If you haven't heard of Elise Swopes, chances are you've seen her work on social media in the past 10 years. The 32-year-old graphic artist currently has over 280,000 followers on Instagram and, to date, has partnered with more than 150 brands. Her latest creative partnership landed her a vacation (pre-pandemic) in the Maldives with Hollywood's power couple, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith. More impressive than her celebrity cosigns is how the college dropout-turned-influencer shoots most of her work on an iPhone.
Swopes' creative journey can be traced back to her time growing up biracial (Black dad, white mom) in the suburbs of Chicago. Struggling with her identity and a sense of belonging, she used photography and design as a creative outlet.
“I didn’t have much culture in a sense," Swopes reveals. "I think mixed kids aren’t invited into many spaces. We're somewhat loners, so that lonesomeness helped me to teach myself how to make art. I became obsessed with the Internet and sold Myspace layouts."
Now she uses Adobe Suite to create her signature style, combining cityscapes with fantasy elements like esoteric waterfalls, a massive moon, and curved buildings. One fan-favorite is her depiction of New York's concrete jungle, coupled with the unexpected addition of a giraffe exploring the city.
"The giraffe comes from doing different types of animal edits in my art," she says. "I realized the giraffe has a nice composition with the tall cityscapes, so it worked perfectly with the art."
A3 Mag: From iPhones to DSLRs, describe your evolution as a photographer and what you currently use to shoot? Elise Swopes: I taught myself graphic design at the age of 9 and owned my first website when I was 11. I started shooting photography with my iPhone in 2010. At that time, I was a college dropout and signed up for Instagram. Over time, Instagram put me on their suggested user list and I gained thousands of followers per day. When it comes to my camera, my iPhone has always been my best tool. I just love the mobility and control I have of everything with my fingers. I also use a Canon EOS R5 camera.
Did you always know you’d lead a creative life? When you're someone like me, who has a job that didn't exist years ago, you question if it'd ever be a possibility. I always knew I'd be an artist, but I wasn't sure if I'd be a graphic designer, painter, actor, or singer. What I’ve learned is that you don’t have to be an artist to be creative. The most mundane things require you to conceptualize in the moment. That is creativity.
What is your advice to Black creatives just getting their start? Do what you love. It will come with a bit of a struggle. People will question you. You may even question yourself. But stay in motion, trust yourself, and you’ll continue to grow. Also, self-care is the most important thing in life.
How has the Internet fueled your creativity? Who are some of your favorite collaborators you’ve met online? The Internet shows me what’s possible, from the tangible to the intangible. My favorite creator is trashhand [@trashhand] because he's been the most supportive person in my life for the last 10 years.
How do you feel about the term 'influencer,' and what does it mean to you? Influencer is what it says on the contract. My job is to be a person who makes a difference by being a good example. That means practicing kindness and being as creative as possible. No shade to other influencers who are okay with taking selfies and making simple ads, but my soul can’t allow it. We need to push forward, do things differently, and think outside the box. It's always been my hope and vision to show people the possibilities. That’s why the quote in my [Instagram] bio is ‘with a little imagination, anything is possible.’
Tell us about your journey in practicing kindness with yourself. At 25, I hit rock bottom. I felt like an embarrassment to myself and my parents. I was making a lot of mistakes and self-medicating. [But] there was a moment [when] mindfulness clicked in my head, and I realized I had to shift. I cut everything cold turkey, changed my entire life, cut a lot of friends, and stopped going out. I became a different person. Now I feel good in my own body and can tell my story and help other people.
How have you become an activist through your art? Initially, my art was for me to share who I am and for my voice to be heard. My true mission, before I leave this earth, is for it to be a human right to have a cellphone. I'd love to partner with Apple and give away millions of free phones to the underprivileged.
I started with nothing to my name—no money, laptop, or camera—just a cracked iPhone 4, a drive, a free platform, and a vision. If I can show people, and those who have nothing, where I started from and give them hope, then my heart and soul are fulfilled.