Elise Swopes began her art career as a college dropout. With no other certainty other than the traditional learning experience wasn’t for her, Swopes used her time—and her fourth generation iPhone with its cracked screen—to take photographs of the city around her. But, she did not stop there. Using design skills Swopes cultivated at 11 years old, trading MySpace layouts with classmates for McDonald’s cheeseburgers, she melded her photos of the Chicago landscape with images of giraffes, waterfalls and mountains. This combo created surreal cityscapes best described as Dali-meets-Adobe-in-the-age-of-Instagram and catapulted her into influencer territory.
“I gained over a quarter million followers in nine years,” says Swopes of her Instagram account that began in 2011 and includes Chrissy Teigan among her audience. “[And I] have leveraged that following, and my creativity, with over 100 brand partnerships.”
But, what drives her doesn’t seem to be external validators but rather, an internal curiosity to look past the obvious, and explore areas others don’t or won’t. It’s a subtle characteristic that sets her apart from others who fall into the influencer category.
Scroll through Swopes’ work and you will find an image of Lake Michigan, framed by the tall buildings and lights of the city, suddenly becomes a gushing waterfall. In another, a mountain of pine trees is seen emerging, alongside Chicago’s skyscrapers, from a thick fog. And then there is a giraffe, unbothered by its urban surroundings as it explores the city’s streets. The images are whimsical and dystopian, simple yet complex.
Swopes’ true talent is in her commitment and consistency to her craft. You can see where she explores new mediums when the color changes, the photos move and the point of view shifts. This kind of dedication creates a gravitational pull, and last year, Jada Pinkett and Will Smith were caught in Swopes’ orbit. Westbrook, the Smith’s production company, reached out to her for a campaign that took the content creator on vacation with the power couple to the Maldives.
“Initially I was terrified that I may not be ‘good enough’,” Swope recalls. “But I tried my best to practice all of my ideas beforehand on myself, so I felt a lot more confident during the shoot. At first, I had no idea how to do anything they were asking me to do. But I said yes and figured it out later, the same way I do everything and everything worked out so well.”
Swopes knew it was time to start taking her so-called “hobby” more seriously when she was being asked to fly to Dubai and Paris for work leads arriving through her Instagram account. In 2013, she was working as a secretary at a realty business but later quit that same year to focus on making art full-time. Her paid partnerships include brands such as Apple, Google, Nike, and American Express. Today, she is working on a book, has a mentee program, and has a weekly podcast (in addition to her art). People who want to support her work can purchase prints for sale on her website. However, she says the best way to support her work is to like, comment, and share paid posts featured on her Instagram account.
“It allows the agency or brand to see that I’m supported and the money they are paying me to post is worth it,” says Swopes. “As a content creator, value is everything. I need assistance from my followers to make sure [brands see a return of investment]. Short of spending money, comment, like, or share my paid post so that I can continue to get more work to eat and pay my bills.”
Swopes continues to create most of her work on her iPhone because “while almost everyone has a phone, not everyone makes art with it.” It is her ability to see past perceived limitations that makes Swopes special. Inspiring others to do the same, might be her greatest accomplishment.