Social Update: Elizabeth Hazan and Art in the Mainstream News

Elizabeth Hazan stands in front of a recent painting of hers in her studio in Brooklyn, New York. 

Elizabeth Hazan stands in front of a recent painting of hers in her studio in Brooklyn, New York. 

Art can be defined as the simple usage of a brush on canvas, paint to paper, and nothing more -  merely an abstract representation of a singular person’s thoughts at a particular point in time. Or, it can be defined as something much more.

Art can be defined as a process - a process in which an artist is influenced by the everyday occurrences around them. This includes the people they interact with, the advertisements and media they see, and the way in which the community they live in works. All of these aspects of an artist’s life, like how they view the world and how they conceptualize society and its workings, are important to the process of the creation of a piece of art.

Brooklyn-based artist Elizabeth Hazan doesn’t tackle social issues with her art, but she does find herself seeing that there is more to her art than she originally intended there to be. She originally painted like any other artist - using a canvas, easel and her necessary paints and brushes. She realized however, that she needed a change of perspective.

“I was painting more geometrically and I was painting on the floor and I think it really started with me looking down and then forms started to suggest land masses. Then I went and looked for things,” said Hazan. She found herself drawn to old city maps that were depicted from an aerial view. As she changed her own style of painting and began looking down at her work, she also changed her source material.

“If I use a map then I have some of the forms from the map that will guide some of the shapes,” said Hazan. However, the map only serves as the initial spark of inspirations that she needs to begin a piece. “I really try to respond to what’s happening and I often think about, at least with the way I paint, about the butterfly effect.”

Paintings by Elizabeth Hazan hang and lean on the walls in her Brooklyn-based studio. Hazen uses old city maps as influence for her paintings. 

Paintings by Elizabeth Hazan hang and lean on the walls in her Brooklyn-based studio. Hazen uses old city maps as influence for her paintings. 

This idea of possibilities not followed is important to Hazen as she makes decisions regarding her paintings. “You make a decision and then you respond. Then you are so aware of roads not taken - if something was blue instead of orange, you would be responding to it in a whole new way,” she said. “As you work, these things take on all these shifting lost possibilities. I think about that a lot, about where the painting could have gone.” 

Hazan grew up surrounded by art throughout her childhood in New York. Her mom, Jane Freilicher, was a well-known painter. Freilicher was known for her paintings of scenes outside her Greenwich Village apartment or the big grassy fields of Long Island. Elizabeth grew up in an environment of art, enabling her to step into a life of painting. She grew up understanding “what it took to be an artist, and what it smelled like.” While she spent time in both her mom and William de Kooning’s studios among others, Hazan did point out that her parents rarely actually spoke about art with each other. “They would talk about movies and books and its more that you’re just steeped in art. You’re looking at things all the time. My mother’s work and other people’s work around the house,” Hazan said.

While art doesn’t normally find its way into mainstream news, the recent controversy over a painting at the Whitney Biennial section of the Whitney Museum of American Art has kept the art world in the news over the last couple of weeks. The controversy was sparked by Open Casket, a painting of Emmett Till, an African-American who was killed by a group of men in 1955 in Alabama after flirting with a white woman. The painting, by Dana Schutz, has created a tense debate over the cultural appropriateness of Schutz’s painting - a white woman, depicting a poignant moment during the Civil Right’s Movement.

The paints and brushes Elizabeth Hazan uses for her work. 

The paints and brushes Elizabeth Hazan uses for her work. 

This debate has shined a light on art’s ability to create new conversations. Artists can arrive at new ideas about their work even after they finish a painting. For Elizabeth Hazan, this is been especially apparent in her work and how it has progressed as she has realized new things about her pieces. “I just feel like the bigger paintings that come from historical maps, that a lot of these are peninsulas or places very close to water,” she said. Some of the locations she’s used for her source material include places in Colombia, Puerto Rico, Texas, and New York. She’s found that many of the maps she uses are places that one-day may face the problem of flooding and eventually being submerged. As this issue becomes more pertinent for coastal cities like Miami, New Orleans and San Francisco, Hazen has been drawn to maps of cities like these.

While she isn’t necessarily painting these cities to raise awareness about the much broader problems of global warming and rising sea levels, Elizabeth is interested in painting more of these places because the structure and geography of them are exactly the kind of influence she wants for her work.

In addition to her paintings, which vary in size and color, she also collages and enjoys working with paper. “As far as collages go, I have done multiple versions of them and that’s perhaps because it really strikes me how many different ways there are to go. It's so clear to me that this could come out in a different way,” she said. At the moment, she is working with maps of New York City for a new, larger painting. “The next one that is in mind is from an old map of the earliest part of Manhattan and I have a smaller one of the southern tip of Manhattan,” she said.

A painting using an old city map of Manhattan by Elizabeth Hazen hangs in her studio. 

A painting using an old city map of Manhattan by Elizabeth Hazen hangs in her studio. 

Even if art isn’t intended to represent an issue or aspect of society, it often ends up reflecting something along those lines. Artists usually are influenced by the culture and society that they live in and because of this, their work becomes a snapshot of the influences in their lives. This is how, although Elizabeth wasn’t painting the cities she chose because of any broader issue like climate change, she did realize that her work could be connected to this world problem, even if she never had the intention.

Artists, through their work, capture moments around them or feelings they have because of outside forces and changes in the world. Elizabeth Hazan is going to continue working with maps and painting looking down with her new perspective. Other artists will strive to reflect important social and cultural issues in their work, because art is a medium that allows that creative expression of moments of importance in society - intended or not.