The Stuff That Nightmares Are Made Of - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Stuff That Nightmares Are Made Of

The Stuff That Nightmares Are Made Of

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because exorcising demons by sculpting them seems to make sense to us.

By Eugene S. Robinson

First there was — because at the base of any good creation non-myth, there always is — a crazy aunt. Not the kind of crazy that gets Child Protective Services in the mix, but Los Angeles artist Elizabeth McGrath’s aunt’s ardor for all things artistic clearly trumped her sense of proportion when it came to what 7-year-olds should be doing with their time.

“She once drove us out to the woods in the middle of the night with her new convertible Mercedes,” says the diminutive McGrath from her L.A. studio as she hustles between taking care of her kid and getting ready for her next show. “And with the headlights pointed toward the trees, she gave us some clippers and wanted us to fill her backseats with pine furs to put in all the window sills in her restaurant. It was daylight by the time we were done, and we had rashes all over our arms and face for the next week.” While her sister hated it (McGrath is the eldest of three sisters), McGrath had fallen deeply and notably in love with what she hadn’t even started calling art yet.

Between her aunt’s two restaurants and about 200 tables to work with, McGrath was pressed into service doing everything from flower arrangements to dressing the taxidermied animals, building a leprechaun graveyard in their side gardens, sign painting and filling the custom-made animal-cracker boxes with their custom-made animal cookies and making sure the animals weren’t humping (the chefs hated making them, hence this sex act of rebellion). “She expected us to do a professional job,” McGrath says. And they did. Right up until punk rock and immigrant life collided.

A typically rebellious 12-year-old, McGrath, whose mother was an immigrant from Singapore, started sporting a Mohawk and acting out. For her trouble, McGrath was tricked into driving out to the desert with them one day, supposedly to the zoo, only to be locked up at a religious school that the FBI later shut down for being a cult and treating the kids there the way cults do: badly. McGrath was locked up for her first 18 hours there in the GR Room — the Get-Right Room — being read the Bible. At top volume. Until she gave in. 

“It really broke my childhood,” McGrath says, “and ended my formal education, because the school was uncredited, so it left me a seventh-grade dropout.” Eventually getting away, McGrath left home at 15 and found herself doing what she had always done, making art, with an extra: Punk rock had made it semi-profitable. She did things like airbrushing T-shirts, glass engraving, designing chalkboards, publishing and singing — a magazine called Censor This and a band called Tongue — window displays, custom invitations, fliers and crazy shit like walking horses over at the racetrack. McGrath started knowing and getting known by people who were doing the same sort of stuff, specifically the folks who started Juxtapoz magazine, the edge art journal of note. Not only did they start buying her stuff — they started having her do stuff for them, turning Popsicle sticks into wooden floors and using scraps on hand to design miniatures and different kinds of diorama sets. 

“I know everybody uses words like creepy or dark to describe her work,” says set designer and creator of movie monsters Scott Bryan. “But I think it’s religion like she was exposed to it that frames the backbone of her work. And yeah, stuff like that is sometimes creepy and dark.”

“I don’t think of myself as creepy,” McGrath says, “but I make stuff because it haunts me and I have to get it out of my brain.” With a show coming up at the Corey Helford Gallery this fall, a toy line with Toy Art Gallery and a print with Aardvark Printing Press and Bert Green Fine Arts, she’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so. “I don’t have any formula for how or when it happens, so when I get inspiration I have to ride it out and never leave its side. Eat with it. Sleep with it.”

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories