Fast forward to now and our pre-teen assertions were correct. Elise aka “Swopes so Dope” is still very cool and our former poms mate has an impressive CV to back it up.
Humility & The ArtistNaturally, having a blog I knew that she would be the perfect feature for Talks with Genius.
The day before I met up with Elise she had spoke in front of a crowd of hundreds aboard the Chicago Odyssey. Tickets to the event had sold out in a mere 30 seconds.
“I realized it’s not about trying to give people anything that you think they need. It’s about giving yourself your honesty and your experience.
Admittedly, she is nervous about getting in front of the crowd. She wonders to herself why everyone gathered to see her; seemingly unaware of the impact of her work. Elise couldn’t have predicted this moment five years ago.
As an artist, she has a unique platform to share her story with others. She mentions “I realized it’s not about trying to give people anything that you think they need. It’s about giving yourself your honesty and your experience”. She’s clearly doing that as evident by her Instagram comments.
It’s that humility that draws people to her endearing personality. With hundreds eagerly awaiting to hear her story, here was Elise still in awe of her own success.
I Don’t Give A…Elise and I, fittingly met up at the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s Ai Weiwei exhibit.
The images didn’t adhere to the photographer’s rule of thirds and there was an entire wall dedicated to the middle finger. Much like Elise, Ai Weiwei has a very “I don’t give a f*&k attitude”. His works were a fitting backdrop for our conversation.
And Then There was InstagramFor Elise, the digital space was not unfamiliar territory. She had been designing graphics since the age of 10 and had her own website by the age of 12. Later she was bit by the entrepreneurial bug and began selling MySpace layouts to her classmates
While it began with MySpace, in 2010 one platform would forever change her life and that was Instagram.
I joked with Elise saying she must have been the first Instagram user to get the name @swopes. Her friends even doubted if the platform would ever take off. Spoiler alert: they were very wrong.
Instagram became her creative medium of choice. With just her phone and a few apps, Elise became a master of manipulating photography and creating surreal images. In a short amount of time, her account amassed a massive following.
While her Instagram started to gain some traction, Elise was also juggling being a student at Columbia College of Chicago.
However, like most entrepreneurs there was a decision to make; the road most traveled or the road least traveled.
One Semester LeftAfter taking some time off, Elise returns to Columbia near the finish line with just one semester left. However, her work had given her the opportunity to travel to Japan. With just a few classes left, Elise thought it would be best to seize the opportunity and pursue her career without her degree in hand.
“I’d rather struggle. The struggle is a personal thing and I’m not going to be miserable on somebody else’s account”
Elise found herself at a crossroad that many entrepreneurs and creatives find themselves at. Be miserable or struggle. “I’d rather struggle. The struggle is a personal thing and I’m not going to be miserable on somebody else’s account” shares Elise
Elise had a talent that couldn’t be ignored even if her professors didn’t pay any mind. On a platform that glorifies monotonous images of fashion bloggers or pastel backgrounds, Elise’s magical imagery stands out from the millions of users. Hence why success was inevitable.
Nonsensical Signature EliseEvery artist has their signature, and expecting the unexpected has become synonymous with Elise. When describing her art she shares “it’s very surrealistic and it doesn’t make sense. And it’s not supposed to. Art isn’t supposed to make sense.” This is probably why safari animals roam a city of skyscrapers in her photographs.
Her enchanting photographs may showcase a cascading waterfall on Lake Shore Drive or a giraffe perched on top of a high-rise. It’s surreal and whimsical and it gives us just a peek inside her colorful mind.
When scrolling through her feed, you’ll be immersed into a highly editorial, self-described magazine world.
Be AuthenticWhile there are millions of images of The Bean, Lake Michigan, and Lake Shore Drive, there are not a million images like Elise’s. She provides a new unexplored perspective which is why she is a draw for brands both globally and nationally.
Without compromising her artistic freedom Elise explains “I want to do something that’s my style and artistic but still get the message across and put 50/50 with the brand and myself”.
For one of her first sponsored assignments, she was asked to promote a beverage. While given the same assignment, other influencers did simple shots like selfies or placed the drink on the ground.
However, Elise took that bottle and poured the electric orange beverage completely transforming the pristine blue of Lake Michigan. This would be the first of many sponsored opportunities.
She mentions “once I started getting checks and big brands flew me out of the country, that’s when I was like alright, this is different from what I envisioned” Nothing would be the same for Elise after this post.
Say Yes…To Everything
Elise and brands are a match made in heaven. Nike, Adidas, Coach & Google are just a handful of clients in her rolodex. While some may feel restricted with sponsored work, Elise sees working with brands as an opportunity to grow and improve. She mentions “I find inspiration from saying yes to things that I wouldn’t normally do. It’s not me being like I need a check so that’s why I’m going to say yes. I say yes because I’m pushing myself to think that I can do that and that I will”.
“I find inspiration from saying yes to things that I wouldn’t normally do. It’s not me being like I need a check so that’s why I’m going to say yes. I say yes because I’m pushing myself to think that I can do that and that I will”
Coming from that place of yes has been integral to her success. Even if she doesn’t know how to do something, she’ll teach herself and rise to the occasion.
With no shortage of opportunities, I asked Elise about what she does if she ever runs out of ideas. She shares that she uses her own work as inspiration. She’ll experiment with the image and try something she didn’t initially think of. ” There’s something really powerful about not changing but evolving” mentions Elise. Her Instagram feed is evidence of her evolution.
The Lessons in ImperfectionsMuch like the Ai Weiwei exhibit, Elise doesn’t focus on perfection and rules. For Elise, mistakes and imperfections are road maps that lead to success. In fact, she praises her mistakes because they lead to some of her greatest creations.
Once you make it, there’s not amount of faking it and people are going to question you. You can only fake it for so long. And that does something to the soul”
With a growing repertoire of brands lining up outside her door, what keeps the workflow going and steady is not the pursuit of perfection but an intense love and authenticity within her work.
While many praise the phrase “fake it till you make it” there was no faking it for Elise. “Once you make it, there’s not amount of faking it and people are going to question you. You can only fake it for so long. And that does something to the soul” shares Elise.
What we see with Elise is a real and authentic love for what she does and that keeps her going. After all a love for your work is necessary when encountering obstacles along the road to success.
Being a part of a culture that praises realistic imagery that depict aspirational lives is not met without challenges.
“There’s a respect factor that people forget about that comes to the hard work that people put into not only capturing reality but twisting it”.
Having infiltrated the realistic sometimes predictable world of Instagram, Elise’s work has been criticized for her use of various editing software.
Instead of capturing what’s right in front of you, Elise creates another world. However, Elise isn’t just documenting a moment, she’s challenging our perception of reality and using her talents and tools to do that.
She shares “there’s a respect factor that people forget about that comes to the hard work that people put into not only capturing reality but twisting it. There’s something crazy about that”
Which brings us back to her images. There are many images of Lake Shore Drive but how many images of LSD show an apocalyptic waterfall? This is why we have and need the work of Elise.
Moments of UncertaintyWhile Elise has the enviable life of all expense paid trips and the entrepreneur dream, she’s trying to figure it all out day by day. She jokes that she doesn’t even know what she’s going to eat for lunch so there’s no way she’ll know where she’ll be in five years.
There’s even an uncertainty about the stability of Instagram. She shares “even then some days I come to the point where I’m like is this still going to work after like 5 years. Is Instagram still going to be around?”
Whether you have 3 followers or 300,00, at the end of the day we’re still trying to figure everything out.
A lot of the times we put pressure on ourselves over not knowing what the next step is. However, after my conversation with Elise, I realized that that’s ok.
“It’s alright to chill. Take your time. It’s takes you a week, it takes you a month, it takes you a year. That’s fine because it ain’t on anybody else’s time”
We discussed a time where artists would take photographs and only have exhibits a few times a year. However, with social media there’s that expectation to always churn out work. Some even post daily or multiple times a day. To combat that pressure Elise shares “it’s alright to chill. Take your time. If it takes you a week, it takes you a month, it takes you a year, that’s fine because it ain’t on anybody else’s time” mentions Elise. Enjoy the process and take all the time you need.
Love, love, love what you do because you’ll be tested everyday by people around you, by yourself, family, society and everything and people are going to make you think that you’re not on the right timeline”
These past few years have been a whirlwind for Elise. She’s achieved the coveted status of full-time entrepreneur and has successfully created the life she wants.
So what’s next? Elise shared her desire to start a YouTube channel so she can showcase her personality and her journey.
Elise also wants to teach others how they can tap into their creativity. “Money and all that can be really great but I like being able to teach people and show them how to be artists themselves and be confident in theirselves”.
One of the most important takeaways from our conversation was “Love, love, love what you do because you’ll be tested everyday by people around you, by yourself, family, society and everything. People are going to make you think that you’re not on the right timeline”
However, you are on the right timeline because you set your own rules and limits. But when all else fails, the love of what you do can get you through pretty much anything.
Ultimately according to Elise, we as creatives have a responsibility to share our story and our process. Not just the glossy aspirational images that we post on Instagram. No matter how boring you perceive your life to be, people want to hear your story. “As much as you think your story might be bland and whatnot from yourself. I think from the outside perspective people think very differently. People are fans of each other”.
“As much as you think your story might be bland and whatnot from yourself. I think from the outside perspective people think very differently. People are fans of each other”
Tell your story, take your time and go out on a leap of faith. When you do those things, you never know what lies ahead for you. It worked for Elise.
I’m incredibly thankful to Elise for sharing her story and I know that there is a world of possibilities and giraffes in store for her 😉
You can see more of Elise’s amazing work at Swopes.info
Thanks for Samantha Tarley for capturing the gallery images. All other photos provided by Elise.