Shape+Colourist: Liz Wolfe

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Shape+Colourist: Liz Wolfe

Taking the global hunt for art and design of its blog-daddy, shape+colour, and putting the focus on Toronto, Shape+Colourist is on the lookout for local artists, designers, and events that are breaking ground and pushing boundaries right here at home.
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Hiding beneath the vibrant candy colours of Toronto-based photographer Liz Wolfe‘s stunning work is a whole bunch of twisted contradictions.
Exploring the juxtaposition between what we commonly consider pretty (flowers) and what we mostly consider gross (an octopus), the sugary perfections of her work force us to re-evaluate those considerations. Her shots include tentacles gently curled inside the curves of a rose, and a pattern of sardines and daisies laid on the grass beneath a woman’s high-heeled feet. Wolfe is an expert not only at creating visually arresting images, but also at layering her subjects so that you always have to look twice. In each photo, despite its saccharine veneer, there is something more devious rippling beneath the surface.
One of the great powers of her work is that by making the ugly look exquisite and the horrific seem cute, she forces us to re-evaluate our very ideas of beauty itself. It’s a telling statement on western culture and our obsession with surface beauty and aesthetic perfection. Not only that, but the eerie edification of the flaw itself—rivers of red, sprinkled blood, a delicate, pink teacup filled with flowers and meat—points even further to our ability to deny realities and attempt to gloss over things we don’t consider pretty. Her photos are like scars wrapped in candyfloss and insecurities dipped in chocolate.
Recently Shape+Colourist got to talk with Liz about her work, her recently launched online store, and where she finds her inspiration.


S+C: Tell me a bit about your background. How did you discover photography?
Liz: I’m originally from Saskatchewan. I was born there and spent most of my childhood there until I was 17. I first discovered photography when I was a child. My parents had a manual camera and were into printing their own family photos in the tiny darkroom they set up in a closet in our basement. Because our winters were so long and cold, my brothers and I were always going crazy trying to find stuff to occupy us. So it was only natural that eventually that mysterious room in the basement began to beckon. And it was there that we were introduced to the magic of black and white photography. My mom taught me how to use her camera and my dad showed me how to make prints. And that was it; I was in love.
As a teenager, I became totally obsessed with the medium, often driving into the middle of nowhere in -40 degree weather to get my “perfect” shots. It’s funny when I look at these photos because aesthetically the images are so different from the kind of work I am doing now. But the playfulness and the ridiculousness, those elements are definitely there.
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An ongoing theme in your work is the visual interplay of things we commonly consider pretty (flowers, sugar, candy) with things we stereotypically consider “gross” (chicken feet, octopi, blood). What is it about this juxtaposition that inspires you so much?
I’m not entirely sure, but I think it has something to do with commercial imagery and the way our generation has been forced to adapt to the commercialization of every aspect of our lives. Possibly this is something every generation feels, but there is a part of me that thinks our generation is the first to experience commercialization in its totality.
Like many people, I am instinctively drawn to the allure of commercial imagery and find it almost impossible to resist. Yet there’s something undeniably repulsive about the gloss and the falsity of these images. It’s this darker side that I am interested in exploring, and for me it seems natural to do this through juxtaposition.
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Another element of your work is taking foods we normally associate with celebrations and happiness—cupcakes, popsicles—but then telling a visual story with them that, to me, leads us to believe that all is not as happy as it might seem. What is it about this multi-layering, of something sinister lying just beneath all that sugar and colour, that you find intriguing?
The images you’re referring to are part of a new series I am working on called “Happiness is Contagious.” The North American obsession with achieving that elusive state called happiness fascinates me. And this is, in a very general sense, what I’m delving into with these images.
When I’m working, I try to avoid overthinking the concepts underlying the images (if these even exist), mainly because I am incapable of thinking and acting at the same time! But also because, for me at least, thinking about my images on an intellectual level negatively affects the process of creating them. Conceptually, I am more interested in starting conversations than participating in them. When I’m planning images, my goal is to turn my mind off and operate entirely on my instincts. It’s like wrapping myself in a dream, where bizarre associations suddenly make sense. There’s a lucidity I rarely feel when I’m thinking in the conventional sense, and this is pure freedom for me.
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You recently revamped lizwolfe.com and introduced an online store. Though art is obviously priceless, some artists choose to charge higher prices for their work, excluding some fans from being able to purchase it. You’ve started some of the work in your store at very attainable prices. Is it specifically important to you that your work be available to a wider range of people? How do you balance the purely creative evolution of your work with the goal of making a sustainable business out of it as well?
The open edition prints on my website—I created these for people who aren’t into collecting art but who want something for their walls. I love the idea of mass production and making art as accessible as possible, especially for people who don’t have the money or the desire to invest in original art. When I issue limited-edition photographs, they are expensive, and that helps me to keep creating new work.
You have a young son. Besides what I’m sure are some pretty crazy time management issues, has being a parent affected or inspired your work in anyway? Do you aim to foster creativity in him, and if so, has that affected your own?
Having a son has affected my work in many ways: I work faster, plan more extensively, and take full advantage of the time I have. Plus, it gives me the opportunity to hang out with someone who is more interested in discussing the aesthetics of cake than I am.
My son is only two, so right now I’m doing less in the fostering creativity department and more in the discouraging him from putting sandwiches into my film scanner department. My approach has been to let him explore his world without too much parental scrutiny. It’s possible that creativity will naturally develop in this type of environment, but it really doesn’t matter to me either way. I’ll be happy with whatever interests he develops and I hope he will feel free to pursue them with passion. And keep his sandwiches to himself.
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What inspires you?
The kind of things that inspire me, they generally have nothing to do with art or creativity or consuming culture. Geographic isolation inspires me; the feeling of insignificance that levels all humans under the weight of a prairie sky.
I’m also inspired by random encounters with people in the city, overheard conversations, spontaneous reactions, the micro-dramas of humans playing out in the streets. I prefer rawness over sophistication, candy stores over art galleries, everyday occurrences over momentous events.
If you could go anywhere in the world right now, without worrying about cost or family or personal commitments, where would it be and why?
I know it sounds crazy because there are so many incredible places out there, but I would go to my former home in the prairies to sit on the hill from my childhood and watch traffic passing on the freeway. Not as an exercise in banality or some sort of ironic act, but to experience the slowness and the incredible presence of the sky.
Aside from the work you’ve already done, if you could photograph any person or thing, past or present, real or imaginary, what would it be and why?
I would love to create an entire human-sized world out of candy and photograph its slow decay. It’s one of the most beautiful things I can imagine.
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One of my favourite pieces, and the current image on your new homepage, is 2005’s “Hand Punctured With Candy Stick.” To me, this image is a great embodiment of your style and the mood you create. I would love to know the inspiration behind this shot.
I created this image as a response to the way violence is portrayed in pop culture, especially in shows like CSI.
After spending so much time working with candy, do you have a sweet tooth?
I used to, but now that I work with sweet stuff all the time I almost never eat candy anymore. It’s sad. I think I was a much more exciting person with large amounts of refined sugar rushing through my bloodstream.
All images courtesy of Liz Wolfe.

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