Elizabeth Corkery is a 26-year-old artist from Sydney who is completing her Masters of Fine Arts at Cornell University in Ithaca — the very same campus where her Australian dad met her American mum three decades before. Elizabeth was recently awarded the John Hartell Graduate Award for Excellence in Studio Practice, which means she’s basically the dux of her class. The following is an edited Q&A from a Skype call with the artist at her studio.
Ed’s note: I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Elizabeth for three years. Not only do I consider her a dear friend, but I’m lucky enough to have visited her at Ithaca, purchased two of her beautiful works and I’ve consumed many of her incredible baking delights. Liz is probably the most driven person I know and a woman of endless talents.
How long have you been in the US and where do you call home?
I’ve been in the States a little over four years and I guess Ithaca is home at the moment, but Sydney still felt like home when I was visiting over the break.
With an American passport and your mum being American do you feel a strong affinity to the US?
I identify most strongly with Australia, especially not living there anymore. I’ve realised how different the school system is and the worldview that’s engendered through the many years of growing up somewhere. I always thought of Australia and the US as similar, so it was interesting having Graham [Elizabeth’s excellent Scottish boyfriend whom she met in Ithaca] visiting Australia recently because all he could see were these interesting differences in the architecture, the signage and turn of phrase. It was nice having an outsider reminding me that things are not exactly the same between the two places.
When did you first come to the States?
The first real trip I made to US as an adult was actually my ‘Schoolies’ trip [holiday upon finishing high school in Australia]. My parents thought New York might be safer than Surfers Paradise, so me and my best friend packed up and went to the City for two weeks. I got the bug then that I eventually wanted to come back.
This isn’t your first time studying here.
When I was at COFA (College of Fine Arts) in Sydney, I did an exchange semester at Penn State. COFA was like a small community within a big city, whereas I was in a big university in the middle of rural Pennsylvania. The best part about it was the short drive to New York City.
I moved to New York after I finished COFA. I was looking for a job in January 2009 when the Aussie dollar was at 60 cents and jobs in the art community were non-existent. I ended up finding work with a big advertising agency for two years and then I started the long process of applying to grad schools.
Tell us about the MFA program at Cornell.
By in large, Visual Arts MFAs are about two years. There are a handful of programs in the States where it’s three years, but Cornell is two years and there are six people in each year; 12 of us in total. A lot of the prestigious schools can be upwards of $45,000 a year, which is pretty crazy when you think about launching an art career with that sort of debt looming over you. We’re the final year of MFA at Cornell that’s gone through on full tuition coverage, so that was a big influence. I also work as a Teaching Assistant so I actually get a monthly stipend on top of my tuition being paid. The stars sort of aligned and I was offered a spot.
Your parents met studying at Cornell too, right?
My dad came from Australia and my mum was already studying in the US and they met while they were at Cornell.
What inspired your dad to study at Cornell?
He started a Landscape Masters at Melbourne uni and then his best friend actually had come to Cornell to do his PhD. Dad was meant to go to a school in North Carolina, but came to visit Rod in Ithaca. When he was flying over it happened to be a beautiful fall day and he saw the fall colors and decided that he would just set up and go to school there instead. My mum had already been there for a year, as she was doing a combined Masters, so that’s where it all began!
How has your work changed over the past 18 months?
My work has become more ambitious because of the facilities that I’ve afforded while I’m here and I try to make the most of using all of the equipment that I may not have access to later. Making my art practice my full time focus and bringing back the discussion and critique to my work has been hugely beneficial and there has never been a time where I’ve spent this much time making work.
Tell us about your final exhibition in April.
Each of the second year graduating MFAs have a solo show with an exhibit in one of the four galleries on campus. All of the pieces will be made in the coming three month period and we also submit an artist’s statement. In the first week of May we also have a group show in New York where the first and second year students show together. It’s nice for the few of us that have lived in the city previously to have friends come and see our stuff. It can feel quite isolated upstate, so to have that broader audience is really nice.
What part of the art making process do you enjoy the most?
I can’t deny the best bit is when it works. When you put it up and something happens. I remember when I was installing the Versailles piece last year. I was only halfway through getting everything up and I started feeling sick to my stomach because it was just looking so horrifically tacky. It just looked like the backdrop to some bad prom. It didn’t look like anything until everything was up and then it became something else. That was such a gratifying moment and it’s one that encourages you to try to strive for more of those moments and hopefully, there are more of them to come.
I love the process as well. I largely work in screen printing which is so process driven, so you really kind of go through this step by step process of generating your imagery and the act of actually printing one colour at a time on top of each other. I love the precision and the activity of putting together the images.
How is studying in the US different to Australia?
It’s so different because in Australia kids still have jobs and uni is almost like another kind of part time job that you drop-in on. Whereas here, I’m in the studio all day and everyday, weekends don’t really mean anything, it’s just two more days where you’re working and making. It doesn’t ever feel like a drain or a chore or a job, it’s turning it into a way of life, which is a best case scenario. I’d like to be able to continue that kind of commitment and work ethic once I graduate. Whether or not it will be sustainable, in addition to needing to find work that pays me, but this has taught me what a practice feels like.
Advice for someone thinking of studying in the States?
Being able to visit places because I already lived here was helpful. I would go and visit schools and at some places I just couldn’t picture myself there. You’ve got to go with your gut a little bit in terms of what feels right and where you can see yourself living. I visited a very famous art school in Chicago, the School of the Art Institute, but it just didn’t feel like the right fit for me and I didn’t apply there. Applications are expensive too, so you don’t want to throw out 25 of them and hope that one sticks. It’s worthwhile really investigating which places are right for you and then only have a handful to do, being more selective about it is helpful.
Get a second opinion on all of your cover letters and written statements. Americans are wonderful at talking about themselves and you’re brought up to not big note yourself, or to have a bit of humility. If you’re competing with people that have no qualms about telling people everything that they’re amazing at, it’s good to have someone help you beef up your written statements and cover letters. That was an interesting cultural discovery that I made early on.
Top 3 galleries to visit in New York:
There’s nothing like the concentration of world class galleries like there is in Chelsea.
Casey Kaplan who shows Matthew Brannon who is a wonderful letterpress and screenprint artist and a another British guy Liam Gillick. Petzel show some really great work. Anton Kern show Jim Lambie and have great photographers as well.