Born: Johnsonville, N.Y., U.S.
Esther Neisen is a Living Legacy Artist at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.
Throughout her life, Esther Neisen has been captivated by the natural world and the "intricacies and variety of both interior and exterior structures." Neisen is an accomplished illustrator and craft artist who works in a wide variety of media. She has lived in Western New York since 2002.
Neisen's current body of work focuses on anatomically accurate representations of insects created from reclaimed film, photographic negatives, and the occasional found material. Her creative process for these works is slow and detailed, and "allows [for] a great deal of immediate problem solving, which keeps me both happy and engaged." Her broad range of technical and creative skills all play a role in the creation process.
About her process, Neisen writes:
"I first create a pencil drawing, which is broken down into a schematic. I carefully choose the film selections by color and content to best express the subject in both a representative and slightly illustrative manner while still working within the strict confines of their anatomy.
"The insects are carefully chosen for their behavior or the mythology of their behavior to relate directly to human behavioral properties. Working with the people that surround me, using what information they are willing to offer in context for research, I have in the past few years used this method to express interpersonal familial relations, social anxieties, and aggressions."
In 2012, Neisen was designated one of the Burchfield Penney’s first “Living Legacy” artists.
For more information, please visit http://estherneisen.com/home.html.
Listen to Esther Neisen’s interview with Heather Gring of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, conducted on July 19th, 2012. Hear her talk about her college career, why she decided to be an artist, and her mentors. Starting with researching people, she discusses the fascinating creative processes she went through to create her two solo shows including how and why she chose insects as metaphors.
Transcriptopn of the Living Legacy Project interview with Esther Neisen
July 19, 2012
Transcribed by Cassandra Chu
HG: So Esther, what inspired you to want to become an artist?
EN: I was kind of lucky—and unlucky—in a way that kind of came together when I was younger, where…I grew up in the country, and I kind of had a bad home life, so I would constantly go out, and everything around me was so fascinating. Animals, plants, insects…I would spend hours trying to figure out what bird was what, how animal bones could possibly go together to move the way that they would move, and I just started frantically drawing all the time, and I was lucky enough to have a really good aunt who would…she actually lived very far away, she was a long distance aunt, and she would always come with art supplies and say, you know, “You really like to draw! Go ahead, keep doing this. If you really love this, keep doing this. It’s okay. It’s okay to do this.” And I guess I just kind of took that with me the rest of my life and haven’t really stopped.
HG: Where did you go to school?
EN: I started at Buff State, and I was there for several years, and then I went down to Missouri State for a year, and then I came back to Buff State when I finished up. I actually came to Buffalo, originally, to get as far away from my parents and my family as I could, and still be in the state of New York and go to a SUNY. I didn’t really appreciate it too much until after I had gone down to Missouri and hated it and came back and was like, “Wow, everything is so great. Buffalo is really good.” And then I started actually meeting people and talking to people and it was really good.
HG: What did you get your degree in?
EN: I actually have just a B.A. I started school going for English because I was like, “Oh, I love literature, this will be the best!” And I ended up being very unhappy, and I was like, “Why didn’t I just go for art?” And then I did, and I tried to figure out where I placed within the B.F.A. majors, and ended up going down to Missouri in the middle of it, and they had a drawing major there and I was doing so good, and then I came back up and they were like, “Oh that’s not a major up here, you’d have to start back over in painting or photography or sculpture.” And I said, “I’ve been in school for six years. I’m just gonna get out with a B.A. and just do it on my own.”
HG: Did you have any important mentors while you were in school or are there any influential artists that really helped shape the scope of your artistic path?
EN: I think the most…I’ve had three influential people, and one was Joe Miller, who’s actually a fantastic artist, and I had him for Drawing 102 here, and he is amazing, and he teaches you not only technical how to do it, but how to make it feel beautiful and real with, like, small tricks of how to put a slight line that makes it really feel forward, and his enthusiasm, and his, just, his wealth of knowledge was incredible. And then when I went down to Missouri, there was a drawing professor down there who was really funny and he was always pushing me to do everything. And he would find the one place in the room that was the hardest angle that you could possibly have for the models, and stick me there and not let me move until I had drawn perfectly. He wouldn’t let me do it easily. And that was really…that was really a good thing, and he would be like. “Try any medium you want. Take in anything. If you wanna come in here with a fat box of crayons, go to town.” And I did sometimes, and I tried silverpoint and everything else down there and it was a lot of fun. And I still feel like I kind of bring that into things, where I’m like, “Well, maybe this would be better done in this thing, but I don’t really know how to do it, but maybe I’ll try it and see how it goes.” And then the third one has definitely been the artist Tom Holt, because he has always encouraged me, “Don’t be scared. You’re stupid for being scared, just do it, you’re good. You can handle it. And I mean, I know you don’t feel good now, but you’re fine, you’ll do fine! People don’t care.” And that really gave me a lot of courage to actually go out and talk to people and deal with openings and things like that, so I’ve really been lucky in the people that I’ve met. In the arts community here, of course, everybody you meet is so supportive and helpful and if you fell in the ditch, they just pick you up and give you new clothes and dry you off, you know.
HG: And a place to stay!
EN: Totally a place to stay.
HG: That’s awesome. Can you talk a little bit about your art, you know, why you create what you create and what you create?
EN: The current body of work that I’m working on is created from, you know, like, salvaged and reclaimed materials—mostly film, or different sorts—actually started with some small pornography, like 8mm seventies porn, and as I’ve gathered more, I’ve ended up with, like, medium format negatives, 35mm negatives, like 16mm educational film, all sorts of different film, and I’ve been using them to create representative insects to kind of tell both natural—which is kind of recent, I’ve only done one set of natural stories—and the rest are kind of used to tell human stories by addressing certain aspects of personality and tying them into the nature of the insects that I choose to represent these people. I usually go and collect data and I apply that, like with the Smother show, I did a kind of a survey, asked people what kind of insects they were afraid of, and then I sorted that out into who did what and what was rational, what was irrational, and tied those insects into, like, the personalities of the people I thought best represented what I was trying to say, and the same with the home and the families.
HG: Where was the Smother show?
EN: Smother was at the Carnegie Art Center—is that what it’s called? Yeah, the Carnegie Art Center in North Tonawanda in 2010. That was my first solo show.
HG: How many other solo shows have you had?
EN: I have had one other solo show, and a booth to myself at Echo.
HG: Do you want to talk any more about your art or different series that you worked on?
EN: With the Home show, I had picked several people who were open and willing to speak to me about their familial relations without being too private, and what constituted home for them, what significant building represented home to them, and so I asked them for pictures of the building, and I asked them for their relationships, how they felt about their different family members, and I ended up creating, like, family tree charts and they were very simple, with the simple shape of the home, and then the circles that represented the families, and then the insects on top, which I matched to the personality of the person that I was interviewing, and a lot of them ended up being like the (name) family, which I thought was kind of funny, like hornets and wasps and things like that, but then I went on further with the smaller pieces, which were the extended pieces, because I named them very clinically because I wanted them to be like, subject, subject, and then you could tie them together. So say, like, subject A was the family tree, subject A extended would be the smaller piece, which would be kind of how they turned out as an adult, and what ties they kind of still had to that situation, and then the…oh wait, no, the continued was the small, I think, the extended was the extra-large, the light boxes. I picked two particular subjects I thought were kind of still in a state of flux that never really passed on to that further state of adulthood, and I had them kind of in and out of their family home shape, and big and strong and backlit, but still kind of very firmly tied to that shape in their home.
HG: Awesome. Is that what you did for Echo his year?
EN: For Echo, I brought some pieces from Home—the Home show—two pieces from the Smother show, a sketch…a concept sketch for the Home show that was actually based on my own family, and I am actually donating that piece to the Burchfield gala this year. One other…a new piece that same oval…it was oval, so it was in that circular Smother concept, because the circles for Smother represented aspects…well, it’s actually tied into kind of a funny story about my sister and how she deals with things that she’s afraid of. When she walks in and she sees like, a spider or an insect or something she’ll freak out and put a cup upside down on it and put a weight on it and walk away and let it suffocate to death instead of dealing with it, so I use those circles to represent, like, aspects of your personality that you’re afraid of being perceived negatively, so you just kind of keep it within yourself and smother it, even though half of the time, it’s really—well, more than half of the time—nobody would care. And that’s why in the Smother show, seven were irrational fears and six were rational fears, but…so yeah, the circle always means that kind of…that kind of thing for me, so I made a new piece, but within that circle, but not part of the (inaudible), it was a brand new piece of a spider made completely out of pornography so that was, you know, smothered, and I called that “Pervert,” and that was funny. And then for the first time, I made two pieces in a set that told a natural story, which is about the giant Asian hornet, which just really excited me, which is kind of part of why I love to work the way that I work, because I’m always constantly learning, and that’s so exciting to me. I think you should always have something like that to keep you going and to be learning and having fun, but I learned about these giant Asian hornets, and they’re really big, like the size of your hand, and what they do is they go to the honeybee nest and they check it out, and then they mark it and then, like, I think it’s between thirteen and thirty of them come back and just annihilate the nest and eat everything in it. And then they move into it and they live there for a little bit, but they only defense that these bees have against them—cause they’re like, a fraction of the size—is when that first scout comes, they move back into the hive, and then the wasp comes in a little bit more, and like, up to three hundred of them make this ball around it and vibrate and cook it alive. So I had the one piece where it was all solid…a solid sheet of paper I had cut into the shape of, like, honeybees around the hornet, and then the second piece was the hornet eating that white shape in paper of the honeybee, just like, devouring it, so you have like, a scale and a (inaudible) sort of set to it. It was funny because it was the first time I’ve ever used them to tell their own story instead of a human story, so that’s what I did for Echo.
HG: Awesome, and where was the Home show again?
EN: That was at Buffalo Art Studio at the beginning of this year, so 2012.
HG: Do you want to talk about your creative process? I mean, you’ve created so many diverse works, but really some undercurrents are both your skills as a draftsman, as well as your ability to use to apply…I don’t know, you have this great way of cutting out shapes and assembling them into something new. Do you want to just talk about your creative process?
EN: It’s kind of funny, because there’s a lot of drawing involved, and you wouldn’t think it when you see the end piece. Initially, I’ll look at specimens, I’ll look at live insects, I’ll look at a million pictures on the Internet, and I’ll just be looking and staring and trying to figure out how their legs bend, how long they are proportionally to the body, and then I start sketching and sketching and I create kind of a composite pose in whichever way that I want to emphasize like, with the Smother shows, like the dying, or the twisting, and it may not be a pose they can physically even go into sometimes, but if it’s convincing, and it gets the point across…and then I create a sketch, which ends up being redrawn and redrawn and then turns into a schematic and I use that schematic—I put it on a lightbox and I use like a translucent bond…for like draftsman paper, you know…and I put it over the top and I’ll sketch each little piece in that schematic individually and then go over the different film looking for the color and the image and the content that I want, and then I cut that out and I make sure to leave just a little bit where they’ll overlap, and then I have, like, garbage all around me while I’m doing this, and I had a little tiny, like, stick of something that I put into this big thing of glue and I’ll hold these tiny things with these fine-point tweezers and run the glue along the edge and then dab it off on my arm. And I’m very careful to use a pH neutral glue, cause I’m not a hundred percent sure how that would age with an acidic glue, so I want it to be archival, except that it’s a lot less of a tacky glue when you’re working with it, so you have to hold it between your fingers. So you’re sitting there, holding these pieces together, and I’m very careful to glue it to itself. Because if I ever have to move it, or if someone ever has to rehouse it, I want it to be easy to do, and they’re actually easy to repair as well, if something falls off. So it ends up being a lot of hunching over with fine-point tweezers and tiny embroidery scissors, and just film all around. And then you end up with lots of scrap paper, cause each little piece gets cut out with the paper and it’s a very slow process that I can sometimes measure in how many episodes of the Next Generation I can get through while I’m doing it, but you know, it actually ends up in a result that I’m quite pleased with.
HG: Awesome. Thank you. What do you hope to achieve with your art?
EN: You know, I thought about this one, and I don’t really have a grandiose overstatement, I just kind of want to always learn and I want to be happy while I’m making, and if I draw attention once in a while to something, like…usually…like with the Smother show, something that you don’t think about too much, just…and a small internal process of what it is to be a person. And you don’t really think about it, and then you just…you’ll see it in this little over glorified manner and you’ll be like, “Huh. Yeah, maybe that’s true.” I guess that’s…that’s all I really hope to achieve. I mean, I don’t think I’m gonna make the world a better place, I just…I hope to make myself a better person, and to always find something that’s exciting to me, and to learn.
HG: So a major component of this project is both to highlight artists at different stages in their careers, but also to discuss some of the professional development opportunities that you both have and that you may need as an artist in the Western New York community. So could you talk a little bit about what you’ve done personally to advance your career in the arts here in Western New York, or beyond?
EN: I’m kind of like, a giant awkward person, so I haven’t done as much as I should because I’ve always been very terrified. And I’m starting to get out of that, but I have created, like a blog of sorts that links to an album of pictures, and I try to update that with what I’m going…what I’m doing currently, so people can follow that, and I do try to apply to specific shows if I can, but mostly, I’m just lucky that people have come to me and asked me to be in shows, for the most part. I’m definitely going to try again for Beyond, and there’s an insect related art show that I know Bethany Krull is going to be in, and she wants me to try to apply for that.
HG: What influence has the arts community had for you here? For example, like, can you talk a little bit about the network of the arts community in Western New York that you’ve become a part of?
EN: Networking here is invaluable, and it’s not like you go out saying, “I’m gonna network”; you just start meeting people at openings and you just start talking to them, and they’re fascinating and they’re like, “Oh, by the way, I’m a curator, and my friend’s gallery is having a show and I think your work would be fantastic for this. Why don’t you apply to this?” Or they have gone somewhere and seen your work and you just happen to be sitting somewhere at a bar with someone, and they ask you a question and they’re like, “I’ve seen your work and I was gonna try to find you to do this solo show,” or something like that, and the community here is very close-knit. You’ll meet somebody and they’ll know eight other people, and they’ll know your friends and networking is kind of strange; it kind of comes on its own. I think as long as you’re out and about, you’ll meet a lot of people who are really invaluable. And actually, that’s part of what I love about Buffalo the most, is that some of the most amazing artists you will ever meet—and even arts administrators—are just gonna be people that you’ve had a beer with, or that you’ve met at an opening and had a good conversation, and it’s great.
HG: How long have you been living in Buffalo since you’ve moved back from Missouri?
EN: Overall, with that one year in Missouri gone, I have been here for nine years.
HG: Where was the first place you exhibited your work?
EN: The very, very first place was probably at just the small galleries in the Upton Center in Buff State.
HG: What about the first place you hung any of your pieces off campus?
EN: I think it was member shows…Burchfield and Hallwalls member shows. It’s definitely a good way to get a piece out there and to be a little bit less scared of showing something because you’re in this great room of other pieces, and it’s not as intimidating.
HG: As an artist, what are some of your needs that the larger art community can provide?
EN: I believe that one of the things that’s most difficult for some people is to have properly documented work. And this is also a pain in the butt for you guys later, because if something happens fifty years in the future and a museum’s trying to catalogue your work, it’s a pain in the butt. But the equipment to have it done is so expensive yourself, and if you take it somewhere, they charge you so much to photograph it. So if there was somebody who could like, grant a small program that would help artists just photograph their work and have it, sometimes having just a really good photograph for a flyer or something like that will make a really good difference. Like I’ve been lucky that I do…I used to work at the Burchfield, so when I had that Smother show, I actually had catalogued each piece on one of the stationary tables, and that took such nice, fine photos that the card for it was so appealing that people came just because the card was appealing.
HG: From where you are now, what would help advance your career in the arts, both in Western New York and beyond? Where do you see yourself…what are your next steps?
EN: I think what I really do have to do is more finely document things, actually be a little less scared, and start reaching out to shows that are…even if I feel they’re slightly out of my league, you know, just to get out there so that my work is a little bit more recognizable. I found that with Echo, that was kind of lessened, that because of the area that we’re in, people kind of brought their own fan bases. There wasn’t a lot of stop and drop people from nowhere, so because I hadn’t pushed out too much, I didn’t have more than, you know, the usual friends and things like that, so I didn’t actually move that much work. I feel like…yeah, it’s definitely just, you know, kind of getting over being terrified and pushing to apply.
HG: Yeah, it is interesting that, you know, the artist today has to be their own entrepreneurial business. You have to be your marketing team, you have to be your development team, you have to be your…
EN: It’s so intimidating, because there’s a lot of work and a lot of artists out there, and it is really, it’s like you put your hand in a giant pool and just hope that what you have and what you have to say is interesting enough.
HG: My last question for you, or perhaps my second to last question, is what advice do you have for emerging artists? You’re now nine years, you know, down this path towards establishing your art career, and what advice would you have for someone right out of college?
EN: Two extremely important things: one, just don’t be scared. What are you gonna do—you’re gonna fail once? You just pick up and work forward and learn from that mistake, and people won’t judge you on this one bad show you have, they will judge you on the work that you’re producing now. And two, have a savings account for shows, because they’re expensive. You don’t even know how expensive they are until it comes and hits you, so if you have a small savings account you’re putting, maybe fifty dollars a month into, when you have to frame four hundred dollars worth of stuff, you have four hundred dollars and it doesn’t hit you and you don’t not eat for weeks. I think that that’s something I wish I had learned a long time ago.
HG: So I’ve been instructed to start asking curveball questions, so what’s your favorite food?
EN: Rice pudding. I do, I like rice pudding and I like anything breakfast. I’m a big supporter of breakfast at any time of the day.
HG: If zombies were attacking tomorrow and you could bring two things with you and go anywhere in the world, where would it be?
EN: I would have to say it would be…it would have to be my boyfriend and my cat, cause I can’t leave them. And I have kind of always wanted to see Ireland. I’m a very small portion Irish, like a quarter, but my dad has always been very proud, you know, cause he’s half and from South Buffalo, and I’ve always thought of it as a very beautiful place, but it depends on where you go, I guess.
HG: My absolute last question: could you talk a little bit about what Western New York has meant to you?
EN: When I first came for college, I was very…I was a very, very shy person. Like, when I came out of high school, I had been wearing a coat every day of my life, like I was so shy and didn’t know how to take care of myself and had been so unhappy at home, and so for my first few years of college, I didn’t really leave the campus, I was kind of unhappy, and then when I went to Missouri and it was terrible and I came back and I realized that I really need to take into account what I have and how lucky I am and how wonderful it is, and I’m the person I am today because of all these wonderful people here that I’ve met. People who I can talk, right now, without fumbling over my words, and I can go out in just a shirt, and I can have a good time in a crowd of people. I used to be so socially anxious that I would have a panic attack and have to run out of a crowd of people, so I think that just having this wonderful place that you can just go anywhere and it’s beautiful and you can just sit outside and just be happy, and like, the atmosphere is beautiful, the homes are beautiful, the people are wonderful and everybody’s supportive. You feel like you know a ton of people and you really care about them. It’s not like, a hundred acquaintances, it’s like, these are a hundred people that you would bend over backwards for in the middle of the night, you know, and so it’s home for me now. And I don’t…and I think I definitely…I know I want to get a house here eventually, when I can ever afford it, and I want it to be home for a long time.