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Detail of a portrait, by Juan Posada, of Environmental Design alumna, creative director and designer Elyse Marks.
Detail of a portrait, by Juan Posada, of Environmental Design alumna, creative director and designer Elyse Marks.

feature / profile / alumni / environmental-design / spatial-experience-design / diversity / fall-2021
October 07, 2021
By Solvej Schou
Work images courtesy of Elyse Marks

CREATIVE RESILIENCE: ALUM ELYSE MARKS CONCEPTUALIZES NATURE-BASED HEALING SPACES DURING THE PANDEMIC

ArtCenter alumni have adapted to change during the COVID-19 pandemic in a wide variety of ways. Some turned inward, and others turned outward. They slowed down or sped up. This story is part of a series that focuses on three alumni who have showcased vulnerability and strength—and have embraced their creativity—during a time of chaos.

It’s a crisp afternoon, and creative director and designer Elyse Marks (BS 08 Environmental Design) picks up her laptop and takes it to a nearby window to show off the view. Tall trees and the snow-covered Whitefish Range of mountains tower in the distance.

After a decade of Marks working in experiential design for corporate firms in San Francisco and L.A., Marks moved with her husband to the small resort town of Whitefish, Montana (population nearly 9,000) in December 2019. Her sophisticated projects include Salesforce’s 2019 Dreamforce conference, featuring a digital waterfall of analytics, and Mazda’s space at the Detroit International Auto Show. During the pandemic, Marks transitioned to conceptualizing nature-based healing spaces.

Elyse Marks with her dog in Montana, 2020. Image courtesy of Marks.
Elyse Marks with her dog in Montana, 2020.

Nature is inspiring. Hearing birds, smelling the air, being in the wild.

Elyse MarksCreative director and designer
Songbird Escape concept by Elyse Marks, 2020.
Songbird Escape concept by Elyse Marks, 2020.

“Within the corporate structure, I found that it was difficult to be a woman, a Black woman and introverted, and I never really fit in,” says Marks via Zoom. “The best thing for me was to move from the Bay Area to a smaller and more affordable town with a slower pace of life, and we already had friends in Whitefish. There’s a lot of nature and hiking, which is what I wanted.”

Marks, who grew up in L.A., was just settling into being in Whitefish in early 2020, had started therapy and had begun working remotely on in-person events in Las Vegas and Miami when the pandemic forced the events to be canceled, and she was dropped as a freelancer. “Then all the racial stuff happened,” she says.

After the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, Marks marched in Black Lives Matter rallies in Whitefish. Soon, armed supporters of then-President Donald Trump showed up. “It was scary,” she says. “A Trump supporter came up to a woman named Sami—a biracial woman, like me—and started yelling, maskless, in her face. It became a famous photo in our area.”

Elyse Marks teaching a workshop at the Kalico Art Center, 2020.
Elyse Marks teaching a workshop at the Kalico Art Center, 2020.

Depressed, Marks didn’t work for months. When Sami, who she had befriended, suggested forming an anti-racist support group, Marks, Sami, another woman, and the town rabbi started meeting every week in a park—wearing masks—says Marks, who is half Jewish. The group named itself Ignite, and Marks helped with branding and messaging.

“It was very therapeutic,” says Marks. “It made me realize that even though there was lot of people scared about change, you still need to live your life and show up in the community.”

Revived, Marks began conceptualizing meditative spaces such as a circular songbird sanctuary—decorated with wildflowers—that floats over water. Another concept space, shown virtually at Design Miami last December, featured a giant piece of electric blue and purple agate. “Nature is inspiring,” says Marks. “Hearing birds, smelling the air, being in the wild.”

For an art installation last October in partnership with Kalico Art Center in the nearby town of Kalispell, Marks created an immersive landscape at the local business Nature Baby Outfitter. The installation featured green recycled yarn crisscrossing an empty space outside the store. That project led to Marks serving as an instructor of a community class in person at Kalico—her first time teaching.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself through this pandemic,” Marks says. “Before, my life was just work, work, work. Now, I’m trying to be more vulnerable and reflective, and in touch with myself.”

Recycled yarn installation by Elyse Marks for Downtown Stories Kalispell, for Nature Baby Outfitter and the Kalico Art Center, 2020.
Recycled yarn installation by Elyse Marks for Downtown Stories Kalispell, for Nature Baby Outfitter and the Kalico Art Center, 2020.