Artist in the Elevator: The Sacred Art of Making While Moving

By Tessa Davidson

Tessa facing us in elevatorOne September morning, I donned a white Tyvec hazmat suit and stepped into an elevator, carrying a portable easel, paint, palette, stool, and several wooden panels attached to a board. As the elevator began to move and strangers poured in, I could feel the tension in their bewildered stares. “Could I ask what you’re doing?” someone gawked, watching me struggle to set up my easel. “Oh… I’m just setting up my equipment,” I managed, becoming even more aware of how awkward I looked. “I’ll be painting in here today.”

I spent the next eight hours inside the elevator—painting the views from my single vantage point of the various floors, one panel per floor. As the doors opened and passengers entered, I caught small glimpses of what was on the other side of the door and tried, as the doors closed, to paint the fleeting impressions of what I’d seen.

The stuffy studio-in-transit certainly presented its challenges. The constant, unpredictable jerks of the elevator made it difficult to keep a steady painting hand, and I failed to bring medicine for the motion sickness. I also hadn’t braced myself for the social anxiety and continual barrage of questions. “So…why are you doing this?” I must have given the project “elevator pitch” a thousand times.

Tessa in elevatorThe project series, eventually titled Common Ground, resulted in seven different 8-hour performance sessions documenting various public elevators in Little Rock, Arkansas. Each session was filmed and recorded, along with transcripts documenting the extended conversations with passengers. The project’s installation includes time-lapse videos of the elevator movements and passenger interaction, large portraits painted from video footage, sound, photographs, and a selection of small panels that were painted on site, recording the impressions of each floor.

Several of the painted panels from the sessions will be included in the upcoming exhibition at ARE WE THERE YET. When I learned of the juried exhibition and read the descriptive prompt, I was immediately struck by its connection to my project. The theme’s question naturally evokes the concept of “journey” and the artist’s role within that journey. After spending 56 hours working and traveling in elevators, this had certainly been a concept that provoked constant reflection. In fact, the question “Are We There Yet?” had permeated my thoughts throughout each performance session; it’s a question all artists raise (in some form or another) during every artistic endeavor. The question indicates a longing for a destination and the hope for completion and rest. But do artists ever reach such a state?

Many artists identify with the sentiment popularly credited to Leonardo da Vinci: “A work of art is never finished, only abandoned.” It is difficult to experience the satisfaction of resolution when creating something that exists in a continuum. The painted panels included in the upcoming exhibit manifest this unfinished state. Because visual information for these panels was dependent on passenger activity and interaction during each session, the impressions on the panels remain at various stages of development. In a way, the unresolved panels echo every artist’s ongoing creative journey and relentless attempts to transmit ideas which slip beyond one’s present, material container.

Asian couple on elevatorNot only is the artist’s creative work in constant flux, so is the audience. Pluralism and social media have radically expanded the artist’s viewership. My experiences in the elevator reminded me of this cultural shift and highlighted the diverse, ever-changing space in which one’s work is constantly viewed and encountered.

Public elevators have a unique way of bringing together strangers from all walks of life. In our age of individualism, people are fractured from one another. We find ourselves constantly moving in different directions with few universal touchstones to unite our disseminating culture. Elevators may be one of the remaining spaces in public life that create divergent public interaction. In an elevator, the young, old, rich, poor, and racially diverse all share the common ground of the elevator floor. It is a shifting and unsteady ground, but it is shared, nonetheless. I appreciated how this project propelled me to interact with a variety of people I may never have met otherwise. Art has an ability to break down barriers, and I was amazed and inspired by what passengers were willing to share with me in our brief encounters. Some conversations lasted longer than others, but for that moment in the elevator our paths crossed, and we were traveling on our divergent journeys together.

The performance sessions reminded me of the power of art and its function (like an elevator) to bring people together and transport them to different places. Art’s greatest force is its ability to point beyond itself—its ability to transcend. As artists of faith, we are called to create signposts that emit “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited” (C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 31). In a way, the elevator performances symbolize the prophetic role of the artist of faith. We plant ourselves in the diversity of public space and use our gift to provide glimpses of that which is beyond, but not yet fully experienced.

An important concept this project continues to reveal is my blatant need to surrender control. As an artist (and human being), I am constantly chasing after desired outcomes in a controlled environment. I want to be the one to push the buttons—it’s my inherent defense to the uncertainty that lies ahead. But the more I create, the more I discover how the creative process exists in tension with this notion. There are things that I cannot control, and I need to surrender to the process and yield myself to the journey. Maybe one could go so far to say that to create is to surrender.

As an artist of faith, I am an odd sojourner dressed in white. Surrendering to His process, I use my limited interactions to encourage and love the people I briefly encounter. I use my limited tools and humbly create broken glimpses of what is beyond and that which I know in-part. I cannot passively bide my time because I know the journey is important. Despite the bumps along the way, I must continue to pick up my brush and strive to be faithful, wherever He leads me. I place my hope and trust in the firm foundation of my Savior, knowing that life’s journey is unpredictable and ever-changing—and certainly has its ups and downs.

elevator panels



Tessa Davidson is a multi-media artist working outside of Little Rock, Arkansas. Tessa earned her M.F.A. from the New Hampshire Institute of Art in 2018 and holds a s a M.Ed. in Secondary Education and a M.A. in Art History. Tessa currently teaches as an adjunct art professor at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, and her work has been exhibited internationally. To see what Tessa is up to now, please click here.

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