Birds possess a curious dichotomy. They’ve captivated human imagination for millennia with their ability to fly, coming to symbolize our highest aspirations. Yet their otherworldliness and often mysterious nature lead many cultures to view them as bearers of death, conduits to and from the afterlife, or even as immortal souls.
Much of the imagery surrounding death in our western culture lacks optimism and serenity, and is instead represented in sinister, horrifying, and violent imagery. While these characteristics are symptomatic of our own fears and uncertainties, multimedia artist Elyse-Krista Mische seeks to shift our perspectives and attitudes toward death through immersive environments and creative play. In a recent project, Mourning Dove & The Forgotten, Elyse-Krista reimagines figures we associate with death, replacing the Grim Reaper with her Mourning Dove character, which gathers flowers for the deceased and lovingly mourns at their graves.
Growing up in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Elyse-Krista found early inspiration in handicrafts at local craft fairs and rummage sales. There was something magic in the ability to create a work of art out of scraps of nothing. A glass bottle meticulously decorated with hundreds of glittering glass beads, quilts depicting elaborate foliage fashioned from scraps of textiles, tiny wooden boxes intricately adorned with winding carvings—for Elyse-Krista, these objects manifested their creator’s careful attention and the expanse of time they took to make, condensing it neatly to fit in one’s hand. The objects then took on a life of their own, gaining a history as they were passed from person to person.
Elyse-Krista began to create her own objects of wonder from recycled materials, simple art supplies, and papier-mâché. She fondly remembers crafting forts from refrigerator boxes, marveling in the transformative experience of making a space of one’s own. Continuing in her study of art, Elyse-Krista earned a BA in fine art in 2011 from Lawrence University in Appleton, where she now resides. Additionally she completed a number of artist residencies across the United States. “Art is my favorite experience, activity, and object in the world. I’m delighted to call myself an artist because I have the privilege of sharing my creativity and unique perspectives with others and, hopefully by doing so, can inspire them to be more creative and open minded in their own lives.”
Elyse-Krista sees art as a universal language, one which can bring people from different ages and backgrounds together, allowing them to communicate ideas and emotions that they may lack words to express. Though her work deals with monumental themes, such as death and time, it’s incredibly playful and lacks the dark morbidity we too often associate with these notions.
In The Offering, audiences are invited to approach the work, select a felted flower from the offering basket, then place the flower beneath the altars of the Birdman of Life or the Birdman of Death. Through this playful interaction, Elyse-Krista is able to create a multisensorial, holistic connection between viewer and work. “When you engage multiple senses besides just sight, there’s greater potential to not only glimpse the core of a topic, but also space to insert your own imagination, beliefs, and questions. I make interactive work because it allows me to talk about ideas of time, memory, and mortality with an open-door policy. Interaction invites people to step outside of their comfort zones, to make believe a little, and to feel as though they themselves are part of the project.”
Elyse-Krista describes herself as primarily an illustrator, seeing her interactive works as “live drawings.” Simply put, drawing is writing with pictures and can be done in virtually any media. You could draw by pencil, paint, your body, fabric and thread, or virtually anything. For many of us, drawing is the first media we are exposed to, and in many ways, it’s the most accessible mode of communication.
Crafts from Elyse-Krista’s youth continue to play a key role in her art practice. “Latch hook, embroidery, papier-mâché, and collage are inviting, tactile mediums that draw people in with whimsy. I choose materials that urge people to touch or get up close and personal to them because this allows for physical, intimate engagement with the art work and associated ideas.” Crafts evoke their maker and other makers, and the possibility of continuing and remaking.
Elyse-Krista recently returned from an artist residency with BreckCreate in Breckenridge, Colorado, and currently works two CNA jobs while developing art programming for the elderly through ThedaCare’s assisted-living facility. She also has been volunteering with hospice, an activity that neatly fits in with her art. The experience has informed her work and vice versa. “Volunteering in hospice pushes my work to be more selfless; I realize the importance of creating work that preserves a sense of others and captures a more universal audience.”
Elyse-Krista is also part of a worldwide death-positive movement, which encourages people to be educated and talk freely about all aspects of death. “Death is a stranger who gives me the creeps and also a lifelong pen pal that I am bound to one day meet.”
Currently, “I’m taking a little break from making to research ideas of life and death, and to mingle with my community in creative ways.” Since 2018, Elyse-Krista has been working with the Neighborhood Partners of Goodwill Industries planning community Big Puppet Parades, which invite individuals from all walks of life to come together in their neighborhoods to craft giant puppets. The puppets are then paraded through residential streets. “Although it’s difficult to not be constantly making my own work, it can be beneficial to step away from creating art to help others make, and refill one’s box of inspiration.”
Elyse-Krista’s work and videos of interactions with her installations can be found at lifepropaganda.com .
Lauren Miller is a historian of art and visual culture, a freelance arts writer, and an associate at Abel Contemporary Gallery.