Welcome back to WorkSpace, a new series featuring an inside look at the places where local artists roll up their sleeves and take care of business. For each installment, I'll bring an interview with a local C-U artist, complete with photographs of their work, to showcase his or her craft and expertise.

Eli Craven was born in Idaho Falls, Idaho and currently lives and works in Champaign, Illinois where he is an MFA candidate at the University of Illinois. The act of looking and collecting plays a large part in his artistic practice. He works primarily in photography, sculpture, and collage, and creates installations that combine found materials with images and objects from his own personal history. In the work he tends to explore themes of desire, identity, death, and the erotic.

  • Art form: Photographer
  • Influences: Scout Niblett, White Fence, David Bowie, and Amen Dunes; George Bataille and Jean Baudrillard; Isa Genzken, Robert Heinecken, Maurizio Cattelan, Gabriel Orozco, Gabrielle Beveridge, Harold Diaz, Louis Reith, and Torbjørn Rødland.
  • Workspace: Large, bright, industrial. Provided by U of I MFA program.
  • Dream collaboration: Andreas Angelidakis from Athens Greece.
  • Current project: "Images of my parents and I combined with reflective metal sheets and perforated venting covers."
  • Reccommended movie: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
  • Favorite spot in C-U: I.D.E.A. Store and Art Theater Co-op.
  • Thoughts on art scene in C-U: "I think that it is difficult to sustain a consistent scene when the college brings in most of the local artists, then they move on."
  • Where to see his work: www.EliCraven.comThe Age of Collage 2, published by Gestalten, Krannert Art Museum

Smile Politely: When and how did you decide to become an artist?

Eli Craven: My father is an artist — a landscape painter — and I never thought I would be an artist, too. I took art classes in high school, but it was just to fill course electives. I never had the patience for drawing and painting. I bought my first camera after high school when I was 19 and I started taking pictures. I thought I wanted to be a commercial photographer, but I slowly started to hate taking pictures for people. I learned that I hated photography when I was forced to take pictures for someone else, so I stopped. 

For a number of years I was lost, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I was taking college courses just to feel a sense of accomplishment, or progression, but I hadn't declared a major. I decided to take a darkroom class at the university. I thought it would be fun. It was the first time I had heard people talk about photography as an art form and I instantly knew that this was what I wanted to do and I started studying art and photography.

SP: What or who are your influences?

Craven: I find influence in many places: music, movies, and books. Most of my work begins with looking for sources and digging through my collections of found photographs and objects. I regularly go to thrift stores and estate sales and I often develop ideas when I am looking through the discarded stuff. In the studio I listen to music when I work. Lately I have been listening to Scout Niblett, White Fence, David Bowie, and Amen Dunes. The writings of George Bataille and Jean Baudrillard have influenced a lot of my recent work. As for artists, Isa Genzken, Robert Heinecken, Maurizio Cattelan, and Gabriel Orozco have been big influences and lately I have been following the work of Gabrielle Beveridge, Harold Diaz, Louis Reith, and Torbjørn Rødland.

SP: Tell us about your workspace.

Craven: It is necessary for me to have a place I can go to. I need to separate my home space and work space. I feel when I step into the studio, I can really concentrate and it becomes a place of inspiration. Currently the MFA program at U of I provides my studio space and unfortunately, I will have to vacate this Spring. I'm not sure what I'll do for a space once that happens. I am scared, but transitions like this have changed my work in the past in a positive way. I look forward to discovering how I will get through this one.

SP: Who would you like to collaborate with and why?

Craven: I often collaborate with my wife, Maria Chavez. She is an architect and artist, and our collaborations were a big factor in my working becoming more sculptural. I enjoy collaborations that get me out of my comfort zone. Maria introduced me to the architect and artist Andreas Angelidakis from Athens Greece. I think his aesthetic is so new and refreshing. I would love to collaborate with someone like him, that would push me to make something different.

SP: Choose a piece of your artwork and explain it in detail.

Craven: My most recent project is titled "Naïve Objects". It is a body of work that started with my research into my relationship with objects, mirrors, and images and how they shaped my views and behavior. It consists of images of my parents and I combined with reflective metal sheets and perforated venting covers. I was exploring ideas of secrecy, voyeurism, and desire by obstructing and recreating the imagery with the reflective metals.

SP: What movie would you recommend to watch and why?

Craven: I watched A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night a while ago. I still think about it. It has been tagged as "The first Iranian vampire western." It is dark and strange. I highly recommend it.

SP: What is your favorite spot in C-U?

Craven: My favorite places in C-U are the I.D.E.A. Store, I spend a lot of time there searching for materials and sources. I also spend a lot of time at the Art Theater in Champaign. I think this community is really lucky to have both of these places.

SP: What do you think about the art scene in C-U?

Craven: The art scene in C-U seems like it is always changing dependent on the students at UIUC. I suppose I could be seeing it from the specific point of view of an MFA student, but there appears to be a division between the university population and the community. I think that it is difficult to sustain a consistent scene when the college brings in most of the local artists, then they move on. I appreciate organizations like 40North, Smile Politely, and the Boneyard Arts Festival. They really are doing all of the work to connect the community.

SP: Where, when and how can we see your work?

Craven: My MFA thesis exhibition is coming up at the Krannert Art Museum. The opening reception is April 9th. Also, my work has been included in the recently released book The Age of Collage 2, published by Gestalten, and you can see more on my website www.EliCraven.com.

About Jimena

Jimena is a photographer at Smile Politely. Find more of her work and photographs online: