She’s All That: Meet Elise Peterson

It’s Women’s History Month, and we’re picking the brains of bold, powerful women who represent our future. Today, meet the definition of “total inspiration,” Elise Peterson.

Throughout time, we’ve counted on a small number of community leaders to push things forward, break perceptions, and bring change. And ladies, the past two years have been pivotal. We’ve seen–and struggled with, and spoken out against, and called shit out on–issues that have been pressing, and still continue to press, womenkind. It’s change that we want to champion throughout this month, while celebrating those who are propelling us into a far better future. So throughout March, we are focusing what matters to us most, right now: groundbreaking, culture-shifting, era-defying, and straight up goals women.

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By Brittany Natale

Photos by Maya Fuhr

The two words that came to mind when I was first introduced to Elise Peterson and her work was “total inspiration”. The NYC-based writer, visual artist, and educator was the founding Music Editor of Solange’s Saint Heron, and is currently the host of Mane, an online web series (via NowThis) that explores the intersection of hair and culture. She has also written for a number of publications, including Adult, ELLE, and Lenny Letter, and has recently released a children’s book in collaboration with author Juniper Fitzgerald. Both striking and thought-evoking, Elise’s work aims to be accessible while also exploring identity and sexuality as it relates to marginalized communities. She is the definition of a multi-hyphenate maven.

We spoke to Elise about her recently released book, How Mamas Love their Babies, working across many different mediums, and the power of transforming murky moments into rich content.

How did you first get interested in art-making and writing?

I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t interested in making art or writing. In fact, an artist was the first thing I said I wanted to be when I grew up. Once I took the leap to move to New York about six years ago I took a writing internship which evolved into an on-again off-again freelance writing affair. I started taking visual art more seriously after working enough shit jobs. I decided to take what I learned in the graphic design program at Parsons [School of Design], and put it to good use.

“Untold stories compel me to make work – usually the murkiest moments make for some of the richest content.”

Your work, ranging from collage to moving image, writing and beyond, is amazing and navigates the nuance of identity and sexuality as it relates to marginalized communities. What are some sources of inspiration for your work?

Untold stories compel me to make work. Stories of those around me, those I admire, those I’ve just met, and even parts of my own narrative – usually the murkiest moments make for some of the richest content. The parts of us that make us most human, vulnerable, and connected is what I like to explore. Especially the stories of Black people – storytelling is inherent to our culture. I look for new ways to explore that tradition.

So true – storytelling is so imperative and allows us to really connect with those around us. Why do you feel that it is important for people, women especially, to share their stories – trials, tribulations, and all – with the world?

I believe there is strength in vulnerability. There is nothing more vulnerable than the truth, but in that truth we found our humanity and the parts of self that connect us with others.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Having a 6-week old has grounded my days. He’s like a sieve and all the unimportant things fall away. If I’m not filming for Mane, the show I host on NowThis News, responding to emails, or occasional meetings, I make sure we spend time outside in between naps and other freelance work.

“The parts of us that make us most human, vulnerable, and connected is what I like to explore. Especially the stories of Black people – storytelling is inherent to our culture. I look for new ways to explore that tradition.”

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You recently collaborated with Juniper Fitzgerald on How Mamas Love Their Babies, a children’s book focused on the many various ways a mother provides for her children, from piloting planes, washing floors, and dancing at strip clubs. This is the first children’s book to depict a sex-worker parent. Can you tell us a little bit about how the book came about and the process of putting it together?

The book is published through the Feminist Press which is how Juniper, who authored the book, was connected with me. It’s been a childhood dream to write and illustrate a children’s book, so when I was approached with the project I was elated to contribute. It especially felt important because I believe narratives should be reflective of reality – having a parent who works in the sex industry is a true experience for so many families. We wanted to honor their truth alongside the various other ways mothers provide and love their children. As a collage artist, it was my intuition to use that medium to approach the work. All of the illustrations include archival images, 35mm photographs, either from my own childhood or that I’ve taken, and pastels.

Exactly! Creating this book is so important – it opens people up to other families’ perspectives. What do you feel are some of the biggest issues that mothers may face today?

I certainly can’t speak for all women, but for me, as a millennial mother, it’s finding the balance between my identity in my career, my identity as a mother and simply just honoring Elise.

Who or what are some of your biggest influences?

I deeply admire the trajectory of Faith Ringgold’s career. From sculpture work, to painting, performance art, and even children’s books, she’s limitless. I strive for limitlessness.

What impact do you hope to have on the world?

I can only wish my direct impact to be that my son finds joy in living in his purpose. For my community, for Black people, I hope for us to know true liberation.

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