This is a part of our Making It & Staying True to Yourself interview series with young people making their dreams a reality.
Picture this: L.A.-based artist Ela Mella watercolors an avocado with a clever message to “get that chip off your shoulder” and posts it to Instagram. It inspires a series that includes riffs off of pop culture like “I got 99 problems but a chip ain’t one” and “Grown this way.” With a lot of hustle and hard work, her pieces are eventually featured at art shows and she launches an online store. This is only the beginning.
Ela Mella is ripe for success as an artist and is charting her own path. Here, she talks about her journey, overcoming self-doubt, and always staying true to herself.
You’ve always been an artist, but started posting your work on Instagram a few years ago. What made you take that first step to share it? What were you creating?
Your mom can only tell you, “You’re the next Picasso,” so many times before you realize you need actual feedback. Random people are not obligated to care, so I thought that would be a good first step. I started out painting realistic oil portraits but I eventually realized realism didn’t suit me. I explored styles of art that were more in the orbit of what I had gravitated to since I was young, drawing inspiration from artists like Marc Chagall, who took hold of fine art and portraiture and created something more enchanting.
Tim Burton was a huge influence. I love the depth he added to something otherwise whimsical, and how he used text and storytelling to give his characters dimension. The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories is a great example. A book of illustrations that were provoking on their own became so much more with the addition of poems and prose. I loved that. I started moving in that direction, creating less from life and more from my imagination. It was hard at first. A lot of my early illustrations are me wrapping my head around the difficulty of dragging images out of my brain and on to paper. When you paint from life or from a photo, there is a tangible reference. When you paint from your mind, there is none.
At that time, I dabbled in watercolor but most of my illustrations were two-dimensional ink drawings with a black, white, and red color scheme, and like Tim Burton, featured “darker” subject matter. If you had told me that one day I would be painting fruits using bright pastel colors, I would never have believed you.
Let’s talk hustle. Can you describe the early stages of Ela Mella and your journey to where you are today?
I still consider myself in the early stages, but the beginning era was grizzly and I’m glad it’s over. Nothing came easy or cheap. I was using tree stumps to display artwork, making table easels out of duct tape and sticks, and losing frames to wind every other show because they’d blow over and break. Making friends in the hustle changed my life. They are the reason that era ended a lot sooner than it would have naturally — but there was never a handout, make no mistake. All the right people can teach you how to shave time and cut corners, but they are only the teachers. You hold the blade.
I didn’t know at the time, but I met my ride-or-dies at my first art show in Downtown L.A. The artist who installed my work earlier in the week saw me during the show. Later on, I asked him for pointers as someone new to the L.A. art scene. He gave me his email and the rest is history. He has been my strongest mentor to date. I started following him and his crew around California and Nevada, setting up on Venice Beach, in Las Vegas, and anywhere I could, quickly taking on the role of their unplanned kid sister. I owe so much of what I know and have accomplished to this group of artists and their strong belief in me and my art. In L.A., there can be a lot of “me, me, me,” but advancing is about more than just promoting yourself — we are a unit. When one of us moves up, we all move up. It is important to share success, not hoard it. A lot of my journey in getting where I am has been through talking to people and keeping my word. Who you meet at one show could help you get in the next one, and who you meet at a concert could become your next client. It’s about making connections, building a community, and putting your money where your mouth is.
Many people now know you as “Avocado Girl.” What inspired you to create a series on avocados with personalities?
It all started when I watercolored “Get That Chip Off Your Shoulder.” Creating a series was accidental. Once I finished that one, I realized how many other avocado puns were adding up in my queue until I finally made it a line. Get it? Queue… line… sorry, I’ll stop.
Speaking of avocados, you created a special election 2016 edition. How did you come up with this and what was the response?
This election, online platforms became clouded by a static of bickering, statistics, and “I know more than you” comments. I was fatigued by it. However “right” anyone may have felt they were, this approach to “educating people” and “opening a dialogue” only pushed those with opposing views further away from each other. To ease this tension, I decided to make a mini-series that would act as a lighter take on the election. It was cool to see this piece help bring people of all walks of life together in agreement.
What was it like being featured in your first art show and in a gallery?
My first art show was awesome because the feedback was awesome. The loud trail of “How did I even get in? Is this a joke? Am I a joke? Is my art awful? Will anyone even like this? Should I not tell anyone I’m doing this just in case?” becomes a dull, quiet voice until it eventually dies, and that death was the best. My first art show was basically a funeral party for my doubts. Being featured in a gallery was something different. It was something I had dreamed about since I was a kid but never thought would happen. It was like going to Mars, or making out with Titanic-era Leonardo DiCaprio.
People may not know this, but you’re a cancer survivor. How has that changed your perception of your art and your work ethic?
Cancer has been a blessing and a curse. When you don’t know how much time you have, you do everything now. You don’t wait. Chemotherapy wasn’t as bad as my life being put on pause. When it pressed play again, I felt like the living first lyric to Mr. Brightside [by The Killers]: “Coming out of my cage and I’ve been doing just fine. Gotta gotta be down because I want it all.” Failure is no longer a fear. Once you face death, you can face rejection with a smile. The fact that I am alive makes the risk of looking stupid or falling on my face seem ridiculous. People are scared to be vulnerable, but that doesn’t scare me anymore. Pursuing a career with no guarantee is not scary. Showing you an avocado painting and hearing you tell me you hate guacamole is not scary. I go to sleep just fine. Plugging in to positive outlets allows people to recharge. Art gives me power. It pulled me through this time and every day I wake up hoping to extend the circuit and feed the current. It feels natural to want to return, and spread to others, the vitality it has given me.
You work a full-time job during the day and focus on your art full-time after hours. How do you handle it? Is there even really a secret, or just a lot of sleepless nights?
I work full-time during the day at a nine-to-five, part-time as an art assistant for Greg Auerbach, occasionally as a dog walker, and then full-time with my art. There are no days off. I work seven days a week. Making it work is a puzzle and piecing it together comes from how badly you want it. It means you officially have no life, but that’s the only way to do it. You need a full-time job to support yourself and another job to feed your passion. Unless you have a job in finance or a great Uncle Bob who left you his inheritance, your full-time job won’t be enough to nurture you and your art, so you need to work harder.
As far as a secret, there isn’t one. A friend of mine always says, “Every artist has their own formula.” I believe that is true. I can tell you who I met, what I did, when and how I did it and where I went wrong, and it might guide your ship but it won’t bring it to shore. Only you can do that.
What are you most excited for next?
I’m excited to release a line on everyday items. It’s become apparent to me that people want art that is also functional: shirts, mugs, phone cases — art that serves as art but also serves a purpose. It’s rewarding to do this after months of feedback steering me in this direction. I like to help people kill two birds with one stone, except through art – not through killing birds. No one should kill birds.