When you shave your legs, it means something electric is about to happen, and that’s precisely what happened to artist Elizabeth Ilsley. “I started my career literally during the first week of university when I painted a leather jacket that said, ‘I shave my legs for you’ on the back and put it on Instagram. It went from there.”
That one post gained Elizabeth followers such as Rihanna, plus a bundle of photographers and stylists. It was the spiral to work opportunities and commissions, she was contacted by Liberty London shortly after to create and sell collections of her leather jackets “for four successful seasons,” she tells me. “I was also asked to make custom jackets for North West, my first solo exhibition was a sell-out at age 21, and now I’m collaborating with brands that I’ve been a fan of for years and making new art.”
Moving from Digbeth, Birmingham to London recently, Elizabeth is a multifaceted talent. Not only is she an artist, but she is also a model, DJ and designer. London calls for many people, but why did she make the move now? “It was mainly a creative choice, I had found myself stuck in a rut in Birmingham, I needed a change from my day-to-day, and so I finally bit the bullet. I do miss Birmingham from time to time, but I’m definitely happier here. I get to work closely with different brands and meet more people I need to meet. But I loved my studio. I loved Digbeth. I loved knowing everyone there and the simplicity of it all.”
Elizabeth’s printed artwork features retro pornography, zooming in on areas of the female form, from bushes to boobs. “I’ve always found porn interesting as it seems to be quite problematic, but also a need for many people,” she says. “Obviously the representation of people, especially women, in retro porn is interesting. This is why I edit it and take a tiny part, to change the gaze of the image and give the woman in the photo more of a voice.” Selecting that focal point is always dependent for Elizabeth, “it’s whatever section interests me most, and I can imagine my words on it, then I experiment with it.”
Words such as, ‘Catch dick stay woke’, ‘Even I don’t like me’, ‘You’re not very nice to me, but you make me cum every time’, or ‘It wasn’t big, but he was clever’. Elizabeth plasters phrases across her art, but she doesn’t have a solid answer for how she comes up with them. “If I hear something great in conversation, I jot it down and use it for later, or I play around with sayings that I already use.”
Contrasting the sex with humour is something Elizabeth does with her art. “I want to say something as a young woman. I’m trying to eradicate my own shame that’s been built up over the years.”
Women experiencing shame when it comes to love and lust is etched into society and etched into current conversations around consent, sexism, and everyday processes. Elizabeth adds to these conversations with her art, like her words ‘Silence is not consent’, and ‘Not yours’. “I’ve worked on themes of possession in my work because of my own thoughts and feelings. But I really like it when the viewer finds humour in my work. I’m not out there to shock or disgust people with something as beautiful as the human form. I like it when people smile and remember a quote.”
One of Elizabeth’s print has ‘Imagine being a woman and what that would be like’ etched over a blurry pastel masterpiece of flesh n female nakedness. Elizabeth tells me, “The whole ‘imagine being a boy for a day’ or ‘walk a mile in my shoes’ theme is interesting to me, I tend to wonder how men would feel swapping places with the oppressed for a day, what would change. It’s funny to think how the world would be different if men experienced period pains, or catcalling etc.”
Elizabeth also pulls inspiration from real punk bands with real girls. “I’m a massive fan of bands with girls in, always have, just by coincidence (or is it?). My inspiration comes from listening to music, themes in and experiences of sex, and how different experiences reflect on society.”
But what gives the best artistic inspiration – love or heartbreak? “When I was younger I would’ve said heartbreak,” artist Elizabeth Ilsley tells me. “But as I’ve grown older and more cautious, I would say love. Both are more inspiring in the same category, but in this current climate, I like to write positively, and, after all, this is therapeutic for me.”
The choice to work on leather was “semi-accidental” says Elizabeth. “However, it’s a dream to paint, looks good, looks sexy, durable and buying second-hand leather is a way to be sustainable.” She has recently expanded her leather offering to bags, adorable micro clutches with ‘Catch dick’ sprawled across the leather. The expansion “came from a desperate need to create something easier, because finding the correct sizes for people was an incredible task for me to juggle on my own and I ended up not being able to fulfil people’s wishes.”
“All the pressure I put on myself led me to crash and burn spectacularly. I fell into a spiral of drink and self-loathing laziness. So, to offer something else in leather, be able to do more of them and keep my sanity, is the reason why I’ve chosen to do bags more now. Plus, one size fits all; they are cute and almost always in pristine condition once I get my hands on them.”
And for now, Elizabeth is making more prints, planning a podcast, painting on bags, and trying to raise funds to start a furniture series (take this as my order for a leather sofa with ‘Get off my dick’ in huge bubble gum pink bubble writing please).
Elizabeth’s art is honest, as well as fuels and reflects upon conversations we have every day.
Visit the Elizabeth Ilsley website here.