Elizabeth Tolson is a Brooklyn-based artist and educator who explores the potential of technology in art. In her Vessel series, she implemented technology to embed fabrics with sensors as a way to monitor an individual’s actions in a feminist critique on the obsession of feminine purity. In her most recent project, my body is not your body, Tolson provided a series of pink soft sculptures to challenge any person’s right to comment on a woman’s body. She graduated with an MFA from Parsons School of Design and a BFA from Alfred University. She currently works at the Parsons School of Design and as an Artist in Residence at Trestle Projects. Click here to view her website.
Crystelle Colucci (Cooties Zine): Can you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself and what inspired you to start creating in the first place?
Elizabeth Tolson: Sewing was introduced to me by my grandmother. I would spend summers with her in Ohio because my parents were in the military. My sisters and I would stay with her. My grandmother had a sewing room and she was very thrifty. She would buy old prom dresses from a thrift store and would turn them into play dresses. She made all of our halloween costumes growing up. Many people would call it just being crafty, but my grandmother really opened my eyes on the different ways material can be used.
But I didn’t start sewing until my master’s degree. I’ve always been interested in art and started with ceramics in high school. My high school suggested that I look at Alfred University because of their ceramics program, but I ended up switching to video art. I've always been a very hands-on person. Even growing up, I was always very tactile, always trying to create.
Later on, I focused more on design and technology--physical computing, coding, interactive art. But through that I thought about wearable technology. How do I embed lights? How do I put sensors in clothes? How do I play with these ideas? My master’s thesis was on women’s sexuality and women as an object and how they’re being controlled in society.
C: Let’s talk about this idea of women and sexuality. Your most recent project my body is not your body--a series of alluringly hot pink sculptures. Can you talk more about the title and what it means to you?
E: The title came about after I had created two or three of the pieces. After I created the I was made to feel my body as odd series, I was sitting and thinking on how other people believe that they have the right to comment on another body in both good and bad ways. And even from growing up, people would call certain years the awkward phase, which is just puberty--but why do you even have to call it the awkward phase? Everyone goes through it and it’s kind of normal.
With that, I was made to feel my body as odd, but I also started thinking about how my body is not your body. You can’t comment. People just think that they can walk up to you and own you. How do you own the ownership of yourself? How can people feel they have the right to comment on your body? This thinking is the source for my title my body is not your body.
In my body is not your body, I also talk about the changes of the body too. Even as an adult, in one month, you go through all the different phases of your cycle. In my reading, I learned about how we should be eating different foods and treating our bodies differently to help each part of our cycle because it helps our body in different ways. We are never taught these things because our sexual education doesn’t cover this. It’s always saying don’t have sex instead of explaining how our bodies function and change.
C: Can we talk about how you came up with this specific project?
E: Before, I was only working with one-off pieces--creating these wearable objects for performance. Now I’m trying to change my studio practice to incorporate series. I should explore the same idea but in different ways. I had never done repetition in my work. So now I’m thinking that I should repeat this and see what happens the next time I do it--playing with the techniques. The baseline is really about trying to push myself--thinking about how a series is a full world or space that I’ve created, rather than it being one piece. How can you immerse yourself in all these different objects?
C: Let’s talk about the Vessel series from 2013. These garments are specifically designed for the female body. Can you talk more about these pieces and how they were designed with the female body in mind?
E: Vessel was my master’s thesis. I have always been interested in women’s issues and began with researching America’s obsession with purity and the idea of a pure daughter. Young girls are often over sexualized, but they also have to be innocent. It’s strange--the balance between the two. In my research, the idea went back to sex education. In certain areas, people were not teaching sexual education--only abstinence programs. Kids had to sign purity pledges and wear purity rings. It’s confusing for a child. Girls can go into depression or having a bad relationship with your body because you’re doing something wrong. In my research, I also discovered purity balls. Have you ever heard of a purity ball?
C: No, what is it?
E: A purity ball is often given by certain sects of evangelical christians. It’s almost like a mixture of a debutante and wedding where a daughter pledges her virginity to her father. It solidifies this idea of ownership of this child, but I was surprised to see that these girls are as young as seven-years-old, all the way to adolescence. I don’t want to disrespect someone's beliefs, but I feel like this tradition is lacking because of the absence of sexual education and how the body works. You’re telling your father that you’re never going to have sex. Your father owns you. And when you get married, you husband owns you. Your body is definitely an object in this case.
I want to create work about this. What if I started to invent these objects for women? Before making the dresses in Vessel, I started with making a pillow. It was a purity pillow. It was a little rough, but I had been taking physical computing and decided to put a very basic light and heat. When it got really dark, the pillow would light up and when it got hot, it would let off a high pitch sound. The idea was for the pillow to be a false alarm for your daughter. She’d keep it on her bed. I got the idea from looking at a car alarm and realized how oftentimes, it just goes off, but you can still break in.
My professor suggested that I make it wearable. That’s when I realized that I need to sew. I had to figure out how to compute, code, solder, how to wire it in. I should make women’s clothing for the female body. Because you see all these crazy laws? Abortion laws? Access to birth control? It all comes back to education--not just because I’m a teacher--but because it all comes back to access to knowledge. That’s how I developed that series. And of course, it was fake, but people were posting online asking if it was real, saying that they wanted to punch me in my face. But I just realized, you’re obviously just as angry as I am.
C: So people didn’t realize that your work was satirical?
E: No, people sometimes don’t understand my jokes [laughs]
"I should make women’s clothing for the female body. Because you see all these crazy laws? Abortion laws? Access to birth control? It all comes back to education--not just because I’m a teacher--but because it all comes back to access to knowledge."
C: How many dresses were there?
E: There were two dresses: a chastity dress and a fertility dress. The chastity dress was pretty much the purity pillow but worn. It has a tilt sensor to make sure that the girl was walking properly and to make sure the dress wasn’t lifted up. I also did some prototypes where I put conductive fabric in a bra and if you touched it, the bra would let off a noise because the girl can’t be touched at all. That idea was that this is what you wear when you’re in adolescence. You must wear this dress through puberty. But when you get married, you can wear the fertility dress which tracks ovulation through technology. They both come back to this idea of public shaming. How do you shame these women? If the dress lights up, you must be acting inappropriately. If it’s blue you’re ovulating. If it’s yellow, she’s not taking care of herself and eating healthy. Your cycle’s off. The idea of public shaming and it plays into how we all see ourselves. Anyone can see.
C: You have consistently worked in textiles but there seems to be a shift toward more sculptural works. Can you talk about that development--from clothing that is meant to be on a body, to clothing pieces without a wearer?
E: When I was using a body, I was thinking of it more as these shells for my performances. I wanted to explore the interaction between natural light, my body and artificial light. But I felt that it wasn’t clear that the work was really a wearable sculpture. In my feedback, people told me that it must be fashion. At first, I rejected this, saying it was not like fashion. People would say you should make costumes for lady gaga, but I realized that this is not a good critique for what I wanted to communicate. [laughs]
I even felt this with my Vessel series, but then I realized that I should try it. I started doing costume design, but I didn’t enjoy it. I don’t think I’m meant to make work directly for someone else’s body. I’m not trained in fashion, but I did teach myself how to sew. It’s important to push yourself and learn what you can do with your hands. I thought about how I can make this work into wearable sculptures all the way. If I put it on a dress form, people would assume that the clothing is fashion. It makes sense because this links what is familiar, and I want you to think about that connection. But when I had it on a dress form, it felt like I was just handing it over. I wanted to challenge myself. How can I show them in the forms I envision them to be in? You can’t give a direct understanding.
C: Yes, and I think you are challenging the viewer to not think about it that way. When you look at these pieces in a more conventional way, but also not. It’s not on the body at all.
E: Yes, it’s also thinking about how you can transform a space to resemble a body-- to be unfamiliar but also keep the familiar idea of clothing because it’s what we relate to. I enjoy the challenges of clothing. I have transparent fabric so you can see all the stitching that I’ve done for it. With translucent fabric, it makes my work very vulnerable because you can see the patterns and all my stitching. You can see my mistake and you need to see that.
"With translucent fabric, it makes my work very vulnerable because you can see the patterns and all my stitching. You can see my mistake and you need to see that."
C: The decision to use a transparent fabric. Was that an intention or something you thought of afterwards?
E: I think that was part of my critique with others. I take feedback very seriously. Much of these changes have been through feedback. I was doing the NYC critique club and two residencies over the summer so it was about how do i take this in and push it into my work. I can’t give myself full credit.
C: Because these conversations with people are an important part of being an artist. And you are not only an artist. You are also an educator. How has teaching and constantly reviewing various types of work affected your own work and practice?
E: It’s all related for me. When I break down lessons, I go through different techniques and I enjoy watching how students apply those techniques to their own work. It helps me to push myself even more because I want to give more tools and techniques to my own students. It also allows me to step back and think more critically about my own work. It helps me to realize that I need an active practice in my studio. But also it’s important to keep pushing art to the next level, not only through research but also in going outside. Go see something.
C: If you’re not making art, you are doing something that contributes to your art-making process.
E: Yes, and it can be hard to think that way with deadlines, but now I’m realizing just how important it is for me to be outside my studio as well.
C: Can you tell us about your biggest influences outside your studio?
E: I get so much joy from seeing other work. I get excited when I see how other people are thinking through materials. I appreciate many artists in the field, such as Valery Estabrook, Rose Nestler, Kate Gilmore and Catherine Haggraty.
C: Do you get inspired by textile artists?
E: Absolutely. Textile art takes so much time. The craftsmanship. I’m at my sewing machine for eight hours a day trying to sew my work.
C: I can’t imagine how long it takes with the beading.
E: Girl, I started watching Game of Thrones because of how long it takes. Eight seasons, each an hour long. But it’s a lot of information. I’m like, who’s dead now? [laughs]
C: I’m so behind in that world. Such a time commitment.
E: That’s what I’m saying. When I see textile work, especially beading, I know it takes forever. And people don’t have the patience for that. Now we have machines and fast fashion. People don’t put as much thought in clothing sometimes, but I am happy when it’s recognized as an art form instead of a limitation.
C: Yes, and clothing has been yet another part of feminine existence that has often been used to control women-- to underdress and overdress without their consent-- limit their mobility. Clothing is also a method of physical protection from the outside world, such as weather and dirt. How do you see clothing, specifically your work, as fitting more into feminist existence. Is it a shield, a weapon, an afterthought?
E: I’ve been thinking a lot about our relationship with our own bodies and how this affects how we dress and feel. I talk about this with my students when I teach. When you wake up in the morning, do you put on clothes based on how you’re feeling? Do you feel good about yourself today? Sometimes it can be a way to take care of yourself, maybe even a form of self love. That’s what I’m playing with--coming back to feeling comfortable with your own body and how you dress. It affects how you see yourself. If you have a positive or negative perception of yourself. Why? Are you being told to feel that way? And it can be armor too. This is how you’re going to be today and how other people will interact with you. And I don’t want them to constrain you.
C: And for our end, what does feminism mean to you?
E: I believe feminism means the right to choose. The right to have your own decisions. Choice. I think it always comes back to that for me--thinking about ownership of yourself and your ideas. Having a voice. Having a space. Making your space. Because a space wasn’t really made for many women. But once you make that space, how will you occupy it?