West Austin Studio Tour artist plays with light, nature and the cycles of life

There is an entire wall of green, dappled leaves in Elizabeth Chiles’ West Austin studio space — they’re two of her photos, blown up; the kind of art that transforms a room and brings the outside in.

No doubt, when the West Austin Studio Tour (WEST) gets underway this weekend, Chiles’ photographs will add some green to a few new homes on collectors’ walls.

Chiles (her last name has nothing to do with salsa; it rhymes with “smiles”) has been busy as a member of Austin’s photography community. She spent a stint working at Lora Reynolds Gallery, she now teaches studio art and theory at the University of Texas and she works as one-eleventh of the photo collective Lakes Were Rivers.

Ironically, all that time working on her art hasn’t left Chiles much time to sell much of it.

This year’s WEST, the second annul tour, will be Chiles’ first time showing at a studio tour. And even though she lives and works in what most know as West Austin, she’s having to borrow a friend’s Central Austin loft space for the tour: Her studio, it turns out, is a little too far west. (For WEST, Chiles will be showing at 2313 Shoal Creek Blvd.)

“I’m interested, obviously, in light,” Chiles says, pointing out one of the large leafy images.

It’s hard to tell whether the light is bouncing off a stream, or if it’s just the sun edging its way through layers of leaves. The details could keep your attention for hours.

“It’s sort of about that moment of presence and awakeness,” Chiles says. The moment when you feel caught by an image of intense beauty. It often feels all too fleeting, she says.

Chiles pulled out another photo — this one postcard-sized. It was a butterfly, suctioned onto a glassy swimming pool that’s sprinkled with leaves and spent pollen. There is a poignancy, when you look close, at the reflection of the clouds. The butterfly, for a second, seems to be floating amongst them.

But even then, the dead butterfly wasn’t quite as it seemed. “I took the picture,” Chiles says, “and then it flew away.”

These are some of the themes and metaphors that are often transfixed in Chiles’ photographs. The surprising movement of nature, the death and birth cycle of plants and ecosystems.

“Even as things are blooming, they are dying,” she says, as we examine two very different forest scenes. In one, nature is absolutely teeming with life — several species of flowers, the light green of new growth. Billions of cells are bursting in a tiny square foot.

But another image shows a forest in the midst of decay and awaiting renewal. Crusty bark and dead stalks mingle with immature new trees.

As Chiles explains, part of her interest lies in things “that are not working,” that “are falling away.” And the metaphor extends to the artist as well. “Every single photograph comes from a person,” she says. And “even an eternal optimist goes through a season of darkness.”

Chiles will show her work in several different media for WEST. One of the wall-sized photographs, a bright picture of leaves taken at Lady Bird Lake, will be turned into an even bigger lightbox. Its slightly darker neighbor will become a slightly smaller lightbox.

Then there are her collages, a new part of Chiles’ output. In one, an image of grasses is flecked with yellow stalks popping out of the picture and onto the matte. In others it can be hard to distinguish between the collage and the photo.

The collage, Chiles explains, is a way to show “the expressions of energy in nature.”

“For me, they’re kind of celebratory.”

She’s trying to draw out the natural world, and show it in, as she describes it, a sort of “Alice in Wonderland” approach: Fast moving, and overwhelming, instead of its normal gradual pace.

“(It’s) the animated nature of the world. It’s actually living!”

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