It’s More Than Just a Picture, It’s a Story
Esther Samuels-Davis Shares The Narratives Behind 8 of Her Favourite Illustrations
There’s something grounding about hearing an artist speak about the story behind their work. You can sit and contemplate art for hours, but when you have the opportunity to actually hear the thoughts that informed a particular piece, everything sort of falls into place – it gently slides that last piece to the puzzle in place. Today, Esther Samuels-Davis shares the narrative behind 8 of her favourite illustrations.
FEATURED ARTIST: ESTHER SAMUELS-DAVIS
Born and raised in Catskill, New York in the late 80’s, Esther Samuels-Davis spent plenty of time in the woods and by the water, nestled between the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River. Surrounded by a family who encouraged music and art, she’s been actively drawing and making things since she was a child. Esther attended the California College of Arts in 2009, where she completed her Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts with a focus in Printmaking. You can find Esther now doing freelance illustration, portraiture and printmaking, often pulling inspiration from history, science and philosophy.
Telling stories is the main focus of my work. Sometimes I illustrate books using many images, and at other times I draw one image that tells its own story. In these standalone pieces I find that adding a title can act as a helping hand in interpreting a narrative. Many of my titles are there to enrich or deepen the visuals. Throughout this post I want tell the story of a life cycle through a series of single pieces.
I'd like to begin a little after the dawn of creation and sneak back into the Garden of Eden to have another look at Eve and Adam's fall from paradise. Every time I'm between projects or just don't know what to draw I usually end up reinterpreting the story of Eve. I love religious artwork because I find it to be like a control in an experiment. So many artists and individuals have reinterpreted the same stories spanning hundreds of years- and now when we look at these pieces we can tell so much about culture and trend in that particular time period. By reinterpretation we can influence the future. This is my latest Eden drawing, entitled Eve,olution. It shows Eve two ways, standing side by side separated only by time. On the left we have the original Eve, having just eaten from the tree of knowledge. The power from her first apple is imprinted on her throat and a new sense of consciousness is in her gaze. On the right stands future Eve. We can see she's now ingested many fruits of knowledge and is so full that she's begun to pass that information on to others around her by feeding them what she knows. The two Eve's are separated by the falling leaves from the infamous tree representing a sort of before and after. Separate though simultaneously the same they are one history, building on and referring back to their past, while leaving room to evolve.
With the birth of consciousness comes a lot of good as well as numerous challenges for our minds. When we give our consciousness too much attention it can lead to delusion. Over thinking gives so much more weight than necessary to experiences that would be better briefly acknowledged and then left alone. Staying rationally focused is one of my biggest obstacles day to day. It’s good to address the past, present and future, but it can be hard to keep level headed and not spiral down into a repeating sequence of regrets. A big part of life to me feels like an expedition searching for a secret switch enabling you to change tracks when you're stuck in an unproductive mental circuit. The three helpers shown in this drawing Mind before Matter, to silence the chatter, are trying to calm this over active brain. The glass head is overgrown with it's own garden, so lost within that its eyes just stare out vacantly, because really they're just looking inwards. The body has disappeared because it's become irrelevant, and gone unnoticed by the mind for so long it has left to find something more fulfilling. The three women who are patterned with flowers are also part of the self. But instead of falling into the cycle, their role in consciousness is to pull the brain out of it's own egoism.
Who we are and where we come from. I have a lot of time to think while I'm drawing, especially once the technical part is done and I'm left to shading in the image. Yeah, it's meditative, but normally instead of being able to empty my thoughts my mind starts to swirl into negative loops- like the ones I talked about a couple sentences earlier. My fix for that has become listening to audiobooks and podcasts for a little healthy distraction. Sometimes though, this so called hindrance can lead to nice surprises when the material provokes new ideas. One such instance was a talk I listened to by Douglas Adams, called "An Artificial God?", which inspired this drawing, The hands that made gods or the gods that made hands- a dissection of humans finding their place in the universe. Here humans are shown making tools that are used to dissect the world around them as well as themselves. Are we the way we are because of the evolution of thought? Or were we created as is by an omnipotent force? On one leg is tattooed a Jesus fish, with the shadow-hand reaching down to remove the manmade shoe and return to the basics. On the other leg is the Darwin fish climbing ever upwards, its shadow-hand making sure that we keep our new inventions on tight. Whether one or the other is right or wrong is a moot point since it's a question our consciousness has yet to figure out. It's sure fun to think about though.
Contained within each one of us is an entire universe of cells, bacteria and atoms. When you ask what we are, and get down to the bare bones of it, well - really we're not just one self, we're many working as one. As children you feel virtually all powerful, your self is the center of everything, just like early models of the earth in the solar system. Our brains want to think that way. It's just so hard to conceive of not existing in the form we are- we want to hold this importance, both as individuals and also as a species. It's easy to forget just how fragile our physical bodies really are. In this drawing, Leaky glass house, the main character contains a whole ecosystem being housed within a brittle exterior. The life inside her however is leaking out to shed light on new ideas. We're all made from the same materials, just put together in different ways.
After who we are and what we're made of comes the next step in this little drawing life cycle, which is sense of place and perspective. When we begin to age our views broaden and we gain a more encompassing view of the world around us, and our place inside it. I drew this image as part of a book I illustrated called Mount Limit, written by Adrian Rötzscher. "They say Mt. Infinite is the second tallest mountain, and it leans towards Mt. Limit to be closer, and that it whispers secrets. I don't know Mt. Infinite's secrets, just a few of Mt. Limit's. They too are beautiful. No one really knows Mt. Infinite, they just sit together and talk about it in earnest." - Mount Limit. I find collaboration to be such a wonderful part of illustration. When working in a good partnership I'm always stunned at how much and how fast ideas can grow and develop. It's easy to get caught up inside our own cycles, so gaining a bit of perspective and remembering that we're all in constant collaboration with the world around us is a vital part of growth.
Painting from the heart, is a drawing about knowing yourself and trusting your intuition. I remember hearing an interview once in which an animator talked about how he wasn't so much creating the lines on the paper- but rather that he was finding the right ones that were already there. I feel that a big part of making work is spacing out now and again and letting that little drawing spirit inside of you take charge. Usually when I do these standalone narrative drawings I don't have any story in mind when I begin. I'll start with a main object and just carry on from there, slowly building it up as I go and ending usually with the background and then at last a title. To be honest sometimes I really have no idea what a drawing is about until it's over and I just stare at it and write about it for a while. Sometimes these images can fall flat, but other times they inspire ideas I didn't even know were there. Like when you create a whole world in your dreams. The subconscious is a powerful creator, and it can be fruitful to leave it to it's own devices once in a while.
One such drawing that didn't have a clear story until close to it's completion was Fish Dish: Everybody's gotta soul to feed. Echoed in the way the piece was physically conceived comes it's meaning: a soul transitioning into death after a lifetime of experiences. The fish is exhaling it's soul in one last breath while the ant leans down to give the soul a final drink of dew to carry it through into the afterlife. You only think up a meaning as it's fading away, or at least the ants surrounding the fish are. Confronting death within artwork has always been my strategy of becoming more comfortable with it. It's an intimidating thought for all of us to think of ceasing to be ourselves. I'm not sure I could ever draw any picture that would help me to be truly comfortable with the idea, but as in the reinterpretation of Eve, it always helps to see things from new angles.
As in every cycle, we have to end at the beginning, or at least at a beginning. Life after death- when all our particles become a part of something new. Whether the soul keeps together as one or drifts off separately burying itself into the dirt and growing up into new organisms, we just don't know what will happen to our consciousness. This drawing The weight behind dew drops, deals with the latter idea. The living figure in this image is looking down to a leaf that has the shadow of a profile on it, symbolizing a person who has passed away, their body having become the plant. The dew rolling off of the leaf doubles as the bittersweet tears from the ghost who's left the human world behind. The meaning of life is a mystery, and quite frankly, I'm not sure what kind of meaning we're really looking for. For all we know we're just part of an organism, living and dying to sustain something bigger than ourselves. And leaving little pictures along the way.
Thanks to Esther Samuel-Davis for sharing the narratives of some of her favourite pieces with us. When you combine visual with written, storytelling becomes powerful beyond imagination.
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