Two-headed sheep, purple-ribboned skull bunnies, pin-covered eggs and paintings of eye-patched
chicks screaming hungrily, “It’s human tonight, bitches!” Today is a truly black Easter Sunday at the household of Elizabeth McGrath and husband Morgan Slade, hidden in a smog-laden neighbourhood of downtown Los Angeles.
Liz – as she likes to be called by her friends – sits in her impressive studio, filled with Californian sunshine and stuffed to the rafters with boxes and boxes of weirdness. Household goods such as buttons, wire and feathers are in tidy piles everywhere, as are glass eyeballs, resin ferrets and life-size bear heads. While we talk she paints a watercolour animal that’s part bat, part zebra and part dragon. It’s wearing heels and a tiny top hat.
Affectionately dubbed Bloodbath McGrath by her pals, Liz’s creations are dream-like and strange personalities from a freakish carnival sideshow world of phantasmagoric wonder.
Like dark, Disneyesque sculptures, they’re a patchwork mix of taxidermy, resin, paper, wood and textiles, with backstories of horror, sadness and humour. Some pieces are intricate dioramas, a few resemble warped interpretations of colonial-style animal heads, others are cute illustrations and distempered posters.
Liz’s singular vision has attracted attention from art collectors and critics across the globe, with shows in New York, Berlin, Tokyo and her hometown of LA.
Liz’s current project – a finely-furnished series of Easter baskets stuffed with bloody goodies – is only a short chapter in her career, but it’s indicative of her ironic humour and cutesy-styled comic book horror, fused with a religious bent.
“It’s my Mom’s birthday today, but I saw her yesterday because I knew that, if I went today (Easter Sunday), my parents would try and make me go to church,” explains the youthful 36 year old, whose witty and subversive work has been partly shaped by a strict Catholic upbringing.
Liz’s father considered joining the priesthood as a young man, while her mother spent time in an English convent. When she hit 13, her parents sent their rebellious daughter to a Fundamentalist Baptist correctional institution. It was practically a prison, but she talks about it with ease and calm.
“I’d just done acid for the first time and my parents were like, ‘Hey we’re going to the zoo for your 13th birthday!’,” she says. “I decided to go and keep them happy. My parents had this Isuzu van and I had a tri-hawk and spiky Dr Martens. I’d put nails through them instead of spikes because they were less expensive for a 12-year-old.
“So, we were on the road and I was sleeping because I was hungover. I woke up and saw we were going along this dirt track in the middle of nowhere. My folks told me we were lost. I was like, ‘If we don’t go the zoo,maybe we can go horseback riding?’ But up ahead was what looked like a fortress.
My parents got out of the van and I looked over and saw all these heavy metal chicks wearing culottes and pulling weeds. There was Christian music blaring, and I put two and two together. I started screaming and kicking, totally shredding all the vinyl in the van with my spiked nail shoes. A preacher guy came over and said, ‘You’re going to be staying here for a year.’ I was like, ‘Ugh! So this is victory for girls?’”
Liz was literally carried away and dumped in solitary confinement. Her thoughts immediately focused on engineering a great escape.
“At the time, most of my other friends were in mental institutions,” she says. “But those places were cool, because people would just hook up with each other and smoke. I was in juvenile hall at one point, and they’d give us cigarettes, or even Valium, if we wanted them.
At mental institutions you just had to climb a tree to escape, but in this place they did all-night prayer vigils outside my room, only letting me out to go to the bathroom. One time I fought back, so they made me use a bucket. Initially I was like, ‘Fuck you!’ But after the first week I was kind of, ‘Aarggh!’ and by the second week I was, ‘OK, I believe in God! Just let me out of here! Jesus – save me!’”
Emerging from solitary confinement, Liz was put on a ‘buddy system’, where girls were tied together at the wrist in pairs and banned from talking or even making eye contact.
“It was like Guantanamo Bay, but weirdly Christian,” she recalls. “Everyone wore brown flower prints and it was totally Little House On The Prairie. Anyway, I teamed up with a couple of new girls by using evil eye contact, and we made a break for it. We got over an 11ft fence with barbed wire and ran for about a mile. One of the girls sprained her ankle immediately, and as they were picking her up I could hear the dogs and a jeep. I don’t know how we thought we were going to get away. They eventually caught us and took us back. Ah, the good old days.”
Liz describes how girls were used as labour to construct rows of tiny ‘God Rooms’. One day a piece of lumber fell on one girl, who later died because the staff refused to call an ambulance.
However vile and oppressive, the institution was where Liz began to hone her artistic craft by drawing for her fellow inmates and creating covers for greeting cards – mainly teddy bears and crosses. But when she left, things didn’t get any easier.
“My parents had been instructed to burn everything I owned, including my photos and entire record collection,” she says. “I had no cool clothes, just a closet full of culottes. Of course, the first thing I wanted to do was to go and see my friends. I showed up all fat with zits and a bad haircut. I was like, ‘Hey guys’ and they were all, ‘Who are you? What bands do you like? Do you even know who the cool bands are now?’ But I didn’t know anything because I’d been locked up for a year and a half! And they just totally shunned me. So I said, ‘You know what? Fuck you guys!’”
Before long, Liz had enrolled in art classes at Pasadena City College, and returned to music as a singer in cult experimental punk band Tongue, whose drugged-out, dysfunctional stage performances were legendary in the LA area.
“The whole premise for Tongue was just to get drunk and wasted,” says Liz, who still enjoys a beer now and then but has been a health junkie for years. “We started as an all-Asian punk band, but most of us were Mexican and just looked Asian. We were playing in East LA to an all-ages Latino crowd, and I always brace myself doing all-ages shows because kids are mean.
But then all their gangster uncles started turning up. The pit was going crazy and these guys were just socking people in the face. A bloody fight started breaking out in the middle of the gig, with bottles being thrown into faces. Then someone pulled out a gun and started firing into the air and threatening to shoot people. It was then I thought, ‘I’m not doing this any more. It’s pretty fucking lame.’”
Not long after leaving the band, Liz was hired as a stop-motion animator, making pop videos with Fred Stuhr (director for metal outfit Tool) and learning the craft of sculpting miniatures. Some of this artistic evolvement was influenced by living in downtown LA, a hive of scum and villainy.
And although the city has tidied itself up in recent years, you can still find a host of freakish and demented characters – many jittering from crack addiction - shouting nonsense into the air and pushing shopping trolleys filled with plastic bottles. Today, it’s right on Liz’s doorstep.
“I’ve seen maybe three or four dead bodies,” she says. “Just hanging out on the corner I’ll see the guy with the giant foot, or the one with no arms and legs who’ll move about on a gurney he operates with weird tubes. There used to be this lady called Lisa. She once told me men attacked her who were into colostomy rape.
This toothless, homeless woman was like, ‘Yeah, they just want to get in this hole right here. They pay extra money for this.’ Lisa got really sick and, when I saw her again, she said, ‘The hole got infected. You just can’t use it for that.’ It was just wrong. I thought I was living inside a Joe Coleman painting. Seriously.”
Liz, whose dead pet Chihuahua sits taxidermied on her dresser table, builds her living dead things while listening to audio books. And now that she’s been “lumped in with the lowbrow art scene” she shares with artists such as Coop and Kozik, her career has really begun to take off.
“I know some people hate lowbrow art, but I don’t,” she says. “I’m not an art connoisseur. There’s always this argument that what I do isn’t really art, but I don’t focus on that. I’ve worked in fast food restaurants and at the mall for nearly 15 years. I don’t really care what people say because I don’t know what else I could do.”
Liz is currently working with kinky designer Jared Gold on a series of dark fashion accessories, including marionettes with embroidered faces, some of which were revealed at a celebrity-filled runway show that featured a performance from Miss Derringer, the band Liz fronts and whose music is penned by husband Morgan.
Far mellower than Tongue, the darkness is still there in abundance, pouring from every country-tinged, heart-bleeding doo-wop number. Johnny Cash’s influence is heavy, as is Blondie, whose drummer, Clem Burke, guests on the album.
Half-psychobilly and half-glitter and glam, Miss Derringer is a departure from Liz’s punk roots, but the band still couldn’t resist touring with the legendary Bad Religion and playing the House Of Blues in California.
“The curtains opened in Anaheim and I saw all the skinhead dudes at the front,” she says. “We started playing, doing choreographed dance moves, and there was just silence after the first song. By the second, there was just boos and calls of ‘show us your tits’. At first I was like, ‘Ugh!’, but then kept thinking it was like a John Waters movie.
Our guitarist Bill Woodcock said, ‘You guys wanna hear a really fast song?’ and the crowd went, ‘Yeah!’ Then we played our slowest number!”
“It was kind of an awesome experience. If it wasn’t for the fact I was a girl singer, I’d have been beaten up. We got death threats for a while. But after getting booed by 1,500 people at that show, I know I can do anything now!”
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