June 18, 2016 Interviews
with the Educator, Writer, and Visual Artist in her bed-stuy home
Elise Peterson is simultaneously a writer, educator and visual artist. Originally from Georgia, she is deeply connected to her Southern roots, yet also finds an affirming sense of community through the friendships and sisterhood she’s forged living in New York. Peterson’s writing has been featured in Adult Mag, Elle, Lenny Letter and Nerve. She has also worked as the founding Music Editor at Saint Heron. Both a creator and a storyteller, her work aims to make space for conversations around identity, sexuality and the voices of contemporary black experiences. Her bold spirit and confidence radiates as she tells BGM about her transition into overcoming doubt, goal setting and growing into a woman.
Photography by Andre Gray
What are three things you love about yourself?
My tenacity, my ability to laugh at really uncomfortable situations, and my love for meeting new people.
Are these things you always loved about yourself or did you have to learn to love these things about yourself?
It’s not that I had to learn to love them. I think I had to recognize them in myself and see them as strengths. Maybe, really appreciating my ability to laugh in trying circumstances? There are things that I’ve always appreciated and learned to appreciate more about myself. I realized the values in those things, especially having tenacity. Some stuff just can’t be taught.
In an interview with StyleLikeU, you mentioned that you had to really push yourself in order to become comfortable with who you are. What are some of the obstacles that held you back from accepting yourself?
I think a lot of it came with age. Having faith in my abilities came with ultimately realizing I had to find a way to persevere no matter how challenging things may be. I had to really harness faith in myself. Also, I recognize that there’s something special I have to offer people, the world and my craft that no one else can offer. Self-doubting is just so unproductive. I don't really like anything to stand in the way of my goals, especially myself. I was the biggest thing standing in the way and still can be. I try to be very cognizant of accepting myself. Growing into a woman is exciting. Learning how to love yourself through everything, no matter what.
On Mental Health
How do you pull yourself out of really low moments?
You know, I’m an extremely emotional and emotionally intuitive person. I feel a lot even though I may not be necessarily on the up-side. I feel like I come off maybe a bit more together than that but I’m very affected by things. When I’m going through a low time I think it really, totally depends on what’s happening. Going home always helps; going home to see my family in DC is always really strengthening. If I can’t do that and I have to be a big girl and handle things alone, relying on the strength of the women I’ve met living in New York has been imperative to my emotional health. Being able to have women to use as a soundboard and just being in the company of people who understand you--that you feel safe with--is important. When that doesn’t work I think just keeping a balanced lifestyle like trying to exercise and eating well. Sometimes as much as I love art it can be a source of contention for me and why I’m having so much frustration and anxiety. I grew up in Georgia and I still have a Southern sentiment about me. So I appreciate nature, like trees and water running; and I pray because I have strong sense of faith. I pray, meditate, and hope it passes. And it always does.
So you don’t use art to get over your low moments? Is it a separate thing?
No, it’s totally a separate thing. Art is my craft. As artists or creatives we’re expected to be so inspired by things, create, and have art to be this fluid, intrinsic thing that happens. For me, my art is my business, so I’m very serious about it. I like to treat my work like a doctor treats his patients. It’s not the thing that relieves my stress, it’s something I have to do because it’s my call, so I have to respect it. It also can be a source of stress for me as well. So no, when I’m trying to relieve stress it has nothing to do with art. It’s totally about me wanting to center myself and disconnect all those things.
Can you tell me about one woman in particular that influenced you?
Miya Hirabayashi--she’s a graphic designer. I formed a relationship with her when I first moved here because I was nanny for and her family. As soon as I met her I knew she was awesome; she’s super creative and worked this at-home freelance lifestyle. She noticed that everyday I really loved making art with her kid. We would go to art museums everyday and do yoga together. She told me she thought I’d do well in a graphic design program and that I should apply to this graphic design program at Parsons New School of Design. I never ever thought I would be graphic designer. The idea of making art on the computer seemed kind of daunting and boring. But I started playing around with it and she started teaching me how to use Adobe photoshop & Illustrator. So, I applied to Parsons and end up getting a full scholarship for the program. I never would of applied had I not met her. I never thought it was something I was capable of or interested in. Even after I stopped working for her, I still spent time with her and her family. When stuff is hard in New York and it’s not easy always to talk to a girlfriend who’s also struggling, it’s nice to have women--older, more established women--who’ve been there and done that to say “girl you’re going to be fine.” Miya is really fantastic and an important factor in starting the self-belief in my art.
Are your collages a channel to connect with yourself?
Yes, that’s how the collages started to being with. They were a vessel of self-discovery, knowledge of Self, and educating myself on other prolific black figures. It’s the same idea of “teach the babies about us and they have something to strive towards.” The black man is the one who invented the cellphone; this is information you’re just not going to learn in school so I want to educate myself through the art. My art is very guided by intuition. I don't have to think as much or analyze as much as I do with my writing--I just do it. I don’t have all these ideas of challenging blackness or femininity. I’m just making art.
I know you write about your sexual experiences for Adult Mag. How did you stumble into writing about this area of your life?
Well, I knew Sarah Nicole Prickett who’s the Editor In Chief and Founder of Adult. I knew her socially in New York and she knew about my experiences as a dominatrix. When she started Adult she approached me about writing a column that focused on specific experiences of working in a dungeon. But even before then it was something I shyed away from. It’s always been something that is very much apart of me. I’m a very sexual being and I think that sex is the “great leveler”; it’s something that we all can identify with. As humans, it connects all of us and within that what I find fascinating is power dynamics. Within power dynamics we’re all seeking a sense of dominance or submission within our personal or professional relationships--whether they be romantic or otherwise. There’s always kind of a push or pull in terms of power dynamics, especially working as a dominatrix and seeing so many men who--on the surface--seem very much in power financially and socio-economically, but are thriving and yearning to be in situations where they feel--not disempowered--but accepting that there is power in submission as well. All of those things, I thought were really interesting. I kept a diary while I was dominatrix and I just had some wild crazy stories. They were always super fun stories to tell my friends at a bar and they’d be like, “Tell that story about that Jewish man!” And so I’m like okay (laughter). Also, I had a lot of hesitation--even while still feeling very sexually liberated--because of how I’d be perceived. I had a lot of older women and writers tell me, “Don’t write about sex, you’re going to pigeon-hole yourself when you’re 40. People are going to think you can’t do anything else.” But I knew it was important for me to do because I don't know anyone else who looks like me and writes about sex the way I do. So, when I started to get feedback from other black women saying “Thank you so much,” I knew I wasn't the only one. I knew I had to keep doing this.