In the late 19th century, Southern California attracted misfits, idealists, and entrepreneurs with few ties to anyone or anything. Swamis, spiritualists, and other self-proclaimed religious authorities quickly made their way out West to forge new faiths. Independent book publishers, motivational speakers, and metaphysical-minded artists and writers then became part of the Los Angeles landscape. From yogis, to psychics, to witches, City of the Seekers examines how creative freedom enables LA-based artists to make spiritual work as part of their practices.
When artist Elena Stonaker was living in New York, she looked in the mirror one cold February day and saw that she was turning gray, realizing at the same time, her feet were constantly freezing. Three years ago, she decided to pack up her station wagon and drive out west for some much-needed sun.
By all accounts, it seems to have been the right decision for an artist who describes her work as a series of "primal and whimsical explorations of the ladders and portals that link the physical and spiritual realms." Not identifying with any specific style of art, Stonaker says her practice is constantly evolving as she explores new mediums, from watercolor and acrylic paint, to performance art, to both hard and soft sculpture, to animation and video.
Ojai Eye, 2014, beaded tapestry, 20"x24"
"It's amazing how you can think you have really created a certain visual voice, and then you try to express it in a new medium, and a completely new and foreign language emerges. It's a great challenge, sometimes frustrating, but mostly exciting—a great opportunity to evolve," she observes. "Sometimes the work is based on whatever medium I feel like exploring. Sometimes I choose a medium that I feel will best express what wants to be said. I try to remain agile, to avoid expectations of how any piece will turn out. In the end, I'm the vessel for whatever wants to be given form."
Stonaker claims that some of her pieces take months, while others take as few as 15 minutes, but however long the process, it's almost always organic. She often feels particularly compelled to take completed pieces and alter them through deconstruction, reconstruction, addition, and subtraction—sometimes for years at a time. "There is a constant balancing act of being precious, and total release of preciousness," she declares. "I like to play in the cycle of creation and destruction."
The artist is also particularly interested in the cultural practice of storytelling and the inheritance of old customs, as well as the reproduction by natural processes of new myths in the modern world. Old or new, she believes our narratives ultimately inform the way we view the world.
"As artists, we generally have the capacity to see possibilities that may seem impossible or invisible to others," she explains. "By expressing the possibility of limitlessness, we can physically manifest it. It is our job to fuse timeless symbols with new stories and weave them into the living myth that will carry us through to the world we dream of."
Likewise, Stonaker is curious about investigating and producing her own set of myths in order to more easily traverse the complexities of living, while also developing a more profound way of life. "[My] work explores being a spirit in a physical body, the paradoxes of existence, relationships to nature and to spirit. It is a celebration of femininity in relationship to masculinity, of unearthing layers of shadow and sexuality. I build homes and bodies for spirits to live in."
In terms of her own creative and spiritual philosophies, Stonaker believes in the infinite nature of experience, which yields the notion of living in the "now" and trusting that whatever the present holds, each moment is fated to be.
"I celebrate paradox and natural cycles: a bee getting off in the pollen of a fleshy peach blossom, a buzzard gutting the corpse of a deer by the side of the road," she expresses. "I love engaging in ritual and ceremony, but try to avoid the boxes of dogma, which are dangerous agents for creating separation and fear. I pick and choose from universal teachings. I like to examine the interception and parallels between living out personal and universal truths."
Gus's Armor, 2014, beaded and embroidered denim Levi's jacket
Since arriving to Los Angeles, Stonaker admits that she finds its host of contradictions equally bewildering and inspiring. "There is a disorienting paradox of shallowness and depth, but there is a mysterious magnetism that has pulled in an incredible community of artists and visionaries whom I feel inspired [by] and intertwined with. What's most obvious to me is how miraculously the natural world coexists with the concrete urban sprawl: the hummingbird that flies in and out of my window, the coyote running down Sunset Boulevard, the pomegranate and orange trees littering the rough and grimy sidewalk with perfect fruits. The saturation of spiritual practice and acceptance here certainly crosses into strange territories as it is monetized and marketed, but below the surface there are deep pockets of authenticity and real magic. Because people are generally very open here, it provides a safe haven to explore and create work that may be trivialized in other places."
Speaking of nature, Stonaker asserts that her relationship to it is an especially potent inspiration for her own life and work. "I am so fascinated and turned on by plants," she reveals. "They are so, so sensual: the shapes, colors, smells, and textures. They are so delicate yet so hardy, so ingeniously evolved. We have so much to learn from plants. I often wonder if it is even worth it to make art work when I feel like nothing I could possibly make is as incredible as any flower or tree."