During their crazy busy month of traveling and exhibiting, I was able to catch up with artists Brandan Styles and Ellie Rusinova of Mad Tatters to talk with them about their art, process and unique collaboration. Let’s travel down the magical, meta-physical rabbit hole with these two to take a peek behind the curtain. This article is the first in a series called Conversations with Artists.
Tell me about the Mad Tatters?
Brandan: Mad Tatters is a collaborative, yet individual, art duo, bringing two sets of energies and sensibilities into one cohesive surrealistic traveling art circus.
Ellie: It is the creative, artistic portion of our marriage. It is a vision, a never-ending exploration, an identity for both of us as a creative couple and an art business.
How did this collaborative journey begin and how did it change?
Brandan: The seedling of the journey of Mad Tatters began when Ellie and I met in 2008. In 2009, the roots took shape and we started to figure out what we wanted to do, make as artists and establish as an art business. It started with learning how to make paintings and sculptures and then went onto producing several surrealistic art circuses in Denver, which eventually led to doing art festivals and expos across the country. What started as a dream with humble beginnings has grown and evolved to become a sustainable art practice and business.
Ellie: We started coming up with it as soon as we met. Mad Tatters didn’t have a name yet, but it was what drew us together. It was the epitome of our dreams and motivations. When we met, we were at a very charged place in our lives. Both of us had made a lot of changes and were striving to push our lives into the arts, having met each other strengthened this path and enforced it for both of us.
What point in your career(s) do you see as a breakthrough? Be specific.
Brandan: There are several breakthrough moments. Ellie and I meeting was certainly one. Another was finally reaching a place of being able to make my ideas and vision a reality. In addition, art festivals put us on the path of traveling across the country to sell our artwork. Being selected for a large-scale installation at Meow Wolf Denver was also a big moment. The biggest breakthrough, however, has been the Oddities and Curiosities Expo. After many years of trying to get people to take notice of our work at art festivals, the expo came along and connected us with our people, admirers and supporters.
Ellie: Agreed! All the ones Brandan mentioned are true for me as well. I would add to that my beloved job as a Professor of Illustration at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. Every teacher will tell you that teaching students can be very fulfilling, but few will share that teaching is one of the best methods of learning as well! Being immersed in the visual every day of my life deepens my own understanding of its meaning, methods and sensibilities.
What do you see yourself incorporating in your work as your vision evolves?
Brandan: It’s often a mystery to me as to what may be incorporated into the work as my vision evolves. I can say that I am always on the quest for inspiration and ideas, spending a great deal of time in a world of drawing, philosophy, inner thoughts and battles, visual stimuli and music.
Ellie: I ebb and flow through different media, going through several year-long periods where I favor one media over the rest. In recent years, I have been sculpting more than painting. But recently, I have been really excited about painting again. My visual inspirations right now include Medieval and Byzantine art, Slavic folk embroidery patterns and stylized realism: all on the dark side.
Talk about how storytelling is used in your work to communicate with an audience.
Brandan: Storytelling has pretty much always been first and foremost in my work. I do my best to communicate an esoteric story of finding oneself in an absurd world. Through an archetypal cast of bizarre characters as well as the use of symbols and humor, I delve into the occult labyrinth of heart and soul, seeking to illuminate and integrate the shadow realm in an absurdist and darkly whimsical manner.
Ellie: Brandan is a more direct storyteller than me for sure. I leave at least half of the story unknown: sometimes even to me. I see my pieces as caught moments in time where a world, a character and hopefully an emotion are caught together in a moment of synergy. Like a chef, I mix in the ingredients and let the mixture happen naturally!
What draws you to work on a particular work or series?
Brandan: For me, something (book, music, etc) will spark the idea, then a little doodle on a notepad will convey that idea. If I’m really feeling it, it’s off to the races.
Ellie: I get into expressive patterns, thinking about which ideas can best come through using a particular medium. I love mixing media and getting excited about the possibilities of each, whether it be sculpting in epoxy clay, working in scratchboard, painting in acrylic and oils, drawing in charcoal or working in assemblage of found objects, nature, moss, sticks, tiny skulls etc. It is a mix,
Is your approach and creative process more intuitive? Do you rely on memory or dreams at all? Explain.
Brandan: I would say that my process is mostly intuitive: from the initial summoning of the idea to how the painting is executed. I have had to repaint many pieces over because the energy or mood was not what the intuition was wanting. It can be very frustrating at times! I spend time in the morning drinking coffee in an intuiting waking dream, that’s where the best ideas come from!
Ellie: I am a trained artist with a masters degree in Illustration so I trust the process of the giants that came before me, using thumbnails, color and value studies, rough drawings, etc when needed. But, I also allow a very large space for freedom and for the work to develop itself, to be found in the process. My pieces always look very different in my head than when they are finished.
Does research play a role in the conceptual development of your work? Explain
Brandan: I feel like I am researching just by looking at art and literature on occult topics or philosophy, but not much research is done for a specific piece. I draw mostly from my imagination and the library of images that are already stored in my noggin. It kind of feels like reinventing the wheel from memory, and I find that fitting for me.
Ellie: I will sometimes look up things, like the anatomy of a bird I want to paint, but I don’t let myself look at other art right before a piece because I am afraid of inadvertently stealing ideas and visuals. I want to make sure that everything has marinated in my own brain first: the alchemy of my own artistry and ideas.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal to generate your ideas?
Ellie: Lately, I’ve been drawing ideas and doing prep work into an Ipad rather than a sketchbook. As an old teacher once told me, “Digital tools are not great at drawing, but they are INCREDIBLE at erasing.”
Brandan: I use every piece of paper I can get my hands on. I save nearly every envelope I get and those comprise most of my drawings and ideas. I save receipts when on the road in case I need to jot an idea down. I always have a little pad of paper to draw on. The less formal, the better. I do have a proper sketchbook for bigger drawings, but it does get used less than a notepad.
What sources of inspiration do you seek when commencing on a work?
Brandan: I study a lot of art, so there is often plenty of inspiration there. I find that sometimes the most inspiring thing to do is look at my older works. It can help put into perspective who you are, what you are capable of and can lead to the “Hey, I made that, that was pretty cool and let’s do something like that again!” moment.
Ellie: We travel a lot, both for work and for inspiration, and we love taking pictures. I have a big folder in my phone where I collect inspirational photos. Everything goes in there: architecture, a place, a color combination, a cool wallpaper, an antique store find, a book illustration and everything that my eye catches and wants to keep. Then, when I sit down in my studio, I look through my folder and let things take shape, reacting to what stirred in me in the first place.
How do you come up with your ideas and concepts?
Brandan: Magic: aka, thinking and doodling. My brain is regularly engaged in ideas. It’s always working, as I have trained it to be like that. I feel like ordinary life is pretty mundane. So, I spice it up with ideas or concepts, seeing faces in things and tuning into the world just below the surface.
Ellie: My favorite times to think about new pieces is either during a nighttime walk or while falling asleep. Here is my method. I think about the piece during the day, as hard and as often as I can without stress but with intensity. The goal is to stuff my brain with stimuli and engage it with the problem I want to solve. Then, when I go to bed I release my brain to bask. Falling asleep releases an ability that my brain doesn’t have in the daytime. I can visualize deeper, I can imagine things, rotate them in my head, change angles, move the direction and alter color combinations, really seeing an idea through. I get the best ideas that way. The only challenge left is making my brain remember an idea visually. Falling asleep after having a very exciting idea can be hard as well.
How do you feel your work appeals to the viewer’s emotions or senses?
Brandan: I always hope to elicit a response, whether the viewer likes it or not is subjective. But, I do hope the work allows one to pause. With that, I do think my work appeals to many viewers’ emotions and senses in that they can relate to something going on in the work. I think it first hits on a dark and simultaneously humorous level, drawing you into the deeper symbolism of it. Then with the senses full of both the humor and the depth, a return to the beginning comes with a newfound appreciation for the work.
Ellie: All of us are bombarded by so much imagery every day that I think that an artist today has only a split second to capture the emotion and senses of their viewers before they move on. There is something ineffable in the how of it all, but an artist will use everything she or he can: colors, textures, elegance, composition, beauty and grotesquery. To me, capturing that ineffable dark beauty is the goal of all of my efforts. There is something bigger than life in that, chasing the platonic idea of perfection.
What tools and materials have you used to create your work?
Brandan: I use pencils, paintbrushes, wood, paper, all kinds of found objects from wine corks, nails, chains, ropes to tree branches and everything in between to create my works. Hammers, saws, sanders and a Dremel are my other main tools.
Ellie: We are very hands-on artists. We chisel, sand, paint, glaze, draw, scratch, sew, sprinkle, sculpt, mold, cast, string, glue and otherwise manipulate the material world. When I paint, I love to use a piece of wood, sealed so you can still see the wood grain and soft color. I will do an underdrawing in charcoal, seal it and paint over it with acrylic paint. Then, I will glaze on top with oils until I have achieved the richness of color I am looking for. I also love to use scratchboard, scratching the light textures and leaving the darkness to exist. It almost describes itself in the medium. Also, I love to sculpt with epoxy-based materials such as Magic Sculpt, Apoxie and others. Sometimes, I will sculpt free-standing figures, using a solid wire armature underneath the clay, but other times I will work in a relief format, using a wood panel as a base. I love the mixture of 2D and 3D that method presents!
Where do you find such interesting materials and do you do things to them to enhance their look?
Brandan: We scour antiques stores and junk shops across the country for all kinds of treasures to be used in pieces. Frames, old wooden boxes and crates, bits and pieces and doodads of all kinds. The found objects are pretty much always aged and incorporated into the piece by painting them further. I found an old saw knife that became a body for a cork carved into a head. The saw blade was good and rusty, but the handle needed more aging. After a few layers of raw umber paint and sanding, it was ready to go. I once found an old rusty hairspray can in a riverbed in Texas and with a little spray paint turned it into the body for a character.
Ellie: I am also a great collector of things, especially in nature. Interesting sticks, stones, moss, feathers, birds eggs, tiny bones, beads, bugs and all kinds of things make it into my pockets and onto the shelves in my studio. Sometimes, when sculpting, I will look through my many bins to find just the right thing.
Do you experiment and explore other approaches, materials, or media to keep your process fresh? Please detail.
Brandan: Absolutely. I feel that the way I work best, as an artist, is to always be experimenting and playing. I like to work in a variety of mediums from drawing and painting to sculpture. Each process informs the other. Certain ideas are best conveyed in different mediums and wouldn’t have the same effect if it were painted as opposed to sculpted in some fashion, and vice versa. I also have what I call, AAD, Artistic Attention Disorder, so jumping around between mediums ensures that I do indeed keep it fresh!
Ellie: Always! Art is an endless inspiration.
Describe your artistic working environment. Be specific to things that may make it unique or personal.
Ellie: Brandan and I are very fortunate to have great work spaces set up with lots of love and care. We have a split-level house, where the top floor is all living space, bedrooms, living room, kitchen etc. The bottom floor is separated into two rooms right next to each other that serve as our studios. We also have a big basement that is our production room. In addition, we use our garage for a woodshop. The producton room is where we make, cut and pack prints. It is also where Brandan screen prints shirts, where I make and stretch canvases, and in general, where we make various products. The studios themselves are sacred and organized exactly how we each like them. Mine is full of hand-built shelves on each wall and many working surfaces that can be moved around or folded out of the way. Because of my many methods of work, I need many kinds of setups. Sometimes, I will be pouring epoxy in there, while other times I will be painting and drawing. I also teach from the same room so versatility is required. I love my studio and I keep it very clean and tidy. I need to feel comfortable in my space in order for my brain to feel at peace!
Brandan: My studio is small, and stuffed to the brims with all manner of tools, unfinished pieces, notes, doodles, frames and pieces of wood. A playful chaos ready to be conjured into something at any time!
Are your visual surroundings important to you? How do they influence your work?
Brandan: Yes, my work space is my dojo and shrine all in one. It is important for it to be visually stimulating. When I enter my studio and begin working on a piece, I am aware of the ritual of my craft taking place, and that affects a change in me to get into art mode.
Ellie: Everything that I can see around me has to look good. I am an avid house decorator and gardener. My yard includes a vegetable garden inspired by the Spanish gardens of Alhambra, a berry patch, many trees and shrubs and vines and other design elements. I also designed our converted travel van and with Brandan’s help. We created something functional and beautiful that we and our three little dogs can travel in.
Describe a typical working day?
Brandan: I wake up, drink coffee, play a little guitar, do yoga and then into the studio, production dungeon, or woodshop to get stuff done! I keep busy most days of the week preparing for upcomings shows and expos. There is always a lot to be done. I like to paint after the mundane work of the day has been done. It’s less like work and more of a reward.
Ellie: There is no such thing as typical. My brain thrives on variety! I have a lot of interests to juggle and can only focus on them one at a time: a hyperfocus of sorts. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays are fully dedicated to teaching. The rest of the week is given to either painting, drawing, gardening, production for the business or something else that needs to be done. I have a lot of handmade calendars in which I have to plan my weeks and months in a quite detailed way in order to keep above it all!
Talk about being on the road doing events and shows.
Brandan: It’s a pirate’s life, and not for everyone, but it is for me. Being on the road and doing shows is, well, a lot of work and commitment. A constant coming and going: here today gone tomorrow type of thing. We generally do about 15 shows a year that take us from January to the end of October, with shows all over the country. We drive to all of them. There is much stress and work to get ready for each show, as we make all of our prints, t-shirts, products and of course originals. The drive is usually the most relaxing part of the whole experience, just you and the road. Once you get into town, it’s go, go and go. It starts with loading in and setting up the booth, then several days of doing the show and engaging with lots of people. After that is tear down and back on the road to the next place. It’s always busy, but it’s a wonderful thing and I feel so lucky to be a traveling artist. Meeting your people firsthand, seeing their reactions and emotions to pieces of art that you have made is awesome. Having people buy your art and support you right in front of you is such an amazing thing! You build a network of friends and collectors all over the place, and that is the best part.
Ellie: Yes to all of the above!
Is there anything else about yourself or your work that you would like to mention?
Brandan: I LOVE music: much music always. We hope to one day build a kind of roadside art attraction, a shrine to the weird and spiritual!
Ellie: I have two adult sons, one lives in Berlin, Germany and one in Denver, both bright and talented young men whom I love to bits! Also, Brandan and I have always had small dogs: three or four at a time. They are our little portable family and we built up the van so we can travel everywhere with them. It’s a carnie life for sure.
Mad Tatters @madtatters_artcircus