projects like draw my shoe. They weren’t engaging at all. It was really thanks to my science teacher, Fran Casola, that I got so interested in art. I remember at the end of the year, she told me I really deserved a B in science, but my dioramas were so good that she gave me an A.
Who are some of your favorite artists and influences?
I’m a diehard Anslem Keifer fan. He’s a contemporary German artist. His paintings are very textured. I love the surfaces of his paintings; they’re chunky and interesting. I love the way he paints! It’s funny, because my paintings really don’t look like his. I wish I painted like he did! When I was young I really loved Edward Hopper. He was one of the artists that really made me want to be a landscape painter. Recently I’ve been inspired by the Hudson River School; I quote a lot of their paintings in my own work and turn them into degraded 21st century landscapes. Much of your early work was of landscapes and cityscapes.
What attracted you to this kind of painting and what were some of your favorite places to paint?
I’m always inspired when I’m driving, or walking down the street, and I see an empty landscape or cityscape that’s devoid of people, but has the remnants of people. I did a residency in Ithaca at the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, and I loved painting there. The residency is on a 400-acre estate, and I painted on site. That was very exciting for me. But I also really like industrial, gritty landscapes, and Brooklyn is great for that. More recently you've been doing paintings about environmental degradation and preservation.
What inspired you to move your work into this direction and do you consider your art as a kind of activism?
I wanted to make landscapes that reflect the 21st century. I feel like in this day and age of climate crisis, painting romantic nature scenes would do nature a disservice. I wanted to be a part of a dialogue. My work questions how environmental preservation can take place in a “throw away” society. I see my art as a call to action, and I do see it as a form of activism.
What are some of your favorite environmental paintings that you've done?
I did a triptych, called “Lake George Revisited”, in which I quoted a painting from the Hudson River painter, Martin Johnson Heade. The original Lake George painting was completed in the 1860’s, and I turned it into three different 21st century scenes of degradation. I like it because it’s a startling juxtaposition to see such beautiful nature next to human waste.
Tell us about the NARS Foundation and how you're involved with it.
The NARS foundation is a non-profit organization located in Sunset Park which occupies two floors of an industrial building. I have a permanent studio there, but it’s also home to an international residency program in which artists rotate in and out every three to six months. We also have two galleries in the building, and we hold open studios twice a year, in the fall and spring. It’s a very dynamic community to be a part of with a diverse group of artists coming and going. That community has tremendously benefited my art.
You're based in Brooklyn and are active in the arts scene in NYC. How do you think gentrification affected the art world in this city? Has it made it better or worse?
Without a doubt, gentrification has hurt creative communities across New York City, and not just visual artists. It makes having a studio very difficult - real estate is expensive. It creates a pressure cooker situation, in which rents are increasing so much that you eventually have to move. I was renting a studio in Industry City, but rent increased too much and I had to leave. There are hardly any visual artists there anymore, and big stores like ABC Home & Carpet have moved in. It’s difficult to maintain community ties when artists are being shuffled around the city.
Does NYC inspire (or still inspire) or work?
Absolutely! I’m very affected by my surroundings. Any sort of garbage or detritus is interesting to me. I'm always fascinated to see what people are throwing out. The New York cityscape definitely inspires my color palette. And it’s a vibrant city - I’m very inspired by all the art created here.
Tell us about your upcoming show in Houston and anything else you'd like to promote.
I have an opening on August 3, in Houston with my artist friend Emily Dingmann called “Observance of Form”. The idea for this show started last spring, when Emily was curating a group show called “Come Together”, and she invited me to come down to Houston to make art with her for the show. It was so interesting and fun to collaborate together that we decided to keep the dialogue going, and it eventually turned into this 30-piece show. I’ve been travelling back and forth from Brooklyn to Houston to work on this series with her. We have very different artistic styles - Emily is an abstract minimalist painter, and I’m more of a representational artist who works with different mediums like collage. It was really interesting to fuse our styles and see what we came up with. It really broke me out of my comfort zone and introduced me to new materials and processes. The same night, I have an opening at the NARS Foundation for a show called, “Practice: In Progress” which is a group show of 22 artists curated by Elisa Gutierrez, who recently came to NARS from Mexico City.
Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring artists?
The most important career advice, I would say, is to build a community of like minded artists who are supportive, thoughtful, and kind. Once I developed a community, things got a lot more exciting and my career started to gain momentum. Also, see a lot of art. Good art, bad art, see as much as possible so you can develop your taste, and have an understanding of your likes and dislikes.
Thanks Elena! You can see an example of Elena’s other work on the front cover of my book Leaving New York.