Elizabeth Foster: A Very Modern Folktale
by Cat Acree
Witches eat children, Br’er Rabbit gets into everything, and everyone’s getting poisoned. It’s often best to approach fables like a child—without judgment, and with a consuming wonder at the fantastical.
“The most initial contact you have with art is through the stories that are read to you as a child,” says artist Elizabeth Foster with just the barest hint of a Lowcountry accent. “We grow up with bears that take their babies to school, and all the conflicts get resolved.”
The paintings in Foster’s new collection, which opens at 12South’s Two Moon Gallery on August 1, have the weightlessness of a children’s book. There are bears captured in bell jars, great white sperm whales that feel squeezed into their canvases, elephants lifting off with the tiniest of wings, and rabbits dancing around a record player like a woodland carousel.
While each painting feels like a scene out of a storybook, the collection’s title, Modern Folktale, comes from the blend of the mythical with the mundane. Says Foster, “What I absolutely love to do in my work is take actual people, real conversations, the everyday and turn it into something a little bit more magical.”
In A Meeting in the Middle, two massive grizzlies float eye to eye in little blue and green rowboats, and from an ominous, sodden sky fall two pillars of light, one for each bear. You’d never guess that this peaceful moment was inspired by recent negotiations of terms of Foster’s website. “That’s kind of what folktales do,” Foster says. “They bring life and imagination to the everyday common folk. I’m common folk.”
Foster is “grounded in reality with one foot, and the other foot’s really grounded in the endless possibilities,” a vision inspired by the work of American regionalist painter Grant Wood (American Gothic), whose strange, provincial landscapes of country folk and rolling hills gave Midwestern life a fabled quality, begging the question, “It’s a real place—or is it?”
Foster exhibits a sense of creative freedom encouraged by a long family history of artists. Much in the way that folktales originate as oral traditions, passed down through generations, she inherited a deep appreciation for creative experimentation and staying actively imaginative.
“Creativity was literally just a currency,” says Foster. “I was always hugely encouraged to explore as much and as far as I possibly could with my creativity. And I remember growing up thinking this is something I’m never ever going to let go of. This is something that I need to cherish.”
This lifelong commitment to the creative pursuit is Foster’s white whale—literally. Her paintings of sperm whales are a celebration of catching the impossible; they are fishbowls that hold the joy of what can be achieved. “I’m so drawn to the aspect of chasing down ideas,” Foster says, “We’re all seekers and explorers and adventurers.”
But even this intangible search is moored in the everyday. Foster points at Scrimshaw, Sailor of the Deep, a 36” x 60” painting of a top-heavy, heavily tattooed whale floating in a choppy green sea, and says, “That’s actually my cousin. He was seeking out his passions. He was grabbing everything with both hands. I felt like he was just roaming the depths of his young life.”
Of all the many surprises in Modern Folktale, the most surprising is the fact that Foster has been painting for only seven years. And though we’ve already seen exciting transformations in her work—her color palette is richer, her characters more reckless—she’ll probably always love forest creatures, and no wonder: Baby rabbits hop up to her as she drinks her coffee in the morning, deer wander down her driveway, and, “Bless his heart, there was one mangy fox in my backyard . . . and I just wanted to help him or sneak him some dandruff shampoo.”
Elizabeth Foster is represented by Art & Invention Gallery and Two Moon Gallery. Modern Folktale at Two Moon Gallery opens Thursday, August 1. www.twomoongallery.com, www.artandinvention.com, www.elizabethfosterart.com