Artist of the Week Elisabeth Hartnett on Feeling Nature’s Immensity

When I sat down to interview Elisabeth Hartnett ’26, I realized that my typical script of questions wouldn’t work. My first question asked what subjects she gravitates towards. I expected her to say landscapes or portraits, but was surprised by how she described her vision. She explained that appreciating nature is paramount to creating works: “I have to fully immerse myself in [nature] when I’m there and just commit, take in what I see and notice all the little details, which I feel like isn’t something you always do when you’re just there.”

Admiring Lis’s pieces, I noticed a journal sketch in the center of her art Instagram page. Interested in what she was drawing, I asked about her inspiration. She replied, “I went to Arizona over last winter break. I don’t remember the name of the stone piers, but there is this place that has a vortex. Going there, I felt this insane power. I can’t explain it in words, but I felt very close to Earth. I was inspired after being there. I sat up there on a rock and made a little pencil pen drawing.”

Listening to Lis talk about art made me realize how sterile art-making can be. Everything I create feels like a performance or a competition to create something better than my last piece. However, for Lis, it’s about absorbing her environment and preserving her feelings on paper, whether that be through journaling or drawing. 

“I write about the sensations I feel: for example, in Arizona I felt so small, but safe. I like to feel small in nature because it is so huge. Mostly I jot down things that I feel and notice, like the wind, colors —– anything I observe and experience.”

Hearing how Lis interacts with art, I realized that to capture her accurately, my interview had to become a conversation. To her, art is fluid. Its beauty is not in its objectivity but subjectivity. Moreover, her choice of depicting nature was a subconscious desire. “I grew up in the city, so there was no nature. But my grandparents both lived in this small town in upstate New York. I’d go up there, I loved it. And maybe living in the city made me crave nature a lot. Because the city is great, but it’s so busy and a bit stressful. It has a great art world, but I feel like deep down we’re all meant to be connected to the Earth, and the city feels very disconnected from it. Going to my grandparents’ house and more rural areas made me realize that nature just feels right.”

There is no big story as to why she loves nature, but her art manifests how interacting with various environments has changed her practice. “My paintings are for mindfulness. I don’t worry too much about what they look like in the end. I want them to be beautiful in their own right, but I know that my audience is myself, not others. I don’t want to sell them, and that’s perfectly fine with me.”

However, creating art was not always a relaxing exercise for Lis. When she began making art, she was meticulous. “I think when I started doing art, I was kind of a perfectionist about my pieces looking hyperrealistic. It ended up making my art not look good. When I look back at it, I think that it wasn’t good art. Doing ceramics and stained glass in middle and high school taught me to take color and shape to illustrate what I feel. It made my art a little more abstract. Now, I make my mountains, like the ones in my Arizona painting, a mush of color. I kind of left them like that and I was happy with how it turned out. It might not be something I usually do, but I’m satisfied with how it came out.”

Lis reflected on how her favorite pieces are not those that are the most technically proficient, but those that, like her Arizona mountains, capture fleeting feelings. In particular, she spoke about The Dance by Henri Matisse and how it informed her college artistic experience. “I use that painting to remind myself that all of us on this campus are in this together, literally and figuratively. I’ll find myself feeling self-conscious and then I look at that painting. It grounds me and makes me realize that, yeah, we’re all working towards similar goals at similar points in our lives. I like that painting as a reminder.”

Like Lis, my favorite painting has no overtly academic reason behind why I love it. I adore Hollyhocks by Frederick Carl Frieseke for the way it makes me feel. I found the painting when I was bored during AP U.S. History (I’m sorry, Mr. Zagari). I admire the American Impressionist movement, so I had a myriad of Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, and John Singer Sargent paintings saved. When I was scrolling one day, I came across Hollyhocks. Its sheer excess piqued my interest: every dot of hyper-pigmented color creates a maximalist haze of staccatoed brushstrokes. The subject gets completely engulfed by the flowers, effectively becoming a part of the hollyhocks and the surrounding chaotic environment. As Lis aptly mentioned, I also connect to my favorite piece on a more personal level, as I sometimes fear I come across as “too much.” Hollyhocks is a gentle reminder that being excessive can be beautiful in its own right. Maybe Hollyhocks is not going to be everyone’s favorite painting, but it’s mine, and that’s good enough. 

Funnily enough, Lis ended our interview on a similar thematic note, “At first, art was just what I saw and I wanted to make it look good to show my parents when it was done and for them to be proud of me. But now I just want to feel good while I’m painting it and enjoy the experience of painting instead of being stressed about how it looks and what they think of it.”

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