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The familiar surreality of Liz Drayna’s artwork

The Madison-based artist’s pieces offer feelings of comfort and kinship amidst trying times.

The Madison-based artist’s pieces offer feelings of comfort and kinship amidst trying times.

Browsing artist Liz Drayna’s Instagram or website feels like happening across some photo album that exists outside of time and space.

Though many of the people and places the Madison-based artist draws don’t actually exist in real life, they feel intimately real. The knowing smiles of people in a crowd  greet the viewer as if they are an old friend, and the places like a tranquil snowy street feel well-trodden. Still, Drayna’s works sometimes use the imagery of the natural world to edge into surreal territory and even outright mysticism, evoking the psychic fog that lingers in memories of dreams.

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Drayna herself graduated from UW-Madison in 2019 with a degree in psychology and a certificate in fine arts. Since graduating, though, she has dived headlong into art, something she never considered very viable growing up.  She has been steadily working on her online shop and commissions, while preparing to participate in art shares and festivals once they are feasible again. She is also interested in carving out the kind of welcoming and self-reflecting internet presence that influences like Sofie Birkin and Alex Gold have created. Physical exhibitions and galleries don’t interest her as much, given the lack of accessibility that in-person art has, with its high material costs, and also the art world’s fixation on exclusivity, which digital art defies with its infinite reproducibility. 

More than anything, Drayna is focused on creating a space, URL or IRL, through her artwork where anyone can feel welcome and to evoke feelings of friendship and familiarity in her viewers. Drayna spoke with me by phone recently from her family’s home in Muskego, in-between Madison moving days. She reflected on her art’s emotional goals, her methods, her many mediums, and the nuances of making inclusive art as a white artist.

Tone Madison: As a psychology major, do you feel like some of the things that one investigates in psychology are also things that you investigate in your art?


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Liz Drayna: The subject matter of my art tends to vary a lot. I have a hard time distinguishing what my own style is. Other people can pick up on them better than the artist can sometimes. I do think that the human emotion and psyche, and just feelings, are definitely things I explore. I think feelings are important to me and my art, either evoking feelings or expressing them. I think about psychology when I think about the effect I want my art to have on the viewer, and I’m also thinking of expressing various psychic states as well.

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Tone Madison: You mentioned the impact on the audience. Some artists don’t care that much about how the audience perceives their work and only focus on the piece itself. Why is it important for you to have a specific impact on your audience?

Liz Drayna: Well, both parts are important to me. I love making art just to make it and even if no one ever saw it I would still make it. The process is what I love, but I also know that art is important and valuable and it does have an effect on people no matter what you’re making. People are going to react to it, and it’s going to impact them in some way. Not that I have any meaningful, huge following. 

I consume a lot of art too, and I know the kind of art that I like to look and think about, and I know how it affects myself, my mood and my thoughts. I guess I’m interested in contributing to that.

Tone Madison: You work in a variety of mediums right now, ranging from digital art to printmaking. Is that something you will continue to do moving forward, or are you thinking of narrowing it down?

Liz Drayna: I feel like I should narrow it down for practicality, but I really love so many different mediums. There are still new ones I haven’t done but that I’m interested in exploring. I just love all of it. The range of collections do stem from different classes that had me focus on different things, and also different times when I was more interested in a certain style. 

But if the collections were only based on time, I would label them that way, but I do go back and forth time-wise and some of them are interspersed. There’s such a range, but I like making a really wide range of types of art. It is somewhat narrowed down in terms of what I’m interested in doing professionally, but for just my own enjoyment I like doing everything.

Tone Madison: Do you think you are drawn to certain mediums if you are trying to convey one sort of emotion versus another?

Liz Drayna: There are certain styles I am more likely to do if I’m trying to convey a certain thing, but you can do a similar style in digital art that you can in painting as far as really bold colors and high contrast, for example. That is determined by what I’m going for, but the actual medium can really range around.I do mostly digital art now, but sometimes I’ll go back to more paper-based stuff.

Tone Madison: So is it truly random then? Like, let’s say you had all the mediums available to you at any given time—would your choice just depend on the day and what you’re feeling?

Liz Drayna: That’s hard to say because I almost never have all the mediums available, and so I think I’m more likely to choose the medium first, and then what comes out will be influenced by the medium I’m using. I’ll wake up and say, “Oh, this is what I feel like doing today. I am going to draw with colored pencils.” And the drawing, the themes and the emotions that come out are probably going to be different than if I had decided to draw digitally or paint or something else.

Tone Madison: So it’s medium-first, but do you have ideas of pieces floating around your head before you draw?

Liz Drayna: Sometimes I sit down with the medium and whatever comes out comes out. Other times I have ideas or images that come into my head, and I think, “That would make an interesting art piece!” And then I’ll usually make a little note like, “Oh, try drawing this.” Or I’ll do a tiny sketch, that’s just the bare bones of the idea. Lately, I do almost everything digitally, and so most of the ideas that come into my head I’m already picturing them digitally because that’s my current primary medium. 

Tone Madison: One thing that does feel universal across all your work is a feeling of familiarity, like you know the people and the places you’re seeing. Is that something you try to do on purpose?

Liz Drayna: That’s very interesting, I don’t usually assign an identity to a person in a drawing. They’re not characters to me. Some artists do that, but that’s not usually how I think. But I also think sometimes I’m unconsciously doing that even if I haven’t literally decided who that person is. I still sort of have a sense of the kind of personality that is being represented. Similarly to places, I’m not necessarily representing a real place or trying to emulate places I know, but of course it’s inspired by places I know. 

I also really enjoy making art that feels welcoming, warm and peaceful and part of that is creating these places that feel calm, cozy and familiar. They feel like, “Ah, I could belong in this place.” So I think that is sort of unconsciously intentional. Can it be both? I’m not sure. 

I don’t draw the space to feel specifically familiar, but I draw what makes me feel good and happy, and that often comes out in a way that makes other people feel the same way. The types of places that make me feel that way are spaces that are familiar to me.

Tone Madison: This kind of reminds me of that folk belief, I’m not sure if it’s true or not, that you can’t actually create new faces in your dreams, but rather you borrow them from people you’ve seen in real life.

Liz Drayna: Yeah, I’m sure that even if I’m not replicating a person that I know, everything and everyone I draw are approximations of something real. After all, I’m drawing based on what I’ve seen before, and so I think that’s part of it. I also do like having mystical elements in my art, but I don’t really do anything out of this world. I like everything to be set in a realistic setting.

Tone Madison: More like surreal rather than fantastical?

Liz Drayna: Right. I don’t know if I want to give myself the compliment of saying that I evoke magical realism in my work. I don’t know if I do that successfully, but that’s sort of the influence or the tone I’m often going for. 

Tone Madison: One exception I noticed to this theme of familiarity is Collection One, which is much more macabre, though definitely very surreal. What was going on there?

Liz Drayna: Those ones were either release prints, like woodblock cut prints, or screen prints. It’s much harder to do more colors in prints, especially when it’s your first time doing them in class. They say, “Just choose two colors.” That’s definitely a part of it color-wise, in that the medium limits the amount of colors you can use.

With the wood-cut prints, the body parts and bones one, the three women in the woods one, and then the green lady, I think I started with the one with all the bones. I was just talking to my roommate about what I should do for this project, and he said, “Do a still-life with a plate, but it’s full of bones!” 


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I was like “hmm, interesting.” And I ended up going with it. Every once in a while you just ask a friend, and they end up giving you a good idea. I wish I had a more interesting backstory for that, but honestly I just found that compelling. That semester I was trying a bit more consistently to do things that would match together because I know my impulse is to do whatever I want and the pieces are totally different. So that caused me to stick with that darker theme in the other two.

For the screen prints, which is the crowd of the people and the one in the left-hand corner, those were earlier. Those weren’t done in my last semester, they were done maybe a year ago or one semester earlier. A lot of what I make is just me thinking, “That would look good. That would look cool.” 

But thematically, I think these two are a lot more personal and related to my life. The one of the crowd of people is a composite of people that I know, and it’s based on photos I took at a party. It’s funny that that one is less familiar to you because that one is based on real people, but sometimes that’s what makes things all the more uncanny is when they don’t look more generalized. Like the more specific they look, the less relatable it is.

Tone Madison: I also wanted to ask about the comics you made. How did you get into making them?

Liz Drayna: I just saw other artists making them online, and something pulled me to it. I think you can also see in my non-comic art that I like involving text. I’ve always been really into reading and, less so, writing. I think I’m less skilled at writing, so I never put much time or effort into it. I’ve kept journals, though, since second grade, so I’ve been documenting things forever. I think text can help evoke something different that you wouldn’t get without the words. 


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I was thinking about this recently, and another comic influence were these ones I read in middle school called Baby Mouse. It’s about a girl who is a mouse, everybody in the book is an animal, and they were really popular in middle school. I recently was looking back at a lot of my old drawings and other little mementos that I have in a big box, and I found a bunch of old comics I had made when I was in middle school. One of them was very clearly a Baby Mouse rip-off. It was about a hamster instead of a mouse.

But it’s really interesting to see the art early on, I was drawing comics and fashion designs and now I make some comics and I’ve also been sewing a lot of clothes, so it’s funny how those things can trickle down.

Tone Madison Could you go more into specifics about what comics can do that drawings cannot?

Liz Drayna:I think depending on the artist, the drawings could do whatever words can do. I don’t think you necessarily need words to do anything in particular. I think for me words help me do things. For other artists they might find a way to convey it, but I come to words to convey things I don’t think I can with images.

Or, a lot of times I’ll start with the words. I’ll have a thought for this story that I want to share, but I think that if I add drawings the writing doesn’t have to be as good. For me comics are a way to write without putting all the pressure on myself to write really well. 

Tone Madison: In recent years, a lot of artists, especially white artists, have made more of an effort to incorporate more people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, which your work does. Is that something you had to learn at all to do over time or is it something you were always doing?

Liz Drayna: It sort of varied based on who I was surrounded by and the kind of media I was surrounded by. I think I did have relative diversity, still not enough but some, compared to other little white children, because I was really into American Girl Magazine. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this publication, it’s great. The illustrations, the photography, and all the girls they use, are very intentionally diverse, and I think I picked up on that and emulated that as a kid. Which is a perfect example of why that’s so important. So shout out American Girl Magazine.

But then when I got older and moved to Muskego, which is whiter than Green Bay. Green Bay is already pretty white, but Muskego is a whole other world. I was surrounded by white people and the media those people were consuming, and the media I was consuming of course was primarily white people. So, as a kid I was sort of onto it and then it faded out as the people around me became more monolithic. 


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Then in college I assimilated diversity back into my work, which again was slightly determined by the people I was surrounded by. Again, UW is also pretty white, but not as white as Muskego [laughs]. I lived in the Multicultural Learning Community my Freshman Year and we were all friends, and I’m sure that impacted my art. I’m sure being surrounded by people different from me made a difference. 

At this point now it’s very purposeful and intentional because I think it’s really valuable and important, but I think subconsciously people really just draw whatever surrounds them and whatever is around them in their art, and I can see how that impacted my art throughout my life.

Tone Madison: Along those lines, given everything going on in terms of the BLM protests around the country, do you feel a particular obligation to support those things directly with your art? Not necessarily donating money, but rather with the art itself?

Liz Drayna: I guess I think that people should be representing their own values in their art all the time, and I think that’s what I try to do all the time. For me I try to lift up and prioritize women and people of color and people of other marginalized identities. I try to do that in general in my art, and not just on the trend. 

For me, as a white artist, it also felt right to just step back a little bit. Especially around the time the movement was at its highest, I was just like, “Let’s just not post for a little bit,” because what I have to say right now doesn’t really matter. And of course, the movement is still going on, and just because there’s less discussion on social media doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care equally as much.

Overall, I’m a little wary of saying artists should have an obligation to do anything. If you have a public following, you have an obligation and as a person you have an obligation to do things, but I think art, for me, is a lot about expressing whatever you’re thinking about and whatever you want to express. I do feel a personal ethical obligation to promote and contribute to equity, black liberation and social justice through whatever capacity I can through my art, but it’s not that much.

I guess I feel like it’s more about what you do as a person than specifically what you do through your art.

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