Day in the life: Artist Kaitlyn Elphinstone

As part of a series featuring local artists, Weekender catches up with artist Kaitlyn Elphinstone to learn more about her mission to bring environmental awareness to the fore through her artistic creations. Fourth article in a series of six. 


How do you begin your day?  

I currently work at the National Gallery as the operations and communications manager, so I normally start my day off by heading over to the gallery. It’s a great place to work, and I find being surrounding by artwork every day keeps me motivated and inspired to produce my own. I typically work on my art during the week, after working hours, and on the weekends. Once I have a concept or idea, I’ll start by purchasing or finding the materials and experimenting with them. 


How do you organize your studio?  

I work out of my apartment, on the kitchen table, the counters, the floor, the walls, wherever I can find space. When I have an upcoming exhibition, my entire one-bedroom apartment converts into a studio. Then, during the week, or when I’m not working toward an upcoming exhibition, I’ll basically work from a desk space. It can be frustrating having to stop and then start again on a project because I have to put everything away at the end of the day.  

It’s a challenge to find affordable space to work, especially for large-scale projects. So if anyone has studio space available, please feel free to get in touch!  


How do you approach a new piece of work?  

I like to start with an idea or concept, then source the materials and experiment with them. For some of my larger installation projects, they’ve begun with sketches and notes. I find the more time I spend experimenting with the materials, the more ideas I’ll come up with. I love creating unique connections, juxtapositions, and am always looking to use materials in unusual ways.  


From where do you draw your inspiration?  

I draw a lot of my inspiration from natural forms and environmental issues. In particular, I’m interested in how we are connected to the environment. I think we have a pretty serious gap in recognizing this connection and need to pay better attention to the consequences our actions have on natural, as well as social environments. I want my artwork to let people stop and think about environmental issues. We constantly try and contain, organize and manage our environment when I’m sure it can manage itself quite well. I think we tend to believe, or assume, that we are above nature and can do what we want with it. It is interesting from an artistic perspective to think about the consequences if nature itself was in charge.  

During my studies [Kaitlyn has a degree in visual arts and art history from the University of Toronto and a master’s degree from the University of Birkbeck in London], I took a course on Aboriginal culture and found that really interesting as it showed how other cultures respect their environment and have completely different outlooks toward the world around us.  


What are you working on right now?  

I’m working on a project with gold paints and natural found objects. You may remember my series of “Wrapped Seed Pods” from 2009? It’s a developing concept of our human desire to contain, collect and make sense of the natural world around us. With this project, I want to use gold as a signifier of wealth or value. I also find it interesting to remove the variety of natural colors and watch our visual focus shift to textures, shapes and form. For example, I have been working on ways to color dead coral that I have found on the beach with gold paint. It is amazing how differently we look at shape and form once color is unified. I am hoping to display the coral in shadow boxes that will allow me to play with the design and layout. 

I am also returning to a project that I began a while ago, burning holes into photographs and then layering with more photographs until you have a cohesive composition. I think each piece has an interesting message about destruction and renewal. It also offers interesting textural features and is really fun to experiment with. It also allows me to experiment with my love of photography. 


How long do you spend on your artwork? 

It depends on the work. The “Woven Sea Fan” that is now on display at the National Gallery as part of the exhibition “Our Story of Art” is made from ripping plastic grocery bags and weaving them through a coral sea fan. This piece took me about three months to produce. The photo that is on my website of the gray balloons and sea urchins only took me about two minutes to photograph and about ten minutes to edit. However, the work leading up to the image when I was experimenting with various materials would have been weeks.  

I tend to set myself goals each day in the hope that I will achieve them. I like to mentally tick off each goal as I reach it. There is a real sense of satisfaction in this for me. 


Where do you see your artwork progressing?  

I’m not sure. I would like to do more work using technology, sound, video, projection, etc. I would also like to examine social behavior. At the moment, my goal is to do less and produce more.  

At the end of the day, I like my artwork to have meaning, as well as be aesthetically pleasing. While design, texture, shape and form are important, if someone can look at my work and be impressed by its beauty and at the same time be moved by the underlying message that I am trying to put across, then I feel I have succeeded. 


How do you close down your day?  

I work full-time at the National Gallery and work in the evenings on my art. Sometimes it is hard to leave a project as I find myself wanting to come back, take it further and closer to completion, working until I am too tired to work any longer and need to tear myself away and go to bed. 


Kaitlyn Elphinstone works on one of her artworks at home.