Elyse de Valle, 28
Nominated by: Lucy Richards
Elyse de Valle is a Melbourne based artist whose talent has taken her across Australia as well as to Italy and America where she’s completed solo and group exhibitions and taken up a number of artist-in-residence positions.
Elyse has just recently completed a Master of Fine Arts and taken up a position at the National Gallery of Victoria but when we spoke a few months ago Elyse was deep into her research project on the connection between objects and loss, using the sculptor Charles Francis Summers (whose life’s work included creating the memorial to the explorers Burke and Wills) as her case study.
Elyse thinks we should all be less afraid of talking about sex and death and has a thing or two to say about how to declutter your life and focus your thoughts.
Check out her work here.
Could you tell us a bit about your research?
My research is primarily based around memorialising and loss. At the moment I’m using a case study of a marble sculptor from the 1800s. His name was Charles Francis Summers. I became interested in him while I was doing another series of work, which was focused on my lack of objects to do with my father ten years after he passed away. I was investigating if it is important to have objects to memorialise someone.
I began to obsess over this sculptor and I’ve sort of used him as a stand-in, to memorialise him in a way that I might have my father. It’s a weird sort of obsession but it’s been really interesting. He was a marble sculptor, active when the main work for sculptors was in monuments and memorial work. So all his work is actually about memorialising in itself. I have begun to make as he did and it’s taken me to Italy where I visited his studio and also trained as he did. I learnt to carve marble in Carrara and used Carrara marble; the marble he used. I’ve ended up using what I know of his past narrative to pave my own narrative, if that makes sense.
That makes perfect sense. What do objects mean from your point of view, to people who have lost someone?
It really is different for everybody. For me, when my father passed away, my two sisters and I were in the same boat, in that we had no objects to remember him by. Our stepmother withheld them from us or discarded them. My brother who is older grabbed a few initially. They’re not necessarily really important to him but he still had them. He doesn’t really understand our all-encompassing yearning for them. We’ve since each been able to have one thing. My sister recently acquired my dad’s acubra hat. It’s just been the most beautiful thing, she can’t stop talking about it and won’t stop wearing it.
I guess it’s that holding onto a little piece of the person that you’ve lost which can be looked at as a positive and a negative. I think for my step mum she discarded a lot because for her it was overwhelming. But for us, having nothing, acquiring something was all we wanted.
I feel more comfortable being whatever I need to be, whether it’s sick or sad or outspoken.
It sounds fascinating. Is there a connection in your mind between loss and creativity? Does one feed the other?
I think so. For me, loss has been pretty prominent in my life. It defines a few things about me. It’s just always there and so it’s something that I like to open up to creatively.
I’ve always found it difficult to focus my thoughts and loss has often been the source of my overwhelming thoughts. I have been researching labor-intensive methods of making as a way to practice focusing my thoughts somewhat. It has been an interesting process personally. If loss is quite prominent in your life having a slow, labor-intensive process to concentrate on can (in my experience) help calm the mind a bit.
Looking back at who you were at the time when you’re father passed away to who you are now, what’s been the biggest change in you?
I think being more comfortable in myself: more honest and more true. I feel more comfortable being whatever I need to be, whether it’s sick or sad or outspoken. If people say something that I disagree with, I will tell them.
I was a bit troubled before my dad died. Well, I still am. He wasn’t the best person in the world. He was pretty abusive and overpowering. I was in a long-term relationship when I was a teenager and so I hid behind that a lot. At that stage in my life I was forced to be a certain someone with my dad and then to be a certain someone with my boyfriend. Since then, I have had to find out who I am.
Was there any moment that stands out as the time when you were able to turn that corner and stand on your own two feet and say, This is who I am?
Yeah, there was, actually. It was the beginning of second semester in my third year of Uni. I had this gorgeous lecturer who I’m still really good friends with who just came up to me and said, ‘So, you get pretty depressive don’t you?’
He asked to see what I was working on and then said about the work, ‘It’s like you’re making art for art school and not for you.’ That really hit home and pushed me to do more of the work that meant something to me. I also started to make more of an effort to speak to my peers. I finally allowed myself to unfold and identify with a lot of things I had been hiding from. It was quite cathartic.
I’m a big believer in helping on a ‘need to’ basis. If you’re helping appropriately then it can make an amazing difference.
So where do you see yourself in ten years time?
In ten years time I see myself working–paid work wise–in disability and aged care work and doing that part time alongside my making.
Having been doing my research projects for the last few years, I really miss the instant gratification of doing something for others. I need to look after people! I struggle with working fulltime on my artwork because I can’t help thinking it’s quite a selfish career path so I’ve always done care work alongside my study. Usually volunteering. I just find that they feed each other quite well.
Why disability and aged care? Where is the motivation coming from?
I’ve got a lot of friends and family who need day to day disability care. It’s a position that I know that a lot of people don’t want to do and it’s one that’s always in high demand. I’m really happy to do it and I really enjoy it. I find it incredibly inspiring. I’ve done a lot of volunteer work for the past eight years in that world and I just really enjoy it.
It’s just about helping people.
Yeah. It’s really quite as simple as that.
What do you think helping people delivers back to the person?
I’m a big believer in helping on a ‘need to’ basis. If you’re helping appropriately then it can make an amazing difference. But help can be misconstrued as a power play, I think, so it’s important to not blur those lines.
Just last Sunday, I volunteered with the Disabled Surfing Association. They have a day where anyone with any sort of physical disability, no limits, comes to go for a surf. You can see that’s not necessarily helping but there’s that instant gratification in terms of making someone really happy. It’s pretty special.
What do you think the secret to happiness is?
I think there’s so many little treasures and it depends from person to person. I think it’s the little things that really get you. It’s usually pretty private. Sorry, that’s not really an answer!
No, it is an answer! It’s about the small, intimate details of your life that sometimes only you understand and they bring you joy.
Yes, that’s the true happiness…the kind where you can’t really put it into words. There is just that certain spark and you just sort of can’t imagine anybody else feeling it in the same way.
Support comes from the strangest places and you’re not going to find it unless you speak up.
Absolutely. So what do you think we should be talking more about?
My short answer (I always say this as a joke) is sex and death.
But my actual answer–coming from my experience as a white Australian listening to my friends who are from various minority groups point of view—is that we should be talking about the importance of listening. I don’t think people do it enough. Just listening to people’s stories and appreciating them and not being too quick to have your own opinion, particularly on things you couldn’t possibly understand personally, whether it be race, gender, sexual preference or religion.
For example, I am a white, straight, female with blonde hair and there is a lot of privilege that comes with that so I spend a lot of time listening to my friends who, you know, deal with different things in their day to day.
Going back to your short answer, very quickly. What is it about sex and death that we should be talking more about?
They’re two things that can be a whirlwind in your mind and really overwhelm a person. I think the more you are comfortable talking about them the more comfortable you can be with them.
I know a lot of people who have issues with both those things. Whether it’s feeling guilty about sex or feeling unsure what they should be thinking: Should I be thinking about it more? Should I be wanting it more? Should I be wanting it less?
And then in terms of death, it’s just such a difficult thing to deal with and it can get dangerous and really dark. Coming from an Anglo Australian perspective, we don’t really have any beautiful traditions to deal with death to make it comfortable for us. There’s a funeral and that’s often it.
I think that’s great answer and you’re so right, particularly with death. There’s just a funeral and then you’re supposed to return to work and there’s a void in your life and it goes unspoken about.
What advice do you have for our audience? What’s something that you live by?
Just be open and honest with any treasured friends and family that you have around you. It just makes everything so much easier. Support comes from the strangest places and you’re not going to find it unless you speak up. You can’t do everything on you own. Nobody can. Really utilise the people around you. Just always reach out. Hopefully there’s somebody there.
That’s interesting actually…for people out there who don’t feel like they have anyone, if they reach out, will someone be there do you think?
People are really surprising. I have been testing that theory the last few years by speaking quite openly to be people that I hardly know and it’s amazing. Everybody has a story and if you share yours in some shape or form it’s so fucking surprising what they come back with.
It’s really important to sift through the bad people in your life also and I have found that sharing is a nice quick way to do that. I’ve done a lot of sifting over the last few years.
That’s good. It’s necessary. You have to de-clutter all the parts of your life every once in a while, including friendships.
There’s a lot of people in the world, there’s no time for bad friends.
Exactly. You’ve got to prioritise yourself as number one in a lot of situations!
Yeah, which is tough, but it’s so important. You need to get shit done!
Exactly, so true! Thank-you so much!
Things I Love
My mum possesses the strength, tact and morals I admire beyond any others and will continually aspire to.
I have seen and experienced such unbelievable examples of resilience; whether it is to move forward when it seems as though there is no where to go, to bounce back from nothing, to continually grow despite any and all obstacles. I am continually dumfounded.
I love the incredible community I have been lucky enough to gather. I would be nothing them.