A chance encounter while helping some friends sell a car launched Joerael Elliott deep into the world of complexity science and resulted in a stirring series of images with an energy that bursts from the page.
The artworks came through a three-month artist’s residency at the Santa Fe Institute, where president David Krakauer is in the midst of expanding efforts to bring the worlds of science and art together – if only to see what happens when they mix.
“I kind of enjoy the randomness of it all,” Krakauer said in a phone interview. “I have no idea where it’s going to go … .
“I’m interested in fostering a creative culture. That’s my whole gig.”
Elliott said he’s “highly interested” in complex systems, stemming from his beginnings as a graffiti artist when he was a 14-year-old in rural Texas. And if you don’t see what graffiti has to do with complex systems, you haven’t heard him talk about the history of graffiti, social forces feeding into the evolution of the form, and the many varied styles that can be identified with individual taggers and specific communities.
“It’s like a visual linguistic,” he said.
His December-to-February residency came only a couple of months after he and his fiancée moved to Santa Fe in October to escape the overwhelming bigness of Los Angeles.
Both of them are yoga instructors and had come to Santa Fe a number of times to study with Tias and Surya Little at Prajna Yoga. Elliott said he feared Santa Fe might be too familiar, feeling a bit too much like the San Angelo area where he grew up, but things have turned out all right.
It was in helping the Littles sell a car, he said, that he met staffers from Krakauer’s office who got a look at some of his art and recommended he be included in the institute’s outreach to artists. Not only is Elliott now doing work for the Santa Fe Institute, but also he has been commissioned to paint a mural “in a cyberpunk style” on the Makers Space wall at the new Meow Wolf Arts Complex – where, Elliott added, he’s also eager to work with some of the equipment, such as laser cutters, in creating art.
While also finishing some personal work that others have commissioned, Elliott said he has a water rights residency coming up at the Santa Fe Art Institute. “That should be really cool,” he said.
In his time at SFI, Elliott said, he was challenged to create visual representations of six different types of modules used to describe behavior in a complex system. While he spent many hours talking to scientists using those complexity systems, he stressed that his artistic product is his own interpretations of what he found. Krakauer called the work “a very beautiful distillation of very complex ideas.”
For his part, Elliott said of the science side of things, “One of the cool things I saw was how creative a lot of the work they’re doing is.”
“There’s always a unifying commonality in nature that I find interesting,” he added.
Elliott is a member of SFI’s new Broken Symmetry Society, named in recognition of the attempts through mathematics to find a symmetry believed to be fundamental to life and the universe, according to Krakauer. The broken part comes in with “things you can’t predict from mathematics,” he said.
Krakauer said he created the group after being approached by many artists seeking an affiliation with the institute, but nothing really existed to accommodate them – although SFI has collaborated in the past with people in the arts, such as playwright Sam Shepard, novelist Cormac McCarthy and artist James Drake. The Broken Symmetry Society became the vehicle to include more artists whose thinking Krakauer describes as “orthogonal” because they approach problems from all angles.
Elliott said he got his start with graffiti art when, looking for skateboarding magazines in a local shop, he saw a little magazine filled with images of various types of graffiti. With his mom’s support, he said, he started painting his own images on drainage ditches, dams, spillways and similar structures.
Moves to Austin and especially Pittsburgh expanded his vision, he said, with the abandoned factories in that Pennsylvania city offering a huge canvas that helped his work evolve from graffiti to street art and murals.
When he headed to Phoenix, he was getting permission and even commissions for building-size murals, Elliott said. When he moved later to Los Angeles, his work came mainly from commissions, with him helping design spaces to incorporate his murals.
“It was more of a commercial level” at that point, he said of his art. The label he applies to himself is “visual artist,” rather than limiting his scope to graffiti or street art, which he really doesn’t do much any more.
And now Santa Fe is his home, with projects already on his plate. You can see his work on his website, joerael.com, or displayed at the Santa Fe Institute.
His relationship with the institute is continuing, both with freelance projects and meetings with the Broken Symmetry Society.
“I think it would be very beneficial for the world to embrace complexity,” Elliott said, considering that approach more realistic than a simplistic view of the world. “I think it would be highly therapeutic for the world.”