Elsa Isabella McGrath aka Elsa Isabella is an Australian artist born in the early 1990s who works in the mediums of painting, digital art, illustration and comics.
Her work is personal, vibrant and brilliantly executed. With much of her art exploring themes of the body, the self and and the natural world.
Explaining what first drew her to create, Elsa notes:
“Like most artists, it started early on.
Drawing was something I spent every spare minute doing because I wasn’t particularly good at sports, wasn’t the best at making friends, and found sketching out comics and characters to be a really good escape.
I started noticing art pretty early on in places like The Simpsons, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and the animated Disney Movies which were all stepping stones in the beginning of practicing drawing. I’d redraw scenes from The Lion King, and The Little Mermaid and create my own characters with lengthy bios to join the picture.“
Wanting to get to know her better we sent Elsa some questions to answer over email.
Name + D.O.B?
Elsa Isabella, December ‘92
City, State and Country you currently call home?
Hawkesbury River, Australia
City, State and Country you’re from?
Crescent Head, on Dunghutti Country, Australia
Please describe some memories – such as art, adventures, study, concerts, romance, politics, work, crime, religion… ANYTHING really – from the stages of your life noted below:
* Age 5 – beginnings:
The first concerts I went to were around this time; The Wiggles, in the hall of the high school, and the Spice Girls at the country club. I can remember being so blown away that the Spice Girls had heard of my little town let alone were willing to perform on the meat raffle stage, so I made sure I was up front and centre for them.
I even met Sporty Spice afterwards and got her autograph.
I only realised years later when I found the laminated and autographed photo that they were impersonators.
* Age 10 – continuations:
My neighbour, Herb, was a really incredible man and a great woodworker who could effortlessly craft anything that came to mind. He made me a three-story wooden dollhouse, just because.
It was maybe the best gift I’d ever received and sat pride of place in my room for years and became an endless portal of creativity.
Each room was fitted with unique floral wallpaper, there was a secret attic space if you lifted the roof off and staircases winding up through the levels connecting the rooms, the outside had rows of sky blue weatherboarding, and the second-storey had a balcony with paddle pop stick railings.
I was obsessed.
Eventually when I got older I put it into storage, but it had such a big impact on me that it inspired a graphic novel I’m currently writing.
* Age 15 – getting serious:
First relationship and first relationship end.
I started dating someone from school and it lasted around two years – which felt like at least seven in teenage years. He was tall, funny, and sweet and rode a motorbike to school which I thought was so cool. But we had no idea what dating meant and could only base it on what we’d seen – other teenage friends, and movies – which ultimately meant over dramatic.
He lived in a shed on his family’s property, that at the time I thought felt incredibly adult. It felt homey and cosy despite the tin walls. We would spend a lot of time in there together talking, playing Mortal Combat, drawing, watching movies – it felt nice to be able to be around someone without the pressure of continually holding a conversation.
It was hard to see what normal life would be like without the relationship, and it was hard to remember what it’d been like before. It just seemed like it had always been there.
I felt lucky that I’d been so fortunate to find someone I clicked with easily so young, and the fact that we didn’t have fights like we saw others having made us feel mature, for lack of a better word.
But all things end.
My best friend at the time pulled me aside between classes to tell me she knew a secret about him – that he’d been cheating on me with a few other girls from school, including some in my friend group – I think it ended up tallying at around seven or eight.
Of course I was devastated that the person closest to me had been easily and effortlessly lying for an extended time, but it left me with a confusing feeling at that age – yes I was angry he’d lied to me, but I wasn’t angry about him being with other people. I thought that this could have been avoided if he’d just told me what he was feeling. I couldn’t recognize what that meant then, and just figured that maybe I hadn’t actually loved him as much as I thought.
Getting older I learnt that the default relationship was just one facet of many, and the facet that spoke to me the most was ethical non-monogamy.
* Age 20 – young adult:
Moved out of home and straight to University into a course that I thought I should be doing but didn’t feel any passion for. I lasted just over a year before dropping out.
Around this time is when my declining mental health truly took the front seat and dictated a lot of my behaviour and experiences around that time.
It was a period where both mind, body, and soul were unhealthy and the friendships I’d carried from school ended in a blazing inferno.
I felt alone, sick, and stranded and was having a lot of difficulty navigating my ping-ponging emotions and addictions.
Out of this murkiness I met someone who blew me away with her passion, creativity, joy for life, strength and humour that I’m still so proud to call a friend. She made such an impact on me and gave me some of the greatest memories I have.
* Age 25 – adult mode:
At this point I’d moved to Sydney, and to a city, for the first time. I was studying full time at the National Art School and making art in every spare minute, exhibiting in a lot of group shows, threw a solo show, made a lot of commissioned pieces and genuinely just felt like I was in a good flow with my practice.
This lasted for about three years until I hit a wall with both my creativity and again mental health after pushing myself to the edge and burning out. Drawing and creating all of a sudden felt scary instead of uncomplicated and I overthought everything until I couldn’t put a single mark on the page.
I figured I needed to take a break for a while and fill it with something new, exciting, and hopefully good for my mind – which is when I found pole-dancing and immediately fell in love. I hadn’t tried any form of dance since early highschool and wouldn’t have ever described myself as particularly strong physically. Which, I wasn’t in any sense – after my first class I struggled to walk without pain for the few days afterwards.
I continued to go back week after week and slowly gained confidence, strength, community, flexibility, flow – things that I assumed I was just born without.
Pole is maybe the thing I’m most grateful to have found because it has gifted me more than I could have ever thought, including a space where you can continually prove your fears wrong. Along with a full body of bruises.
* Age 30 – meanderings:
I’m still a year and a half away.
But I have some goals for future me to tick off;
– Tackle mental health further and reach a point where I can live day to day without a struggle.
– Find a healthy balance between creating and procrastinating if there is one.
– Finish the graphic novel.
– Maintain a weekly comic strip.
– Overcome ingrained fears that prevent action.
– Build a home.
I’ve cycled through a few over the years, some a lot more cringey than others. I don’t have anything I genuinely use as a motto but the saying “it’s rarely about you” comes up a lot.
It was a way to calm my anxiety – that person you spoke with who seemed angry at you was probably just having a shitty day, it has nothing to do with you.
I find it also helps me obsess less over the small details of an encounter or situation as I have trouble calming my brain down once it’s stuck on a train of thought. Or maybe I should just use “don’t overthink it.“
When and why did you first become interested in everything creative?
… and any pivotal artistic moment(s) / influence(s)?
Like most artists, it started early on. Drawing was something I spent every spare minute doing because I wasn’t particularly good at sports, wasn’t the best at making friends, and found sketching out comics and characters to be a really good escape.
I started noticing art pretty early on in places like The Simpsons, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and the animated Disney Movies which were all stepping stones in the beginning of practicing drawing. I’d redraw scenes from The Lion King, and The Little Mermaid and create my own characters with lengthy bios to join the picture.
I’ve always loved character driven art and naturally gravitated towards figurative pieces.
I remember seeing the altarpiece paintings at church and just being so blown away by their intricateness and in-your-face symbolism.
Please describe your usual artistic process – from initial idea, to creation, and eventual completion?
Get an idea. Put it on paper. Refine. Redraw. Start work. Procrastinate for too long. Get back to work and try to trust the process. Step away for a day or so. Come back with fresh eyes and refine again. Finish?
Wait no that part looks fucked. Fix that part but then notice more parts that now need fixing. Slow down, take a breath and step away again. Return with some hopeful clarity and finish it off.
Put it on the finished pile and don’t look at it for six months only to then realise it’s not actually finished.
Rinse and repeat.
Who are some of your favorite artists, musicians and writers?
…and what is it about their works that so inspire and move you?
Craig Thompson for his ability to captivate you completely, hold your undivided attention over 500 pages with his storytelling and expert inking.
Tillie Walden for her use of space and effortless compositions.
Kaylene Whiskey for her intensely engaging, exciting paintings with colours you just want to swim in forever.
Greg Sindel for his prolificacy, playful paintings, and descriptive stories he brings to life.
Elioth Gruner for giving me nostalgia for places I’ve not been.
Van Gogh for his genius and being my introduction to post-impressionism.
If people wanted to work with you, have a chat or buy some of your art – how should they get in touch and where should they visit?
…and any upcoming projects you would like to mention?
I’ve been in the process of writing a graphic novel now for just under a year.
It’s still very much in the early draft stage but it’s a goal I really want to accomplish: to write and illustrate the whole thing.
Odds and Ends
If you could live in any place, during any historical era – where and when would that be?
…and why would you choose that time and place?
Honestly, probably the late 80’s in the place I grew up.
It’s seriously heaven on earth, and I’ve heard from many longtime locals how special it was around that time.
I’m a sucker for all things nostalgia so to see my home before I knew it in a slower-paced, quieter reality would be really cool.
What role did toys play in your childhood?
A massive one.
I’ve always been introverted and subsequently found it quite stressful and difficult to socialise, so toys were an obvious answer in filling that gap instead.
The first toy I saved up for with my own money was a yellow and orange Furby that I absolutely loved. I would ride around on my bike with it sitting in the front basket saying weird things in it’s robotic voice.
I was also a big Barbie fan and would spend hours creating intricate and dramatic story lines, making furniture from old boxes, and making outfits for them out of toilet paper and sticky tape that I swear didn’t look as bad as it sounds.
Drugs – waste of time or gateway to the universe?
A little from column A, and a little from column B.
I believe in moderation and educating yourself on the risks.
But being in a safe environment with people you trust can be the base for some incredible memories.
Who was your 1st crush?
…and why were you so infatuated with them?
Xena, for obvious reasons.
I just thought she was the coolest person I’d ever seen. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be her, or be with her.
Does sex change everything?
I don’t think it changes everything, but it changes some things.
What are the top 3 items you own?
My cat, Sheeba aka Beef. She’s a bit of a nervous wreck sometimes but she’s been one of the best things in my life for the past six years.
My 8-inch pole shoes. They make me feel powerful and strong and it’s a pretty clear indicator that you’re about to have a good time when you put them on.
A small silver spoon made to look like bamboo. I’ve had it for maybe twelve years and it’s just a little nostalgic piece that travels with me.
In a battle between the two 1990’s Australian icons: Bogdan Drazic (from the television series ‘Heartbreak High’) Vs. Agro (the puppet voiced by Jamie Dunn) – who would win?
…and why would they be victorious?
Agro. No doubt.
He’d fight dirty and bring a gun to a knife fight.
Please describe your last dream in detail…
Scrambling through secret passages and tunnels in a rundown mansion knowing I was in a live or die battle with whoever I was running from, but just couldn’t seem to catch a glimpse of them.
Of everything you have done what would you most like to be remembered for?
… and why?
I don’t think I’ve done it yet.