She sat on her mother’s lap. “She was stroking my hair from the top of my head to the middle of my back and I was trembling,” Elizabeth Collier said.
Today, Collier has a scar in the shape of an iron on the middle of her back that serves as a reminder of where she came from. Growing up, Collier and her siblings felt safest in a closet. “We felt safe in the dark.”
Still, Collier did not let the darkness engulf her. As a child she found comfort in the dolls she made out of the scraps of fabric that fell off her mother’s sewing table. “I made little people and little animals,” Collier said. “They were my friends.”
When Collier was 21, she escaped her mother’s reach and fled to her aunt and uncle’s house, where she was introduced to a caring environment in which she blossomed and was exposed to unabashed creativity.
“They were both cops. My aunt sewed dolls’ dresses and my uncle had a huge collection of tools and train sets. He built whole environments for the trains with trees and waterfalls. They appreciated art and never stifled their creativity and they gave me unconditional love.”
Collier went on to work in business management for many years at Lowe’s and then at Michael’s, where she framed art and saw inspiring works by other artists as she continued to create her own work, work that she is just now exposing to the public.
Collier, 45, moved to Spokane four years ago when her husband, who is in the Navy, was stationed here. Her North Side home is dedicated to her life’s work, grown-up versions of the little animals and people she used to make out of scraps of fabric.
A large puppet theater sits in the living room. Collier’s puppets, waiting to put on a show, hang on pegs. Other creatures are housed in shadow boxes perhaps so they cannot escape and wreak mischievous havoc. They are alien fish, a mummy, a magician pulling a far-from-cute rabbit out of a hat, and little ghouls with smiles full of sharp teeth. They dance, pose and many hold red balloons. “ ‘The Red Balloon’ was one of my favorite movies as a kid,” Collier said. “I often wondered ‘where the hell are my red balloons?’ ”
Last November, Collier stepped out of her own box and put her work in an alternative art show. “I decided I’m going to live now. I’m not going to be afraid or worry about what people think.” She was petrified, thinking that perhaps others would question her sanity when they saw her work, but she got a good response, selling 90 percent of her work. “I often felt like a butterfly bound with barbed wire. That wire has been clipped.”
When asked why she chooses such themes as the devil or monsters, she replied, “What you see with them is what you get. If you knew nothing about them, who would you pick up from the side of the road, a circus freak or Ted Bundy/Joseph Duncan?”
Her creations are endearing, almost familiar, and exaggerations of human nature. They make you smile, even laugh. Her “friends” are made of paper clay, Styrofoam, paint, wire and fabric. Collier’s children (24, 16, and 2) will always have friends.
Through March, Collier will be displaying her work at the Artist’s Tree Gallery, 828 W. Sprague Ave., in downtown Spokane. “I want to live before I die. I want to make my mark,” she said, “I should have been focusing on this my whole life.”