Playing the Bones – An Interview with Elizabeth Riggle by David Richards

Elizabeth Riggle

In recent years Elizabeth Riggle has been working on a series of paintings and drawings titled Parts is Parts: A Vertebral Opera. This body of work consists of both “scores” and “scenes.” The “scores” are rows of spines drawn and painted on long sheets of paper that suggest lines of written music. They also suggest a visual/musical narrative that unfolds over time, not unlike the landscapes, journeys and stories depicted in traditional Chinese scroll paintings. The density, spacing and coloration of this parade of spines also suggest musical effects like pauses and changes of tempo, voice, key and instrumentation.

The “scenes” are oil paintings that feature the interaction of two or more spinal columns that have both an abstract and formal quality while at the same time suggesting a narrative and “characters.” Entire spines interact with each other while individual parts, such as vertebrae and pelvises, morph into extravagant abstract shapes with distinct visual “personalities.”

The following are excerpts transcribed from an hour-long interview with Ms. Riggle recorded on December 2, 2016, along with some additional changes and clarifications that were added later.

Elizabeth RiggleThoracic Sheet Music, 2015, Conte crayon on paper, 66” x 144.” “Made to direct the breath sideways as well as up and down, so that the sounds maintain depth even as they reach a higher register. I was able to figure out annotation and establish the vertebrae as specific signifiers of sound.”

David Richards: What inspired you to create a “visual opera” centered on the human spinal column?

Elizabeth Riggle: I would say that… it’s the experience of trying to draw the spine. It was an optional assignment in a course in clinical anatomy I was taking as part of my teacher training for Yoga. I started thinking about the spinal cord and that the anatomical expression “cord” relates to the musical idea of a chord, diverse elements working in concert to create a whole.

Elizabeth RiggleUntitled piecework drawing, Conte crayon, charcoal and tempera on paper, 112” x 120.” “While I was in residence at Yaddo, working on thoracic imagery, I would take sheets and just wind out lines as figurative threads to follow where they may. It was a respite from the directed and compressed drawing of the scores.”

DR: Do you have a general outline for the structure of the entire work in mind, or are you making it up as you go along?

ER: The spinal column has three curves, three roles, and three acts. It’s very simple. We start with the lumbar spine, the low notes L5 to L1, then the thoracic spine that supports the bony cage that is the thorax, protecting the heart and lungs. Then, finally the cervical spine, the little bird-like bones of the neck that are so hard to draw and there you have the three acts. Each has a different range of motion that implies a different activity.

When you open the human body through dissection, there’s this sense that you’re opening a curtain revealing layers of information and activity. A surgical theater where dissections take place is a much larger space with the human body at its center. My paintings are a reversal of that; it’s a surgical theater from the inside out.

DR: Is there a connection with your ongoing interest in Yoga as both student and teacher of this ancient art?

ER: I started practicing Yoga at forty, and was immediately struck by the repetitive practice and how it’s you and your body making shapes in space. Within a month I was flashing back to how I learned to draw. I studied figure drawing at SAIC with Betsy Rupprecht and one method she had was repetitive drawing, doing it again and again and again. She would keep you on the same piece of charcoal paper through the course of a morning. You weren’t working toward a finished drawing; you were working to master a process. It’s an eye hand thing and it’s very connected to what happens in Yoga when you accept that the body and mind are working in concert.

Elizabeth RiggleCompanionability (Duet), 2015, oil on canvas, 64” x 48″

DR: The bones in the “scenes” from your visual opera are abstracted in such a way that they morph into shapes that suggest surreal cartoons like some of the wilder Betty Boops or the “Pink Elephants on Parade” scene from Disney’s Dumbo. You also mentioned in an artist’s statement that you’re interested in Opera Buffo. It’s an interesting and unique approach to think of the body and its parts as a sort of comedy. Can you talk about this a bit?

ER: Opera Buffo… the body can certainly become a comedy, that’s for sure. It has to do with the fact that the body is constructed of different systems. They all have to work separately and in concert with this incredible switchboard that is the central nervous system running the show. Opera is a large, ungainly entertainment. There are so many elements in an opera working at the same time; it’s the nature of theater. In order to have this great big experience a lot of silly things have to happen to pull it off. Opera: things happen and everyone sings all the time.

When you make a painting on a large scale, it’s a very theatrical proposition. Things have to happen quickly in order for it to work. The physics of making something large require a certain level of activity and there are lots of mistakes. It kind of reflects how we stumble through our lives, you know, through our own librettos as it were.

DR: In many of the opera paintings part of the image is “framed” or contained by red areas that parallel the edges of the canvas. The image then seems to burst out of this boundary. It reminds me of a device that illustrators use sometimes. In particular, it reminds me of certain books I had as a child. This might also have something to do with the palette you use. I know this is pretty subjective, but I’m just wondering what your thoughts are on this. Is there a formal reason for it, or just a thing you do?

ER: The red is a repetition of what I spoke about earlier, the parameters for working. In Yoga it’s the mat. You stay on the mat while you work; those are the boundaries where you work, making shapes in space. And it also goes back to Betsy Rupprecht and how she would start her class. She would ask you to mark the edges of your paper.

DR: There are places where there’s a boundary and places where it isn’t there.

ER: I think that it’s because I always know that it’s there. And, in the paintings that are part of the Vertebral Opera, that boundary is related to how you layer things on the stage. You have different planes on the stage that characters cross through. Think of theater flats with painted scenery.

The red. The red is also in Chinese painting, in Byzantine painting. Red is the ground. Earth red is the ground, especially if you’re using gold leaf because it gives blood to the gold. What I’m doing with red is more blatant than that, but I’m thinking about how you put something in to give life to something. I’m thinking too about theater drapery, that dark red theater drapery that also relates to the colors in the body, the muscles of the body that also have that beautiful red color.

Elizabeth RiggleForward Roll, Act II Scene III, 2016, oil on canvas, 104” x 68.” “Forward roll is just that, as the deity within changes direction in order to make its way through one picture and into another, although there’s no telling if he’ll make it.”

DR: Some of the flower paintings have names as titles. Are they dedicated to particular people or are they broader cultural references? For example, I wondered if Dorothy in the For Dorothy series was a reference to the Wizard of Oz, is it?

ER: That’s a specific group of paintings, which riff on the idea of trellising roses. Dorothy is my partner’s mother’s name. I got to know her as she was beginning… Dorothy had Alzheimer’s. She was diagnosed shortly after I met her. In the time I knew her she gave me so much. She understood that I was with her son and loved him, and she started to tell me her family stories for safekeeping.

Elizabeth RiggleEspalier/Stebbins Ave., 2008, oil on paper, 60″x40.”

The paintings you are referring to are made with erasures… so the paint goes on; the paint comes off; the paint goes on; it comes off. It’s as if you’re looking through a window. The window becomes a trellis. The forms appear and disappear and the titles of them are related to the various stages of that process.

DR: That series has a very strong grid structure, more low-key in your other series of rose paintings. Can you talk about those paintings a bit?

ER: Those paintings were done prior, and were done in a period of disability. I had lost the tip of my left index finger on my job and it was basically stuck back on and I was out of work for eight weeks while it knit. I had a very large dressing on my left hand and I’m left handed. I couldn’t draw, but I could balance a brush. I had flowers in my studio and so I painted the same flowers every day.

DR: The grid just came out of that process somehow?

ER: I think the grid has always been there for me.

DR: You made a series of drawings on glass that consist of items of children’s clothing that appear to be dancing or cavorting in some way. It’s as if invisible children are wearing them, and then of course the fact that they’re on glass allows us to see through the drawings. Were you thinking of ghosts?

ER: Um… perhaps not directly. They are drawings of clothes, baby clothes that I was knitting from reclaimed copper wire. These would be suspended in my space and I would look at the light on them and they cast shadows. The nice thing about copper wire is that it holds a form and they would animate or imply animation. Basically, I was making a child out of something else… I was making children.

Elizabeth RiggleTripartite Passage, 2007, China marker, picture glass and wooden shelf 24″x24″x2.25″

DR: They seem related to the opera too. In some sense they’re animated and moving.

ER: Well, the body moves, and the way the wire holds the form… you can fold them up and put them away, but when you unfold them and spread them out they go from a little geometric, wiry mass to something that implies the body.

DR: Has your “day job” as part of the installation crew at MOMA (and previously at Chicago’s MCA) influenced you in any way? You get to interact with art and exhibition spaces in a much more intimate way than the general public, but also in a more detached and technical way.

ER: Yes Intimate, also detached and technical because you have to focus on object placement, object storage, moving through the space, all of those things take time. That’s where you get to look; that’s where you get to know something so essentially.

DR: Can you name some of the artists you feel connected to or who have influenced your work over the years?

ER: Artists… let’s see… The Master of the Osservanza Triptych, a 15th Century painter from Siena, one of the panels is at the Met. It depicts a journey that takes place through several panels and where the main character appears multiple times. It connects with my work in that it’s a narrative in pictures that deals with both time and space and has recurring characters.

The Master of the Osservanza Triptych

Then there’s James Ensor. There was an incredible show at The Art Institute of Chicago in the 70s and it blew my socks off. Let’s see… there’s Manet, and specifically his unfinished painting The Execution of Maximilian, which is in Boston. It’s an unfinished work, which is directly connected in my mind to the large Matisse in the collection at the Art Institute called By the River, an incredible painting.

DR: What do you feel connects the two paintings?

ER: They both share a masterful division of space. Then there’s Barbara Rossi as an artist. She’s one of those teachers who’s work was every bit as telling as what I received in her classroom.

Let’s see… I should also mention Minnie Black, the gourd lady. She’s an outsider artist who I met on my wedding trip to Georgia. We met her in Kentucky on our way there. I still have a snake of hers… so beautiful. I love her straightforward manner of making things. That snake… it hadn’t been working and she had just painted it and it was still wet. She wrapped a paper towel around it in order to move it and when she peeled the paper towel off, there was the snake!

Minnie BlackMinnie Black, Snake, self-taught artist, oil paint on ornamental gourd. Photo by E. Riggle.

DR: The towel had made a pattern on it?

ER: Yes, and it was a subtle pattern. She really got something there. She was so open to what could happen, which is inspirational. The memory of that paper towel and the moment that everything came into focus means so much to me. You have to go in there and stay open and that’s no easy thing to do these days.

Elizabeth RiggleThe artist in her studio. Photo by Jane Huntington.

Elizabeth RiggleHatch, 2015, oil on canvas, 72” x 109.” “This cartoon originated in thoughts about Leda and the Swan, as well as about how to express the idea of inside-out on the imagined stage.”

Top Image: Notes and Chords, 2016, Conte crayon and gouache, 15” x 144”


Elizabeth Riggle currently lives and works in New York City. She has shown at Art 101, Randolph Street Gallery, N.A.M.E. Gallery and many other venues. She has a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has received the Illinois Arts Council Artist Fellowship. Most recently she has done residencies at the Millay Colony and at Yaddo. More information here:

Dave Richards is a visual artist and writer based in Chicago.More information here: