WITH Elise Peterson
Elise Peterson wears many hats: video-series and podcast host, mom to Sargent, artist, illustrator, and writer. Regardless of genre or medium, Elise's work is grounded in an exploration of self. Most recently, her desire to look within and connect with others over this pursuit has manifested in a new podcast, "Cool Moms," which she co-hosts with Lizzy Opko.
We met Elise and her adorable son, Sargent, over snacks in Fort Greene Park, and we were struck by her quiet confidence and easy way about her. Read on as we speak with the talented Elise about career, motherhood, and making work as a multi-hyphenate artist.
Photographed by Caroline Tompkins
You’re an artist, writer, and the host of an online video series, MANE, and podcast, Cool Moms. You work across mediums but there’s a thread between all of your art, and that’s your commitment to exploring identity — could you tell us a bit more about how you’re using your current projects to approach this topic?
Oh, absolutely! Examining how we view and identify with self is the foundation of all of my work. That was the catalyst for starting the podcast “Cool Moms.” Throughout pregnancy, I tried to level with how I would maintain my identity as Elise while embracing my burgeoning identity as a mother, as Sargent’s mom. I found, in having candid conversation with moms and those without children, that’s what so many women worry about when deliberating on motherhood. On each episode, my co-host Lizzy Okpo and I get all up in other women’s business about how they continue to make their passions a priority. For myself and many women, honoring our passions is how we honor self before children.
In regard to my visual work, I love exploring cross-generational narratives by recording conversations and animating them with archival footage and 35mm photographs. These “video collages” are my most personal work. The work I’ll probably continue to develop for years to come. Aside from that, children’s literature has been a new endeavor, but a lifetime dream. I’ve illustrated two children’s books so far. How Mamas Love Their Babies is the first children’s book to depict a sex-worker parent. In January my second illustration, The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gasket, comes out. It’s based on the life of the author, Brontez Purnell, and shares the story of a young boy of a single mom and the world he creates with his little brother at night. There are many deeply personal elements to the illustration, like images of my estranged father who passed right before I began working on the project. The element of truth, the timelessness of truth, is what I’m constantly after in my work.
In a recent interview with Mother Mag, you said being a cool mom meant knowing how to nurture others and still prioritize yourself and your passions. What advice would you give other women trying to strike that balance?
That there won’t always be a balance. Accept that. Embrace the ways in which you are able to show up. Forgive yourself for the ways in which you can’t.
You’ve been vocal about sexuality, and I really admire your willingness to open up about your own experience. Why is it important that we have that dialogue?
Sex is such an important, healthy part of our lives and yet many times [due to] religion and certain societal implications it has become muddled with shame. To me, sex is the most intimate expression of love, care, passion. It can be incredibly healing in an ideal union. To find joy in sex, I had to get comfortable talking about it. I had to move through a lot of the hurt and trauma that sex can trigger in many of us. In order to do that — to get to the joy — we have to talk about it.
How would you describe your relationship to food? Has it evolved at all since becoming a mom?
I love food deeply, in the most primal, passionate way. I always have. Most of my nicknames growing up were food centric: “greedy gump,” “sticky bun,” “fat mama”… I could go on. My friends would joke, in all seriousness, that I always kept a sandwich in my bag. Since motherhood, I’m even more aware of what I put into my body, because I still breastfeed and he consumes everything I do. I want to look good and feel good. Food is the first step to both.
What do you like to cook and eat at home, when you have the time?
On a daily basis, I do things that are quick and nutritious. Lots of fruits; bread with butter and smoked salmon happens at home. Sargent’s high chair looks a lot like a charcuterie board and I love that. I usually snack on what’s leftover. When there’s time, I get so much joy out of roasting. Anything prepared in a cast-iron skillet is golden. Love on a plate is herb-roasted root vegetables and a yummy piece of seared fish in butter with a crispy skin. Give me crispy fish skin and I’ll love you forever.
An essential component of challenging yourself and experiencing growth is failure. Will you tell us about the last time you felt like you failed?
Wow! I feel like I fail often enough in my communication with those I’m closest with. This happens on a weekly, maybe even daily basis. I can be quick, sharp with my words. Although I typically don’t regret what I say, sometimes I’ve wished I had taken a beat to figure out the best way to deliver the message. So yeah, I’m working on that often. Being a better communicator, a better listener. I can fail at that a lot.
Who are the women you look up to? And what kind of woman do you want to be?
The first woman I looked to with wonder, with admiration, was my mother. As a new mom, I have an even deeper appreciation for her capacity for unwavering love. I hope my son can say the same for me one day.
Creatively, I had felt quite self conscious — until more recently — that being a multi-hyphenate was a hindrance rather than a gift. I’ve said this many times, because aside from admiring her, I’m manifesting our collaboration one day: Faith Ringgold’s trajectory in her career, her limitless approach to expression, from public works like her permanent mosaic Flying Home: Harlem Heroes and Heroines at the 125th St. station in Harlem — to children’s books, quilted works, and of course paintings — are such a powerful examination of storytelling. In following Ringgold's trajectory, incarnating the love of my mother and looking to my friends — the women in my tribe — I’m really blessed to have an abundance of women who show up in all the ways. That’s the kind of woman I want to be. A woman that knows how to selflessly show up for others, but most importantly, show up for herself unapologetically.