Over the past five years, Elsa Stadler has been quietly making a name for herself as one of South Africa’s most interesting up-and-coming abstract artists. With a love of colour and shape that translates flawlessly into her work, Elsa’s paintings seem filled with youth and energy. Which is why it might come as a surprise that, unlike her ‘ones-to-watch’ contemporaries, she’s already at the later stages of life. ‘I had the marriage and the kids, and I even have a few grandchildren, so I’m not exactly a youngster!’ she laughs. However, her age definitely isn’t holding her back. Since she decided to go back to her real love of art half a decade ago, she’s gone from strength to strength … and October last year marked her first solo exhibition. ‘It was a huge learning experience. I’d done quite a number of collaborations and group exhibitions in the past, but having the challenge of working consistently to fill a space alone is a whole new world.’
Challenging though it might have been, there’s no denying the growing success of Elsa’s incredible work – work she feels is driven internally above everything else. ‘People seem to think artists have to be in a certain mood or be inspired in a moment to create art. But I always say inspiration is overrated! In many ways, being an artist is a job like any other. You need to diligently get up in the morning and just do it, and plan from day to day what your deadlines are and what your next project will be.
‘I mostly look inside myself for inspiration. My work is abstract. I don’t work from photo references, and I really let the paint lead me a lot of the time. I might start with one idea, then I really just follow the flow of the paint – it almost decides for you where it’s going to go. The paint and my emotions are my inspiration.
‘It’s also inspirational to be in this world of greatly talented artists. I have to mention South African artist Christo Coetzee … having seen his recent retrospective exhibition at the Standard Bank gallery, I realise he must be the most underrated SA artist ever. He was an ‘avant-garde’ artist and way ahead of his time!’
While Elsa is carving a clear path for herself in the art world today, it’s a road that hasn’t always been smooth or easy. ‘I’ve really had a sporadic journey with art. I loved it from a young age, but my training as an artist only began while I was living in New York and Chicago in the late 80s, when I trained as a watercolourist. When we came back to South Africa, I sold my artworks at festivals and markets, but I took a break because I was going through a divorce. Life’s like that sometimes – it gets in the way and you end up on a path you never would have imagined. But I always knew I’d come back to it. Along the way there have been some interesting moments. For example, in my quest to always innovate and experiment with new methods and materials, I did one large painting that was physically very challenging – for lack of a big enough table, I had to crouch on my living room floor for the best part of a month to complete it! It features blue crane birds and quiver trees against a backdrop of an enormous sun, and it’s painted on transparent plastic sheeting so when it’s displayed against the light it resembles stained glass.’
When she did come back to art she felt it was the right time. ‘As a mother of four, and with jobs in a few different areas, this was the first period in a long while that I’d had some time on my hands!,’ she says, laughing. ‘It wasn’t easy – the market had changed, and there were so many more artists than before. Our country has so many talented people, visual artists specifically, yet we also have a very small market of people who can afford, and want, to buy art. But I feel it’s the right time for me. I’m definitely in a more mature stage of my career as an artist, but I do wish I hadn’t waited so long to get here.’
In fact, not being afraid to just start is the biggest gift she wishes she could bestow on other potential artists. ‘I carry the flag for late starters!’
Going forward, Elsa has no plans to slow down. Now she’s started, in fact, it almost seems as if she’s unstoppable. ‘I do believe you don’t have to do the same thing over and over – I’ve found that I’ve grown by experimenting and innovating as an artist and as a person. Mindfulness is such a commonly used word nowadays, but I genuinely believe it actually works. If you work on being more focused in your mind and visualising every day as it comes, you’ll see the difference in your work and in yourself. I’m always working on constantly improving, and I’ll never stop doing that, no matter my age.’