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Meet guest of episode 055, Elise Swopes:
When Elise Swopes first joined Instagram in 2010, she couldn’t have imagined that she’d one day be featured on billboards, in commercials, and on mood boards at agencies across the globe. She just knew that the phone in her hand held an incredible power, one that would allow her to inspire others while showcasing her unique vision.
Since then, the self-taught photographer and graphic designer has used her business savvy to spin influencer marketing on Instagram into a full-fledged career. Her ability to connect with an audience of millions by melding art with a message has opened up once-in-a-lifetime opportunities — like throwing out the first pitch at a Cubs game, or becoming a top-selling artist on SuperRare.
Her artistic process begins with expansive cityscapes taken while piloting drones, scaling skyscrapers, or hanging out of helicopters. She then transforms the original image, bringing photos to life with her fingers. Taking inspiration from Mother Nature, she uses water and light as a paintbrush; snow turns into speckles, street lamps become glowing orbs, and water droplets take on abstract forms as she edits on the go using an array of mobile apps.
Her most popular creations bring a fantastic magical realism to urban landscapes as she manipulates the everyday into something from another world. For a partnership with Method, she envisions Lake Michigan as a basin to wash your hands, the sun as a juicy slice of orange, and soap bubbles as a biosphere encapsulating a miniature city. Her signature giraffe brings a touch of whimsy to unexpected settings, including the surreal 3D animations she’s beginning to explore.
She isn’t scared to turn the camera on herself, either. Blending street style with effortless cool, Swopes stars in countless campaigns each year. Her eye for color and wide, authentic smile put a glamorous spin on everything from sneaker drops to product launches.
Moving from Chicago to New York in early 2020 allowed Swopes to train her eye on the glittering skyline of a whole new city. Not long after, she became fascinated with the rapidly expanding marketplace for artwork backed by cryptocurrency. She began supporting artists creating non-fungible tokens (NFTs) based on the blockchain; you can browse her collection at swopes.gallery, a meditative virtual museum.
These days, the collectors seek her out. Her first Nifty Gateway collection, six images starring her iconic giraffe in support of the Somali Giraffe fund, sold out within minutes. When Coinbase, the largest US cryptocurrency exchange, brought the world’s first NFT Battle to ComplexCon, she faced off against some of the biggest names in the game live on the Secret Walls Battle Stage.
On social media, her videos instantly stand out. She doesn’t just make the impossible seem possible; she makes the whole process incredibly fun. In her deft hands, a vegan recipe becomes a mini music video, and a quick trip becomes a full-fledged adventure. Her artwork is featured on the splash screen for the latest version of Adobe Premiere Pro, inspiring other artists to break the rules of reality.
While almost everyone has a phone, not everyone runs a business with it. Swopes is determined to change that by making her methods accessible. She works extensively with technology companies like Apple to motivate a new generation of photographers. She takes the mystery out of creating magic by offering a Swopes Note newsletter, tutorial video channel, and one-on-one mentoring as free, easy-to-access resources. In late 2020, she collaborated with BrainTreeMedia to launch Urban Jungle, a mobile app that allows you to embellish your edited photos with waterfalls and wild animals.
In her lessons, she preaches the sublime serendipity of allowing yourself to take risks rather than trying to fit into preconceived notions of what your work should look like. She encourages young artists and entrepreneurs to look past the details and focus on the big picture, and to embrace ideas rather than an impossible ideal of perfection.
As an outspoken advocate for mental health, she’s been open about the challenges she’s faced, sharing her story through platforms like the Swopes So Dope podcast and TEDx Talk at UIUC. After years of proudly identifying as a college dropout, Columbia College formally awarded her Life Experience Credit in recognition for her work as a successful business owner and artist. She’s currently working toward her Master’s in Behavioral Psychology with plans to pursue a doctorate.
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