Elise Ferguson: Art in Her Pedigree
Elise Ferguson was born to be an artist. Her mother designed and manufactured women’s clothing, and her stepfather was an architect. Their home was filled with classic midcentury modern design and an ever growing art collection.
“I grew up in a very aesthetic environment. My parents loved the arts and encouraged my artistic side,” Ferguson says. “Becoming an artist was really the only way to go.”
The photographer, sculptor and painter is best known for highly geometric, brightly colored abstract paintings. Relying on her computer, she draws repeating, often undulating patterns, with purposefully placed glitches and imperfections.
“I identified as a sculptor long before I became a painter.”
“It forces your eye to follow the imperfections and move around the painting,” she says. “I like when the viewer tries to make something out of it, like you do when looking at clouds.”
Sculpting Was Her First Passion
But don’t call Ferguson just a painter. The artist, who experimented with video, performance and installation art in art school in the late ’80s, was first passionate about sculpture.
“I identified as a sculptor long before I became a painter,” says Ferguson, who in 2003 had a piece of her work in New York’s famed Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens. “It took me 20 years to make my way into painting. Now I love it, and I think it’s the best work I’ve ever done.”
Her paintings incorporate a sculptural aspect. To create them, she uses plaster on canvas, a trowel to smooth the plaster, precise geometry and digital imagery.
“There aren’t any paintbrushes in my studio,” she says.
Her paintings have brought her the most commercial success. In addition to receiving the 2014 Northern Trust Purchase Prize for her Saree painting selected from one of the EXPOSURE galleries in EXPO CHICAGO — which is now part of the company’s permanent art collection in Chicago — her work is included in the collections of the Cleveland Clinic and the Progressive Art Collection. Her work also resides in the homes of several high-profile Silicon Valley CEOs.
Finding the Right Home
Long before her heavily patterned, colorful works graced the walls of America’s galleries and high-end homes, she first had to hone her skill.
Two years after her birth in Richmond, Virginia, her family moved to Jacksonville, Florida, but she never felt at home in the Sunshine State. “It just wasn’t a good fit for me culturally,” she says. “After high school, I knew I wanted to live in a big city, and college was a way to get there.”
She began her formal art education at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. She then made it to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1988. And in 1995, she earned her master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
After graduation, she set her sights on New York, which felt like the center of the art world at the time. “I wanted to be surrounded by more artists, more like-minded colleagues, more curators and more galleries,” she says. “It’s a behemoth of a city. It’s expensive. It’s a nuisance, but I love it.”
“I’m lucky that my work is so graphic. It actually shows well on a tiny phone.
Today she works out of a shared studio space with two other creative professionals about half a mile from her Brooklyn home.
In addition to receiving the Northern Trust Purchase Prize two years ago, Ferguson has received various other awards and grants, including the EAST International Exhibition Grant, the Dieu Donne Papermill Workspace Program Grant and the SIU-Carbondale University Museum Merit Award. And while awards and prizes are a welcome validation of an artist’s work, she rarely noticed their direct effect until she was awarded the Purchase Prize.
Ferguson’s good friend from high school, with whom she’d lost touch over the years, was at a meeting at Northern Trust’s offices in Chicago. On the boardroom table sat a book chronicling the bank’s permanent art collection, which Ferguson’s piece had recently joined. The friend flipped through the pages and was immediately drawn to one particular Ferguson piece. She noticed that the artist was represented by a gallery in the Bay Area, where she lived. She visited the gallery and purchased two Ferguson paintings without ever mentioning her history with the artist to the gallery owner.
“She got in touch with me after that, and we got together and reminisced for hours on end,” Ferguson says. “I definitely credit Northern Trust for making that happen.”
She also credits social media for helping her connect with new collectors. Unlike many traditionalists in the art world, Ferguson embraces social media and routinely turns “followers” into collectors.
“I’m really into Instagram,” she says. “I’m lucky that my work is so graphic. It actually shows well on a tiny phone. But I’ve had plenty of people see an image of mine on Instagram, then find me at art fairs or galleries to see the work in person. It’s the dream scenario for an artist.”
Ferguson’s art currently is represented at the Halsey McKay Gallery in East Hampton, New York, and at the Romer Young Gallery in San Francisco. Follow her on Instagram at @e_a_ferguson.