Made in Taos: Elizabeth Haidle

When I was a kid, my mom worked at the school library. While waiting for her to get off work, I would look through a gigantic dictionary (the kind that had its own stand). I wasn’t looking for new words, but rather I was intrigued by the intricate illustrations it contained. I became obsessed. The illustrator’s name was Anita S. Rogoff. I made up stories about her apartment, filled with all the items she had drawn. I tried to figure out how she chose which words to illustrate; if she actually wore epaulettes[1. Epaulette/epaulet, n.: An ornamental shoulder piece on an item of clothing, typically on the coat or jacket of a military uniform.]? My imagination went wild.

I was pleasantly surprised to be reintroduced to that feeling of inquiry when I first saw Elizabeth Haidle’s pieces at the Love Apple, a year ago.  Her images had the same feel as Anita’s illustration — they captured my full attention, took me to another place, but they were even better because they are from another world. I was in awe… I spent most of the dinner waiting for tables to leave, so I could look at another.  It took me a while to track her down, and when I saw her website (www.ehaidle.com), I was even more impressed. 

My interview with Elizabeth was a true inspiration, a motivation, and definitely convinced me that “curiosity is a muscle, you have to use it and feed it like an appetite.”

Live Taos: Can you explain your work?

Elizabeth Haidle: Motivation for fine art is much different than my motivation for commercial art . . . obviously commercial art is what funds my life. Well . . . when it comes to fine art, it is what ever comes into my mind. I love surrealism. I think we need breaks from ordinary life. When you look at something surreal, what is beyond or above real, you get to leave these mundane ruts we all get into. I am usually biased towards any kind of surrealism, since I feel that to survive life, as we know it, you’ve got to have transformative experiences. There are big transformations of course, but even if it’s a small moment, glancing at an art object that’s unusual in some way . . . it’s like taking a brief internal vacation. I think my favorite compliment I’ve gotten about my art is that it’s ‘refreshing.’

If you think about it, it’s pretty important to refresh oneself — that means you clear out the old; add something new, move on with a little more bounce in your strut, or whatever. My subject matter changes, but my ultimate goal is to take someone up and away or surprise them. I think our curiosity can become atrophied. I find a lot of non-curious adults and maybe you have to feed that — maybe curiosity is a muscle, you have to use it and feed it like an appetite.

Commercial stuff, graphic design & illustration that I do . . . involves grappling with the client’s needs and also trying to get my kicks in, as well. Usually, it’s a challenging compromise — at best, can be a collaborative effort with surprisingly great results. At worst, I feel I’ve simply exchanged my time for money and may have an image that I don’t feel proud enough to put in my portfolio (or may even want my name removed in the credits!).

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LT: Where are you from?

EH: I am from Hillsboro, which is a suburb of Portland, which is now a very hip place to live. It was certainly not when I grew up there. I like going back there once a year, and I like watching Portlandia because before that I felt like everyone was becoming righteous and smug about arriving as a city, and now they have a way to laugh at themselves. Which is really important.

LT: What brought you to Taos?

EH: I don’t have a good story, everyone seems to have a fascinating story. . . I came here married. My husband at the time was going into business with my brother, who had already moved here. We were going to throw everything in the air from Philadelphia and just travel with our 2 year old and get rid of our restraints. At the last minute we decided we should just get here and start their business. . . and then I stayed, lost the spouse. I had never been to anywhere in the Southwest besides the Grand Canyon, so I was picturing something totally barren. I was shocked to see something green.

LT: What keeps you here?

EH: Ha. What keeps me here. . . well, I ask myself that every few months. Maybe that’s a good practice? Having a son changes my priorities. I have an 8 year old son, and I am super happy with the life, schooling, community, and wilderness experiences I’m able to provide for him here. Such a supportive town, family-wise. It’s gratifying to be able to make the choice of staying here and being able to give that all to him.  Also, I get a lot of mental sanity from knowing I can just wander off into the mountains. . . sleep there, soak in hot water.

Career-wise it almost makes no sense for me to be here. Peace of mind was very important to allow myself to feel like I could do this gigantic job. I’m working on developing income outside of town. . . with this being home base. I’ve given myself a couple year deadline to make that happen. . . after that, maybe I need to re-think things. I have also been focusing a lot on books, which is slower, but its is something you can build on. I probably have the same salary as a teacher.

LT: Where do you find inspiration?

EH: Friends who make art, of course. Loads of books and really artistic graphic novels like those by Shaun Tan & Brecht Evans, quantum physics (as long as it’s dumbed-down enough language) — it’s the most mind blowing stuff, like when you walk past a tree and realize there is more space than matter. It makes boring stuff exciting and is constantly reminding me that if I thought I knew something, I didn’t. Stop-motion animation. . . surrealists of course. My  favorite painters: Odd Nerdrum[2. Odd Nerdrum, Norwegian figurative painter, b. 1944.], Dali, Käthe Kollwitz[3. Käthe Kollwitz, German painter, printmaker, and sculptor, 1867 – 1945], Klimt, and Hieronymus Bosch[4. Hieronymus Bosch, Dutch painter, 1450 – 1516].

LT: What is your favorite thing you have ever created?

EH: It’s always my most recent project. Older stuff I see. . . I almost always have ideas about how to keep tinkering with it, altering and perfecting. I can never look back at something and say ‘Wow, I  love that,’ sadly. The recent thing can briefly give you relief because you went from this void of creativity to something, you had an idea.

LT: I completely understand — it’s hard for me to look back. I think that’s why I’ve been enjoying screen printing so much. I used to paint a lot, but with screen printing I can really move faster through my ideas, actually almost keep up with my ideas.

EH: I talk about this with the best advice, but yes I try to live by it, but I don’t always . . . Make more, Criticize less. Out of pile you can find the masterpieces.

LT: Tell me about your most recent project? 

EH: My recent project is the graphic novel about Nikola Tesla, the inventor. I have always wanted to illustrate non-fiction. . . I have a passion for making that type of thing interesting to teens and adults. Hopefully, I’ll turn it into a series about ‘Unsung Heroes’ from history. . . and keep going with intriguing characters, after this one is published.

The other thing I am working, I love Hieronymus Bosch . . . I don’t have much Art in my studio, but I bought this print of his Garden of Earthly Delights and I just love that era of history (15th century) and we don’t know much about it, there were no cameras. I think I people wonder whether he was mentally insane. I decided it would be cool to pretend that the opposite was true, that he was actually the most boring, mundane business man and it was actually his world that was full of all these crazy things. So, of course, he was going to paint these things. I want to do a series of these — I have to study some medieval history before I get further.

LT: How do you deal with creative blocks? 

EH: Juggle more and more projects so if I’m stumped, I can switch. Even if it doesn’t seem financially viable I will take on more work. I will just keep moving between things — the combined momentum really keeps things moving — or collaborate with other artists. Delegate the parts that are frustrating me!

My parents, as a life example, are the hardest-working people I know — I think art takes quite a lot of hard work. I had the idea early that it would be that way. My dad won’t sleep for weeks to meet a deadline. I can’t believe when people say they blew a deadline . . . how can you?

Also, make more stuff, self-edit as little as you can . . . proliferate. If you have a pile of stuff you’ve made the size of a mountain, guaranteed there’s something pure gold in there, if not several things! I have a hard time following this advice though, being a perfectionist: Don’t edit until the end.

Her dad was lithographer when she was young. He made photo-realistic prints that would sometimes go up to 30 times through the press. When she was in high school, they were publishing Christian Children’s Books.

LT: Do you have a favorite Taos Musician/Artist?

EH: Music: Tina and Quetzal. Artists, can’t pick one! I am inspired by . . . Karen Schumacher’s fiber arts projects and her mind, in general. Karen doesn’t exhibit her stuff anywhere, but I remember being in her bathroom and she had some of her necklaces hanging and I was in there for 20 minutes. They were like were sculptures, they were beautiful. Heather Sparrow’s photographic installations, Reto Messner’s sculpture & paintings, and Conrad Cooper’s surrealist paintings.

LT: That has become my favorite question. I keep learning about great artists in town . . . there are so many.

EH: When I was helping Gina at the Harwood do an exhibit on Black Mountain College[6. Black Mountain College, a school founded in 1933 in Black Mountain, North Carolina, where the study of art was central to a liberal arts education] and the people that came here, I was hand lettering these photographs from someone’s scrap book of like Robert Rauschenberg dressing a woman up as a unicorn, and I was wondering if the glory days were behind us — there use to be such a think tank here. It has turned into such a museum to the stars of the past and Southwest-style paintings. I don’t want that all to behind us. This article is good reminder of all the people who are working as artists here in town, even if we don’t see them on the main road. We need a think tank!

LT: What is your favorite meal in Taos?

EH: I am not sure if you can get this anymore — I used to order two sides, the lamb sausage & greens with pecans at the Love Apple.

LT: Where can we find your work?

EH: My website www.ehaidle.com. Also, in the Love Apple bathroom. Go have the Love Apple sausage, and see my art in the bathroom. Supposedly it’s for sale, but no one is probably thinking about that when they’re in there? (Used to have some art on the walls, but it was a little small in the dining room . . . after selling most, the remainder migrated to the bathroom. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that, but then I got a dream job recently from a guy who saw it there. Illustrating botanical-style package designs for a gourmet ice cream start-up, in LA. So now I’m pleased!)

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LT: I want to further discuss your new project, which is on Kickstarter right now.

EH: That was so fun — I should learn After Effects. Since I didn’t I asked Dustin Sweets to do it. He did it!

I have been trying to do more children’s book. It is hard to get the right publisher’s attention at the right time. I have an agent for that, and she approached me about illustrating this. She said “Let’s just do it on Kickstarter.” I realized it probably meant that it wouldn’t make as much money, but it would happen sooner. I was tired of having all these long-term projects that look so far away. A month ago, I quit everything and made it happen now. It is kind of a gamble, some of the numbers are scary to be toying with. The project is a dream project. I want to do a series called the ‘Unsung Heroes.’ I want to focus on various fascinating characters — there are so many, especially women — who are unknown. It can be hard to just read about these ‘Unsung Heroes’ and not be able to visualize, and that’s why I love the graphic novel idea. I want to keep doing it, I think its great for teens and adults, who are tapering off on self-learning, to grab a graphic novel and read and learn.

Here’s a link if you’d like to donate: Tesla Graphic Novel Kickstarter (Editor’s note: As of this writing, Elizabeth has shattered her initial goal of $7,450 and is rapidly approaching $48,000, with donations from all over the world — an amazing demonstration of the growing-power of a great idea, when loosed upon the internet!)

LT: Is this your first book illustration?

EH: No, I used to do children’s books when I was younger. I won a contest when I was 13 and I got published. It was called Elmer the Grump. They are out of print. I don’t know how I feel about it, but on Amazon some are selling for a penny and some for $100. Between penny to $100, you can find one in your price range. I ended up teaching workshops in schools — it put me through college. When my dad, David Haidle, started illustrating Christian books, I helped him meet deadlines, so there are few co-illustrated Christian Children’s Books out there. I also did the illustrations for a book called Encyclopedia of the Exquistes.

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LT: Can you finish this sentence: I love Taos, because

I love
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