Please tell us about your background and art projects.
I am an Artist and Travel-Writer with an Asian focus. My art is concerned with the fusion and friction between cultures, and between the ancient and the modern. I use old techniques – like 19th century cyanotype blueprints – to make images with a modern edge.
Recently I have illustrated one book about Hong Kong and am writing another about my quest through the cultures of Thailand, Laos & Vietnam in search of the perfect paper.
Since I earned my BFA in painting, I’ve lived in many places, from Brooklyn, NYC to Busan, Korea: I’ve been a sculpture apprentice in Tuscany; created a DIY study-abroad program in France; recruited artists for a show in a decrepit legwarmer factory for the first Liverpool Bienniale Fringe; and painted faux marble on pillars of the Venetian Macau.
Every two years or so I take a sort of educated risk and start a year-long project: in Cambodia, it was teaching photography to street kids; in Hong Kong, I turned my art studio into a community gallery; and my latest is a studio in Sicily. This will be a more long-term investment: an affordable, creative retreat for selected artists and writers to work on their projects.
How did the “H is for Hong Kong” book come about?
People often ask: “How did you find your publisher?” In a manner of speaking, they found me – online. During my years in Asia, I’ve often stayed in touch with expats and English-speaking locals via the stories I write on my blog. One contact, Andy Brouwer, was editing the To Cambodia with Love cultural guidebook for ThingsAsian Press, and invited me to submit a few essays from my experiences there. Eventually, the publisher kept an eye on me, and after a few meetings awhile later, offered me the opportunity to illustrate the book H is for Hong Kong. Everything since has built from there.
But an important factor in standing out from the crowd is to take risks and do something worth talking – and writing – about. Then you’re a step closer to extraordinary. Memorable.
Has publishing a book been lucrative for you?
As the illustrator I received a fair flat fee for use of my images, which was in line with the industry standard. The advance for my Asian paper-book and illustrations was enough to fund 3 months travel through Thailand, Laos & Vietnam, and 2 months of Chinese study in Lijiang, and several months of writing it here.
A book is, realistically, a platform to launch into more opportunities – speaking engagements, exhibitions, etc. rather than viewed as a dependable source of long-term income. Thanks to these books, my name, and a portion of my portfolio, is in many more homes and on many more websites than ever before.
Where are you now?
For the next few months, I’m writing my paper book in the back-end of western Sydney, enjoying the southern summer with my partner before heading back to Asia for more short-term projects and meetings. And soon, I’ll continue a series of paintings and a new series of cyanotype blueprints.
Are you working on any art projects in Australia?
While I wait – impatiently – for specially-commissioned handmade paper from Thailand for the large-scale final version of the Calendar Girls series and print the negatives for a series of Vietnamese cyanotype blueprints, I’m focusing on the paper book.
Please tell us about some of your travel experiences and what you did in each country.
Wherever I live (even in the past when I had day-jobs), I make art an integral part of my experience. This has developed my aesthetics and access to materials, and has naturally introduced me creative opportunities that I wouldn’t have found had I stayed in one place. Here are a few experiences:
France: In university I discovered an affordable language immersion program. To fund it, I arranged a semester of Independent Study courses with several art professors at my US university: in exchange for the packages of drawings and paintings I sent them from France, they wrote evaluations for credit. The total cost of creating my own semester-abroad experience was about half of a standard university study-abroad program in western Europe, for the same classes and accommodation as students from Penn State. Due to visa restrictions I was unable to work legally while a student.
Italy: One summer in the Tuscan hills I worked as a sculpture apprentice to an eccentric Christian Brother in a former monastery, originally built in the 14th-century. Along with the basics I’d learned at art school like hand-building clay, and wax/plaster molds, I helped make large-scale fiberglass sculptures and intricate pieces of jewelry. My work was in exchange for room and board, and pocket money that kept me in cigarettes and Belgian beer for the summer. This kept things mostly-legal under the Italian visa system.
Hong Kong: For two years I lived on the offshore island called Lamma and opened my studio as a gallery every month, featuring local artists’ work along with my own. This provided exposure for my work through local magazines, and got island neighbors into the studio. Contrary to the impression that most people have of Hong Kong, Lamma was a tranquil place to live as there are no cars or highrises on the island.
How has travel and your international art projects helped you to develop as an artist?
Immersion in other cultures has certainly been invaluable, and has provided a real stimulus for my work. Most importantly, for those motivated in any discipline, travel offers exposure to opportunities that don’t exist at home. There are different venues available, residencies, etc. Though I’m not pursuing the gallery route, gallerists can often be more open to contact from foreign artists than from local ones. This leads to the truism of the “foreigner premium”, and while I have achieved all of my creative projects with hard work and selective risk-taking, the scarcity of English-language experts in a field can work out to one’s advantage in other areas. For example, when I taught art classes in Hong Kong, I was paid about double what I would have received as a BFA graduate in the US.
What does it cost to travel like you do?
Bottom line, it really depends on you. Cost naturally varies by location, and there are many kinds of lifestyles available, depending on what you are looking for, and how often one wants to travel to other places. The first few months in a new place are always the most expensive; it gets cheaper after you find what works for you. I have paid rent for separate studios that range from US $50 to $400 depending on size and location. Ideally I prefer to combine living and working space, and was most successful when I shared a house in Cambodia for $150/month. There I was able to access plenty of sunshine for my cyanotype blueprints, and we had a sunny terrace and easy-to-clean tiled floor – a perfect location for an artist working with messy art supplies.
There are many resources for would-be expatriates. I travel at a flashpacker level, and tend to live frugally. In Hong Kong I frequently spent less than US $1,500/month and saved the rest for travel and investments, but that was also thanks to the affordable island where we lived. Other people I know there pay US $10,000/month for rent alone.
How do you earn an income?
It depends on what activities I’ve got that year. The three key elements are preparation, flexibility, and determination to work towards your career/life goals. As you can see from my checkered past, I’ve travelled & earned a living in many ways, including translation in French antique markets in Avignon/Paris, and teaching art and English in Korea even though I had a difficult time in that particular country. After a number of achievements thus far, and after having made a number of contacts in various parts of Asia, I am happy to have to pace myself on various exciting projects, rather than have to pitch for them all the time.
One reason I continue to be drawn in Asia is its dynamism. The region is changing quickly and is truly the world’s greatest economic powerhouse, thus it offers the most opportunities.
If you’re looking to set off into the unknown for an indefinite period of time, you should have, at the minimum, a bachelor’s degree and 3 months’ living expenses in your pocket, for whatever region you’ve chosen. This can vary from US $2,000 (SE Asia) – $6,000 (Europe/Japan) The degree is to satisfy basic visa requirements for many countries in which it might be worth settling down eventually, i.e. first/second-world countries.
The last we talked, you were considering buying an apartment in Sicily. How did that work out?
It is still in progress, Mediterranean style! We had a series of offers and counter-offers and some wrangling about how many rooms were actually available. There was a Sicilian family misunderstanding about the property that, I realize, was none of my business (having been raised a Catholic in a big family I understand that) though things weren’t exactly as advertised. The agent was very kind about explaining this to me, before I gave a final offer: “No, there aren’t four rooms as advertised, there are only three. The brother who lives next door decided to keep one.” And that’s just the way things are. He who controls the water mains, controls the property.
If all goes well, I will fly out there to sign the final papers in a few months, once I have the time.
Why did you choose Sicily?
I’d looked at a number of affordable regions in the world for my first studio. A mortgage doesn’t interest me, so it had to be somewhere I could pay for in cash. Sicily interested me because the Italian language and culture were familiar from my sculpture apprenticeship days, and the island is literally at the geographical heart of western culture, in the Mediterranean. There are ancient Greek and Roman and Spanish and Arab ruins scattered across the island. The slow food movement – that most modern foodie trend based on ancient principles – is in full swing. The whole island has got loads of integrity and a rough edge. After having spent a half-dozen years in Asia, I liked the idea of a western base, but not a North American one, and Sicily has many, many properties going for a song, providing you’ve got the time and patience to renovate.
Is it difficult to buy property in Italy?
“Difficulty” is relative. If you’re looking for a seamless transfer of funds, I don’t think that exists in Europe anywhere south of Paris. It is reasonably painless as a foreigner to buy a property, but living there fulltime or running a bricks-and-mortar business is another matter entirely. As my husband has a UK passport, we could theoretically live in this studio, but we would prefer to split our time between a number of different locations, China possibly being one.
What advice would you offer for artists thinking of a nomadic lifestyle?
It goes without saying that an artist’s career is quite different from a nine-to-five. Many artists have been successful when well-grounded in their local community, because connections are so important. But as with other fields, to grow beyond your city or national borders takes quite a bit more than an average effort, especially in a field like art, where personal contact is at a premium. This is changing, but more slowly than in other industries, and it is only now where social media offer other possibilities beyond regional borders. The art world is insular and runs anywhere from 5-15 years behind the rest of the world. Artists can test their travelling skills by journeys on their own or with a partner. Bring lightweight art supplies, and connect online with other artists before you go there. Twitter is a fantastic way to do this. See how successful you are with this before taking a plunge into fulltime, rootless travel.
What does the future hold for Elizabeth Briel?
- A North American book/lecture tour in fall 2010 with an exhibition or two, thanks to the book I’ll have coming out around that time, about my quest for Southeast Asian paper [title still TBD].
- Interesting products with the Calendar Girls printed on them, as they have been very well-received by worldly women in particular, from Asia to North America.
- Opening my Sicilian studio as a creative space for other writers and artists.
- Various artistic projects in the burgeoning great cities of western China, and possibly in other areas of the country as well.
- Fluency in Mandarin and Italian, continuing my never-ending goal of learning one language for each decade I’ve spent on the planet.