Spencer Elliot of Grand Rapids is a model, photographer and videographer. He currently is modeling for Chaco, is a part of creative collaborative Michigan House, and is directing and shooting a documentary on NFL athlete Bronson Hill in Los Angeles through Grand Rapids-based film studio Carbon Stories. Elliot also is working on his own project called Absorb & Create, where he designs and directs photoshoots with his creative partner, Jesh Washington, to create a digital color wheel with a lens on social justice and general artistic experimentation.
What kind of art do you create?
I’m a visual artist. I model, I do a lot of video work, and I really enjoy photo work as well. The majority of the work I do is modeling and video, but I’m really into how visuals can convey things that words can’t.
How did you get into digital mediums, such as photos and videos?
I grew up loving movies. They resonated with me on a really deep level — they weren’t just entertainment. They were teachers and friends, in a lot of instances. Once I was old enough to start working with cameras, I took to it like wildfire.
You graduated from Michigan State University, where you were a Division I athlete on the football team. What was the transition from being an athlete to an artist like?
Art and sports are both forms of expression, and they’re both ways to compete. Maybe art is not about competing with other artists, but it’s about competing with yourself. As an athlete, I was super competitive. I hated losing. I understand there are things to learn from losing, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy it or want to get used to it. I think that’s what has propelled me as an artist — I don’t want to be stagnant. You can’t be worrying about the last game or the last project. There’s no point in focusing on the past. You can’t live there.
What’s it like walking into a modeling shoot? How do you embody someone else’s vision during this process?
It’s really exciting, and it’s really nerve-wracking. When you’re a part of creating something original, you don’t know if it’s going to be cool. You hope it’s going to be awesome, and you do everything in your power to make sure that it turns out and works, but until you actually just do it, you don’t fully know.
Do you have an example of this type of experience?
I recently helped Chaco launch their monochromatic line. Jamie Kirby (Chaco, Michigan House) and I went down to Chicago and went to a studio called Someoddpilot. They’re really experimental, and at one point they were hanging up a sheet and setting up a camera in front of it. They had all these colored gel screens to put over the lights, and I had to go behind this curtain with another model. They asked the model and I, ‘What song do you want us to put on? We need you to dance.’ The first thing that came to my head was, ‘What?!’ We were in this dark room with a blanket bed sheet hanging from the ceiling in front of us, in some old third story Chicago studio, with lights flashing everywhere. It was almost like acting. You have to trust it. But my favorite images from the monochromatic launch ended up coming from this shoot.
How has the West Michigan community influenced your art?
I cannot think about being in West Michigan and being in Grand Rapids and not think about being an extreme minority everywhere I go. I’m a black model for an outdoor brand in Grand Rapids, where the majority of people in that space do not look like me. When I’m on the set, I know that. I want to try and be inspiring. I want us to be on the same page, doing our best work together. I want to set a good tone, because I want there to be more people that look like me in these studios. There are a lot of talented, beautiful shades of brown in this city that are capable of being in here.
I want a little black kid to see my photos and be like, ‘Damn. I’m in Grand Rapids, Michigan. That dude’s from Grand Rapids, Michigan. I can do≠ that! I can be a model too!’ That’s all I want to do: Inspire.
Follow Elliot's work on Instagram at juice__mon.
Left: Absorb & Create. By Spencer Elliot Middle and Right: Spencer Elliot modeling for Chaco. Courtesy Photos