how i get it done

How I Get It Done: Elise Peterson on Making Art and Wanting to Be Oprah

Illustration: Rebecca Clarke

Elise Peterson is a 27-year-old artist, writer, former music editor for Solange’s music-and-retail site Saint Heron, and a longtime arts educator. She is the artist behind the captivating collage series Black Folk. She lives in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, with her girlfriend. She wakes up naturally at around 6:30 or 7 a.m., but no day is the same. Her email inbox has reached its storage limit and she tries not to give too many people her phone number. She is working on moving into the broadcast world while writing and making art on the side. Here’s how she gets it all done:

On the hectic excitement of covering the conventions for the first time:
I was doing on-camera work for this new political series Lifetime is doing. And everything is very new, so no one’s quite sure how things are supposed to look or how things are supposed to work. And I brought a ton of outfits and then of course production is like, “No, we want you to wear the same outfit every day.” So my mornings consisted of washing my shirt, figuring out a cleaning system in my hotel room.

So I’m meeting with the production team, a sound guy, a videographer, going over last-minute changes to the script. For the most part, I couldn’t use cue cards. And then just hopping in a van with my team and riding around downtown Cleveland getting stuck in weird traffic. And then of course trying to find the most bizarre people to talk to, which is a little bit scary in Cleveland. I mean, it’s an open-carry state. So people were walking around with rifles, and I was trying to navigate all of that. And then at the same time I was in an interview process for a commercial on creatives. I had to try to organize a Skype call in the back of a van on the way to another location, trying to be as candid as possible when I’m in a van full of strangers, especially when I was talking about a lot of the sex writing that I was doing. That was really draining and exhausting. And then we ran into Don King. I don’t think you can ever prepare yourself for that.

On changing and shifting career aspirations:
I literally always wanted to be Oprah; that’s what I thought I was going to do from the very beginning: work as a news anchor. And then at a certain point in college I got tattoos and I was “alternative” or whatever. I was like, “No one’s going to put me on the morning news.” I studied broadcast journalism initially when I got to Howard. There’s something that’s very electric about being in person and talking to someone and not being able to go back and edit.

When I find something I’m passionate about, I sort of throw myself into it wholeheartedly. And things either work out or they don’t. I feel like I’m pretty good at knowing when something has run its course. I have always worked in education as a teacher in some capacity, and I started working in vintage clothing and managing a bunch of stores in D.C. Then I worked as a vegan sous-chef. I bounced around a lot. But they all kind of make sense now, looking back. Because they all were in teaching, or creative, or helping to educate myself or someone else or both. But writing has always been a constant, education had always been a constant in my life.

When I was working at Swagger New York I refound my love for writing., which translated into work for Saint Heron and also meeting a lot of female mentors who helped to guide me. Which is how I ended up getting into graphic design and digital art, through a mentor who went to Parsons and recommended the graphic-design program there.

On managing an unpredictable schedule:
Every day work-wise is different for me, so I try to maintain some semblance of a routine, in terms of working out and what I eat and spending time with my girlfriend. I’m kind of a morning person. I go to sleep early and I wake up at probably 7 or so.

I wake up naturally. I don’t like setting alarms, it’s very stressful. I was hitting yoga very heavily for a few weeks, and now I’ve gotten more into running and riding my bike. So yesterday my friend and I met up and we ran in Fort Greene and we did calisthenics and stuff like that. And then I made brunch for her. I really, really. really love cooking and doing domestic stuff. I like eating and working out, and then everything else is kind of a toss-up.

On how the hustle can push you to do things you love:
There were many times where I thought I made a mistake not finishing school. But I also really trusted my gut. I took a job as a secretary at a school. It was my friend’s school and she wanted me to help her out. And I was like, “Okay, maybe this is the break that I need. Maybe I should take the salary, take these benefits, and then I’ll have the money to be able to do all the stuff I felt like I couldn’t do because I didn’t have the money to create.” And then I took the job and it was probably the most unhappy that I’ve ever been. I had zero time to do the things that I loved and I was surrounded by people who were not like-minded. So it was extremely frustrating for me. I was like, “Oh my God, I’m one of those people who is like, ‘I can’t wait till the weekend.’” But that is how I started my Black Folk collage series; I made all the work at my desk instead of doing all the silly work I was supposed to be doing.

On learning how to survive in New York on less than $300 dollars a month:
You don’t survive. I learned that really fast. I had no idea that weekly MetroCards existed. So I was putting money on my card all the time, and I called my friend crying, like, “How do people live here? I can’t even get to work. I literally don’t have $2.75 to get to work.” And he was like, “Are you buying a weekly?” I had two roommates, who are both now very successful in their own right. But we all were super-poor and living in this apartment in Bed-Stuy, and we would eat grilled cheese on a croissant with pepper-jack cheese and chili peppers and the bodega man would only charge us like two dollars. And that’s what we ate all the time. Or I would just eat food at the person’s house that I would babysit at.

Those are the moments I allowed myself to be proud of myself. Because it’s a very tangible, visceral reaction that I have to those memories, and even though I still have struggles today, of course, they are nowhere near that.

On the idea of “making it”:
There is way more to come. I have so many more personal and professional goals that I’m nowhere near. But I don’t feel like I’m hopping around to a bunch of different stuff now. It feels like the work that I’m taking on, I’m being very deliberate in making sure it’s all within the same vein. So I think I’m being a lot more deliberate in my choices, and setting myself up for long-term goals, for sure.

On the unforgettable value of faith:
I have faith in myself. I have faith in a higher power that I have a purpose on this Earth. And when I do the work that I do, it makes me feel really happy. I feel at home in front of the camera. I feel at home when I’m writing. I feel at home when I’m making art. Success doesn’t look the same for everyone. And I have to trust that I’m only 27, success is just going to look for me what it’s going to look like. And then maybe it’ll look a little different in five or ten years, but I think that I’m making the right choices now to achieve that.

On a valuable lesson about “having it all”:
Recently I went to the White House Summit on Women. Oprah and Michelle Obama were speaking on the topic of “having it all.” Michelle said, “You can have it all, but you can’t have it all at once.” I ditto that.

How One Artist and Educator Gets It All Done