In Elizabeth Palmisano, What Started as Therapy Has Become Activism
Personal and Political
You’ve probably heard before that art serves different purposes for different people. Most of the time, when we hear that sentiment, it’s meant to describe the various emotions viewers might have when looking at a work of art, or perhaps the vision of the artist versus those who see the finished piece. But for Charlotte’s Elizabeth Palmisano, whose work will be exhibited at an event called It’s Rough: Paper As A Luxury, art serves multiple parallel purposes all at once, all of them vital to who she is.
Let’s start with the actual art she creates: combining scraps of paper or fabric that she “upcycles” into beautiful, layered, collage-like pieces. By soaking the scraps in water, blending them into a pulp and then dipping a frame called a deckle into the pulp, you can shape and mold the resulting blend, called “paper slurry,” into multi-colored, multi-layered large pieces that bring new life to things that people have thrown away.
Palmisano started with painting, something she essentially came to as a form of therapy.
“I don’t know how you’re going to put this in a nutshell, but when I was in my early 20s, I struggled with a lot of mental health issues,” she explains. “I struggled with being suicidal, depressed, self-harming, different things like that, and a friend of mine mentioned that I really enjoyed art, so maybe I should try painting. And she bought me all these art supplies.”
To say that Palmisano took to it would be an understatement.
“I painted for 16 hours straight,” she says. “When I was finished, I realized that in that 16 hours, I’d had no anxiety. I was not depressed. I was not thinking about harming myself. I was hooked. I’ve been creating art in one way or another ever since.”
The therapeutic part of art for Palmisano wasn’t the result — it was in the process.
“It was what I like to call ‘flow,’” she says. “When you’re in the creative process, you kind of enter this place where you lose track of space and time, and my concentration on what I’m doing is so great that I can’t think of anything else. Art is a safe place to take risks; it’s one of those places where you can create drama and then solve it. The end result is something that’s aesthetically pleasing that someone would want to hang on the wall, but the process is what drives me to do it, not the product.”
The scraps Palmisano often uses to create her pieces are rarely random. There’s typically a strong sentiment behind whatever she’s mixing in.
“I like to use materials that have meaning,” she says. “Nostalgia is also important to me. So, in my paper-making and fiber work, I tend to use materials that come from somewhere. It might be a letter from someone, or a journal page, or I might incorporate fabric from a shirt that was special to me that was damaged beyond repair, so instead of throwing it away, I’ll incorporate it into my work.”
It’s interesting that she references not throwing things away because there’s also a foundation of activism in what Palmisano does. As she moved away from painting and began to experiment with scraps of paper and fabric, she managed to dovetail that work with her strong devotion to protecting the environment.
“I’m very passionate about leaving as little of a footprint as possible,” she offers. “I don’t buy anything new unless I absolutely have to, and I try to use as little as possible. For me, it’s very important that my artwork be sustainable whenever possible. When I lay the pieces together onto a piece of cloth and then hang it to dry, I don’t know if it’s successful or not until I come back the next morning and pull the dried pieces of paper from the cloth. But if it’s not, I’ll use it to collage into a painting or into another piece of paper that I create later on, or I might use it to layer. It’s never going to go into the trash can.”
Palmisano is expanding on that activism in the It’s Rough exhibition, in which she uses pieces of everyday items like toilet paper or paper towels in her creations.
“It’s meant to draw attention to the living experience of the working poor,” she says. “The premise is that if you go into the homes of families living in poverty, you can tell how well that family is doing based on the paper products. If they have paper towels, they might be doing OK because you don’t buy paper towels when you don’t even have money for food. If you’re using McDonald’s napkins or gas station napkins as TP, then things are really rough, and the family is having a hard time.
“When people walk through this exhibit, my intent is to draw them in with this beautiful, delicate handmade paper, but have them leave with an awareness of the luxuries in their lives that they think of as an everyday item.”