Elise Mesner is an eclectic-minded painter, illustrator, fashion/costume designer, stylist, taste maker, cross-media artist, and fine art photographer working and dipping into all arty media. Creamy colors, plants, fresh air, and drops of neon rule her world. With whimsy forever as her guide and a pocket full of moxie, she's known for creating idyllic dreamscapes, both in front of and behind the camera, as well as on the canvas.
The most unexpected thing in life is being able to support yourself by doing what you love. Elise Mesner chose to eschew the typical road, making her living as a full-time photographer.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
Yes, a li’l accounting, a li’l real estate… My latest full-time gig prior to full-on photography was senior specialty underwriter but all along I’ve always made art and snapped photos on the side.
Oh yeah, always. I never went to school for photography, but enjoyed the process of exploring/playing on my own. So really, before photography it was all artwork: painting, drawing, having art shows, doing all the festivals… All that goodness.
So, I don’t know! I don’t know…
No, so I have my associates in liberal arts.
I was going to go transfer to Eastern for teaching, and I wanted to teach art classes, but I started a little painting business teaching art classes, so I started doing it on my own, so I thought, “Why go to school, I’m doing it now and I’m loving it.” So I chose not to go back, but the accounting started from, I worked for a friend’s small office and basically started out as a receptionist, grew from that. Just kind of worked up the chain there and learned all the parts of the business. I stayed there for three and a half years, all through high school.
Yeah, yeah. That’s when all the number punching started.
No, I was teaching art classes when… do you remember when – I don’t know if LA had this big boom of wine drinking + painting? It was a huge trend in Detroit a few years back. That’s when I decided to create my own classes. Right after the drinking and painting surge. Group painting classes for families, for singles, for wild wine drinkers, etc. I called it Art Pardee: Art Pardee was a fantastic fusion of creation, consumption and camaraderie.
And it was Groupon-funded, you know, a lot of tickets where people could buy 20 tickets for a group of people to come out to a restaurant and they could bring wine, or the restaurant would have a special menu, and someone comes out and brings all the art supplies and they teach a class.
It’s big, and families love it because they’re looking for something to do with the kids.
Or adults or even bachelorette parties, stuff like that, yeah. And in Detroit in the winter time, you think, it’s cold, there’s not a whole lot to do, you’re not going to sit outside, and so in the winter time, it just boomed. Everyone was signing up for classes to gain a new arty experience on a cold winter’s day.
Um, I did this, let’s see, about 6 years ago?
So I wasn’t too young doing this.
How old am I now? I’m 33, yeah I can tell you.
33!! Yeah, so I started doing that, and what happened was, Ferndale area, which is a suburb of Detroit, had floods, they were like record floods, and I had all my Art Pardee supplies in my basement.
And renters insurance wouldn’t cover the flood, so I had to cancel all my classes, which was a little bit of like, a magnet for moving out here and fuel to start something new.
Because it was always the weather. It’s like when winter popped in, I need sunshine. I want to shoot outside, I want to paint outside. And I thought, I need to try moving away, I need to just try it, so.
I was doing a mix of things!
I was making clothes… Revamping vintage clothing… Styling photo shoots… Growing heirloom tomatoes in the house.
You know, selling vintage clothes online, I was doing that for a while. It was always a hodge-podge of stuff.
But always, the last 5 years I did the underwriting.
So I got out of the accounting, went into real estate, and ended with the underwriting.
Underwriting, I was basically approving loans, like, specialty loans for people to buy homes.
And I quit that cold turkey. I was at my desk and I thought, you know what, I’m getting so busy with photography, and most of it was not in Michigan, not Detroit. Products mailed to me, a lot from California, which is another reason why I decided to move out here.
Yeah, and it was coming everywhere, and out of the county, and I was like try moving, see what happens. So I quit my job, I saved up some money, of course, and moved out here.
So now I’m freelance full time for photography and art.
Oh! Okay, so, I liked having that organization of underwriting, I still do, I still like that, but I need to be creating, not auditing-number punching-underwriting. That’s up-side-down pineapple cake.
Yeah, it’s nice to have a steady paycheck coming in. But I never expected to get so busy, or to be able to make money, make a living and support myself, with art. I just didn’t think it was possible to do exactly what I wanted to do, because I wasn’t going to give that up.
I wasn’t going to shoot weddings, or do senior portraits, just to do photography.
I thought, no no no, I’d rather keep it as something I love, and do this thing that maybe I don’t like so much, but at least it’s stable, and it’s not the worst thing in the world, right?
And so it’s something that I, it wasn’t a plan, it just happened. I just kept doing the work that I love without straying from that path.
Yeah! I started shooting…we had a really bad winter in Detroit, all snowed in… and I went grocery shopping, and I was kind of stock piling, because I’m like, okay I know I’m going to be locked in, and I could do my underwriting from home so I hibernated with lots of yummies.
So I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to be home for a bit,” and I went out and got some groceries, and I started taking photos of food, and that’s kind of when it kind of took off in a bit of direction.
Because it was there, it was available.
I was stuck in the house with a fridge full of produce and my lovely Canon. I like to work that way, I like to work with what I have.
Instead of feeling like I need this, I need that, I need this technology, I need 5 lenses, I need the best camera…you know what I’m saying? I like to just, you know, if I don’t need to upgrade, chances are I don’t, I just like to work with what’s there, and focus on the art of it rather than all the tech-y parts.
So yeah, I was literally stuck in the house, we had snow up to the door, and I started just shooting what was in the house and spending more time on it, and I love it, so it’s easy to do.
I just dove into it.
I wasn’t really trying to do…I guess just…”this is a lot of fun,” I’m thinking, “I love these colors,” you know. And really, in my head, I wasn’t even thinking of putting it online or anything, I put it on my website, I sent some friends some things. I wasn’t too serious about putting stuff on Instagram in the beginning, I would just update it here and there, and I’m more of private person when it comes to that stuff.
Yeah, I mean, I just had my work on mine, and if you go to my Facebook, I’m not ranting about my personal life or telling you how I feel every day. You won’t find selfies of me with a new hair do. I’m just pretty private in those ways.
So yes, I didn’t have this big intention of staying indoors, making a bunch of good work to show or anything like that, it was just having fun.
Just doing what I love.
Yeah, feels good. Especially when you’re trapped indoors, you know?
And I’m not much of a TV person.
I’ll watch movies, but I like to watch movies with someone, or like go to a theater.
Yeah! Rather than I’m like sitting on the couch by myself watching a movie, I can’t, I literally can’t do it.
So…there wasn’t really a big, I don’t really self analyze too much.
Because I feel like it kind of takes the good parts away if I keep digging into why I do something.
Hahaha! Yeah, I think it’s nice to just sometimes just do it without questioning it so much.
Now since I do it for a living, it’s a little different, so I just picked up a job with Bose for the new headphones, so yeah, I’m going to put some thought into it, obviously, I’m not going to just, you know, like, this is fun!
I’m just going to play around, see what happens, hahaha! So I have to get it together here, right? And in the end, I can see what I want, in my head, I can put it together, and have the end in mind, a little bit with it. So with that, there’s planning, you can’t really play around too much. Suppose I could toss an egg with sprinkles on it.
I do, yeah I do, and I’m working on more paintings, so I want to get back into that. It’s good to always fit that in and have time for that. And I try, even with products or working with people, I mean, I push to have it be personal. This is still a project of mine, but I’m going to include the headphones in it now, you know?
So it’s still art, and we’re all having fun here but we’re just going to take this piece and drop it in, see how it fits in this environment.
Oh yeah, oh yeah, I feel so good being able to just sleep in every morning!
I don’t mean that I necessarily “sleep in,” but you wake up when your body wants to wake up, and you kind of start the day with the things you want to start. Stretching, drinking a ton of water, and that’s so important. You can fit that in if you have a 9-5, or whatnot, but I didn’t. I’d get up, go straight to work, do my thing, come home, and I never thought what that was doing to myself.
I wasn’t fitting all these things in.
Yeah! It wasn’t, it’s not something I even thought about, I was just going to work, coming home, doing the normal thing. But now I feel like I have a much healthier, yeah, rhythm is a good word, yeah. Definitely. I feel more energy, happier.
Yeah, colors and textures, big time. I’m always searching for color combinations and textures and that kind of stuff.
I like to keep things natural, almost like it looks like a “b-side” from a shoot. Like, “This isn’t the actual thing here, this is just an idea we put together, the rest is out there, maybe you’ll see it, maybe you won’t.” And so it just sort of looks thrown together, that’s what I like.
I don’t know why…here we go, I don’t know why I like that! It’s just what I like, when I started shooting, you know how people develop a style, and different artists will say,Oh “I’m still trying to find my thing, I’m trying to find what I like.” A lot of people go through that. For some reason, this is just always where I kind of bounced into, just something kind of thrown together in an easy, effortless way. You know, there we go, it’s done!
It’s always been kind of the same, like a stamp. Like, “Oh, you can tell that’s Elise’s,” you know.
And I’ve definitely grown with color. I started off, early photography, I liked to make things look like film, even though I shot all digital, so I’d put in lots of grain, and you know, it would be earthy tones, and turquoise, bright turquoise. So the color was always there, but it was a little different, but you could still tell it’s my stuff.
And so yeah, it’ll grow, of course, it won’t stay the same. But yeah, I think things will always have that stamp, because I’m just doing what I want to do, I’m not trying, I’m not looking for a way to be, I’m just being, I guess? I don’t know how cheesy that sounds!
Will you fix that?
I like that one because, you know, moving into a new space, just walking in I’m thinking, “What can I do in here?” I’m looking around, and I’m thinking, “There’s a balcony, so now I can shoot from the balcony, and I can shoot stuff below, so now I have all this overhead, and that’s going to change things; how cool is that? And the light just dumps into the rooms, there’s so much sunlight coming through, that’s going to change a lot.” So those are the things I think about. New prospectives.
Yeah, elements, that can build, but I don’t really think about it down to tiny details. Because, really, I like to just roll with things, like, if I go to the grocery store, and I see like, you know, I’m looking at loaves of bread, and there’s one that’s smashed, and I like the way that looks, I take that home, and photograph it. You just roll with the day that way, and it’s nice.
Right, yeah! And people are nice to shoot, too, that you meet. If you’re feeling it, you know.
But yeah, I tend to make decisions based on feeling, so, I guess that kind of flows into everything, even photography, but I was at an In-N-Out for the first time, and there was a very interesting cowboy, let’s call him a cowboy, he had a big hat on, like, rustic cowboy. And I was so nervous to go up to him to ask him “can I please take a picture of you up against the In-N-Out wallpaper while you’re holding your hamburger? Pleaaaase?” You know? And I did, it just felt right, and I was nervous, and I was afraid he was going to say, “What? What do you want to do?” but it worked out and was great. And that’s something, those things you just don’t plan. How do you plan that?
So I want to do more of that, so to answer your question, you know, to go back to your question, I’d like to do more of the sporadic, go with the feeling, and do more of that.
Yeah! Because I’m new, and I don’t know too many people, so it forces you to go out, you know, you do things alone, it’s a good city for that, yeah. It’s a great city to explore…
Yeah, yeah! Definitely! I’ll set a day aside and I’ll think to myself, “Okay, today I’m going to do some shooting, don’t know what I want to do, but I’m going to head out that way,” and just take my camera and see what I see, yeah. And Detroit, I felt like I was more hunting for things. Like, I want a color wall today, you know, and I have a model here, so we’re going to go find a colored wall, so I’m driving through the city, and I find one, and out here, it’s easier to, plants are everywhere, colored buildings are everywhere, there’s so much color. And there’s a lot of soul in Detroit, there’s a lot of soul here, and I see the two cities the same in that regard. You walk anywhere around here and you’re going to see something beautiful to shoot, yeah. And you’re in the right temperature to do it, too.
It’s ridiculous! Hahahha!
Things that I want to try…yeah, definitely. I mean, Joshua Tree, it’s a huge canvas for anything, so I would love to bring a giant group of people out there, models, hair stylists, MUA people, fashion people, and put a big something together out there.
I love architecture, I love still life, I love food, so it’s a nice blend of everything. Not a big fan of taking lifestyle photos.
So there it is.
I have a hard time making things look too normal.
You know, “We need some lifestyle shots of this, of some sunglasses and a hat,” and I get kind of…I don’t know what to do with that. I’m the wrong person for that! So that kind of stuff, of course, we can do it, but I feel like I’m the wrong person to hire for that kind of stuff.
Which is why weddings you can do, you just take a million shots, you walk through, you can do it, but the weddings I’ve done have all been quirky. I’ve tried to do different things with the wedding party that are a little different, so yeah. Did I answer that?
Yeah, and I think it’s just using, I think a big part of it for me, if I have to say, “How does this happen?”, I use what’s around, you know. I try not to waste things. If I’m…because I shoot a lot of food, if the bananas are going bad, I’m going to paint them. I’m not going to paint brand new bananas, you know?
I’m going to do something with them!
Yes! Definitely! And I think, it’s almost like I’m oppositional with certain things.
I was that way in school, too, sitting in class, you know, everyone’s turning the page, we all have our books out. I’m inside my desk, like, doodling, coloring. Teacher calls on you, I don’t know what’s going on, I’m in my own…too many rules in this room, you know! Hahaha! And it wasn’t, what do the doctors like to classify people? ADD?
No. This isn’t that, because I can still make something up, I’m still following along, you know. But always in my own world.
I need more than just the book, the teacher, the classroom.
We need more here. And also, here’s an assignment, okay, can I add a drawing to it for extra credit? You know, that kind of thing, I’ve always been that way. Or you know what, when I was in college, I was working full time and doing art, and I decided okay, I want to get a degree, even a two year degree, but I don’t want to spend two years, I want to do it in six months, or a year! How can I make this faster!! So I talked to the dean there, and there’s an art teacher, Stefanie Serras, really nice lady. I was able to take three classes in one in her class. Three, three in one semester! So I feel like I’m always trying to bend things, yeah, in a good way.
I just, if it doesn’t make sense to me or something just doesn’t make sense, like if you get an assignment, and I feel like I’m not really going to learn too much from this, what could I do to just make this fun.
I’m always trying to learn or gain a good experience.
Oh yeah. I’m a big lounger, definitely. I love to lounge, I actually edit mostly in my bed. And I call it the bed office.
If it doesn’t seem right, or it doesn’t feel right, if it doesn’t make sense. I guess I run it through a filter.
Yeah, does this make sense, what I’m doing is going to take eight hours, it’s really going to take eight hours to do this? And we’re going to spend two hours doing something, do we really need to do this? Or, if I turn the corner, I’m in my car, and all these cars are turning left, and it’s backed up. Well, I’m not going to go there, I’m going to go the other way. Just little things like that, I guess, even if I’m driving way out of my way and now I’m in a different city, and it’s all blocked off…or, another thing, things that you buy at the store that come with directions, you got to put together?
I tend to take everything out, and the directions, I put them in the box with all the garbage and throw it away, and I’m just putting things together and I’m like, okay I’ve got some extra parts…I just did this recently with my bed.
I guess I like to just put it together myself, see if it works. If it doesn’t…
Hahahha, yeah, yeah! It’s fun, that process is fun. I guess it’s just creating your own rules, or are they really rules? Are they really parameters? I guess it’s just making your own.
Oh okay yeah! Haha, or do something weird, do something weird!
Yeah, and I like to jump into deep waters, too.
Applying for things that maybe I don’t have any experience in. Just because I’m interested, how far could I get, that kind of thing. Yeah, yeah, I like that stuff. I guess that’s part of exploring. For example, in my career, the career path?
If I wouldn’t have applied for things that I had no background in, I wouldn’t have landed any of those jobs.
If I wouldn’t have done that. I mean, I didn’t prepare for any of that, I just jumped in, so I think after experiencing…
Well yeah, I mean, I haven’t had a photography class, I don’t know all the functions on my camera.
I don’t know film photography, all the ins and outs of it — processing film and all that. Never had a photography class, not one. Would I want to take a film class? Probably not. I enjoy the journey of learning on my own… The mistakes. The happy accidents. Maybe I’d watch a couple YouTube tutorials. I would enjoy that much more than sitting behind a desk in a classroom.
Oh yeah! Big time, yeah. A lot of minimalism and architecture stuff, love to look at that stuff, it’s great. It’s refreshing.
Yeah, I like a lot of the older stuff, too, especially the 80’s, like the 80’s cookbooks, 80’s cookbooks are pretty…
Yeah, like the microwave recipes, stuff like that.
Oh yeah, yeah! Back in Detroit, I used to go to John King Books, and they would always have sales on recipes books. And every time they had like the microwave, like Betty Crocker microwave, the microwave ones are the best. Or the Jello ones. Because they have these ridiculous still life portraits of Jello, and like horrendous recipes, like corn chowder Jello, carrot soufflé…but the colors are beautiful.
And the colors are beautiful, and it’s done in a lifestyle way. But years later, did they have any idea? These people have any idea how cool it is? Probably not. So I have some of those definitely scanned.
The process, the process, yeah. What do a lot of people say?
Different? Yeah, the journey, the journey. But end result is great, too.
You know something? I feel like if I take the time to bring things out, set it all up… I feel like I have to make it work. That’s maybe a pressure I put on myself. I don’t tend to scrap things.
So if I’ve painted, we’ll just go back to the painted bananas.
Haha, yeah, or if I pull things together and drag them all outside and set things up, I feel like I want to get something from this. And that doesn’t necessarily mean an end result, either, like I need a final product from this. I want to enjoy this, I put all this out here, I want to enjoy this time, at least. That kind of thing.
Rather than going, “This isn’t working, I have to scrap this whole thing”. When thinking about end results, I don’t really scrap too many things, yeah. Even if it doesn’t look good this big, I’m going to zoom way in and just focus on the texture or something, like the little hairs that are on the peach.
And just keep playing, because there’s always something there, always. Always. It’s kind of like, I’ve had some product jobs where the packaging wasn’t all that great, you know, but you just kind of find ways to make it beautiful, there’s always something you can do. Whether it’s the lighting, or you pair it with something. So yeah, I feel like that would be a waste to go, “This isn’t working, I don’t like any of it.” I just keep working, keep playing, keep moving things around. And it’s like that with models, too, I finished a shoot with a bunch of purses for a local brand’s Spring and Summer collection, and shot in LA, direct sunlight, and my idea was let’s just shoot against the blue sky, and let’s throw these purses in the air. And there was a lot of sunlight, so I was getting a lot of squinting, and so you could think, “Let’s scrap this whole idea,” but I don’t want to. We were already up on the hill, and let’s make this work. How can we do it, let’s have everybody look down, you know, there’s just so many ways to work around things.
Yeah yeah, just play with it. I think I have one where a lot of the girls are using the purses as sun blockers, and it looks great!
You know, it looks like it’s so on purpose, it’s so purposeful, it’s beautiful. It’s real, it’s what was happening. The sun was bright, and the sky was blue, and we were using all the elements, and it came out good.
I would say colors, big time. And plants, just bringing in nature. I feel like my favorite images all have an element of nature, so if it’s on a plain backdrop, you know, if there’s a leaf there? I’m like, “Yeahhhh,” you know. So that’s the big one, yeah. When there’s an element of nature, including food and all of that, if I shoot a product and I’m shooting a water bottle, once I can bring in an element of nature with that, it makes me really happy. It becomes a favorite, yeah.
A person. An element of humanity. Because I think a lot of times, if you’re shooting the mountains, it’s beautiful, it’s beautiful, what does it need, what does it need; I want to put someone in it. A lot of times I feel that it would be hard to shoot just all nature photography, of these beautiful places, beautiful mountains, scenery, beaches. I want to throw someone in it! So yeah, definitely mixing things. It would be hard to shoot all mountains and scenery, wouldn’t it? Don’t you want to throw a babe in there or an egg with sprinkles?