When I first discovered Ellen's work, it was through an Instagram post by my friend Maggie, who had received one of Ellen's pieces as a birthday gift from her folks. Maggie posted an image of Ellen's simple and stunning work and I was smitten. I knew that Ellen would have to be one of the artists in this series, especially after a chance meeting with her in downtown Lexington. She was incredibly kind and supportive of Birch & Pine, and I knew I wanted to get to know her and the work she creates on a deeper level. So just before Christmas, I met with Ellen in her new home and studio: she had pumpkin bread baking and soft music playing and put on the kettle for tea. We got to know one another before I began shooting, and it was so nice to be in her company. It's rare that I get to chat about creating, influences, and inspirations, especially over such a lovely tea service. I felt I was truly in the company of a dear friend, and I think that's just another element this wonderful gem brings to the table. We also spoke about her upbringing in a converted schoolhouse (which sounded completely magical), her strong and life-giving mama, and what brought her back to Lexington, which all have played into the work she now creates. She was candid and honest in her answers, and I relished the way that she so easily spoke on life matters with conviction and composure.
Ellen's work is completely unique: she uses the elements of fiber and texture and embroidery in a modern and somewhat edgy way, pushing beyond the general and expected ways to embroider and creating a niche all her own. I love the simplicity and contrast of her pieces, the black threads against the neutral and natural canvas, as well as the subtle textures and variations within her work. There is a comforting continuity in her work, and it is completely identifiable: you couldn't mistake one of her works, even those that are three-dimensional or contain other elements, such as wood. Her vision is clearly stated through her pieces. I'm going to stop rambling and let you enjoy the images of Ellen's absolutely gorgeous new home and studio (she just moved in, believe it or not!) and her insightful and interesting interview.
Tell me about your work, your medium(s), and the creative vision behind it.
I went to fiber easily and not surprisingly, because all the women in my family do some kind of hand work: weaving, knitting, basket-making, stained glass, embroidery, etc. I quickly started putting the love of sculpture with the love of fiber and went from there. In school I made gigantic pieces made of resin-soaked black burlap or mountain shapes that I would slowly cover with glued jute and it was fun to just play. I had the time to devote to art because I was in school and I had the room to stretch out. The UK art building at the time was an old tobacco warehouse and had lots of floor space, huge windows and quiet rooms where you could do your own thing for as long as you wanted.
What has your journey been like thus far? What are the roadblocks you have encountered?
I got my B.F.A. and then lost all my space and free time, so the work I did became smaller "lap pieces"-things I could pick up and put down again just as easily. I started working with raw canvas and black embroidery when I lived in Portland for a year while finishing grad school in Montessori Education (this was my realistic solution to having to pay the student loans back). I moved a lot after that and I stuck to the format of small, stitched pieces I could travel with and stretch on a frame for display. Teaching turned out to not be a good fit but I was very inspired by the Montessori materials aesthetically and made some of my own art based on them. I work full time as a veterinary technician now, which is something I have come to love-a mix of doing good work for others with my interest in science and medicine. I also wait tables. I'm on my feet constantly. Finding the time/space/energy to make art has been my biggest challenge in the last few years but I have a new house now with a studio that is quiet and big enough for me, my sewing table, a few shelves for books and fabric and my red heeler, Ruby. If I'm not working on something big and complicated, I'll listen to audio books from the library or watch HBO shows.
What are your goals for your work? Where would you like to see yourself in a few years?
I haven’t really thought about goals. I just keep going. Things I learned in the past inspire cycles of thought for future work. It can be surprising what your mind will cook up while you are busy doing other things-connections are made without being cognizant of it, it’s very helpful when you sit down to sketch out an idea, like there’s a shadow-you that’s helping you along.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I work about 50+ hours a week and a typical day is being either at the clinic, at the restaurant or both. I get up around 5:00am and run or swim every morning at the YMCA. I get a few free evenings a week and a day or two off but I try to fill all the free time that I do have with enriching things like hiking with my boyfriend and dog, working on art, home improvement projects or planning a garden for my new house, I’d love to travel more but we try to make little weekend trips here and there. Lexington is nicely located to get to a beach, lake, or forest fairly quickly.
As a working artist, do you find your work/home life difficult to balance? Are you still working elsewhere? Any advice for others out there trying to do the same?
It is difficult to balance but I find that there is a lot of time in the day if you plan how to use it. I like to keep my hands busy all the time and it’s surprising how much you can get done a little at a time. Don’t stop working, that’s my advice.
Does your personal style inspire the aesthetic of your work, or are you influenced externally (nature, others’ work, etc.)? Both?
My love of neutrals and black has slowly seeped into my clothing and home decor. I don't buy anything that’s not some version of white or black, or is not made of wood, fiber, metal, ceramic, glass or stone (these are Montessori aesthetic outlines as well). These guidelines help me stay calm and uncluttered. The world I work in is very loud and fast-paced so I need my home and personal items to be a quiet retreat from the noise, I don’t even listen to music much at home, it’s too distracting. I grew up in the country as an only child whose mother also worked two jobs and after school I either went to the library or home, which were both very still places.
Do you have a specific personality or ideal mindset of an individual you visualize when creating?
Not necessarily but I do like my pieces to have similar aesthetic qualities.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
Over the years I have found myself only being able to work with and look at neutral colors (cream, white, oatmeal) and black. I love black. It is the finest color. When you use black you immediately create mystery and depth. In Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon" she describes the many textures of a dark night- some kinds of black being silky, some woolly, some like fingers as different as shades of green. When I used to try to paint in school I would work really hard on a something only to have and sometimes satisfy the incredible urge to smear the entire canvas in the richest and thickest of black paint I could find. I see what I make as quiet movement, like a pulse, meditative and personal but not in an obvious or figurative way-you will never see me create any kind of human figure. I don’t constrict myself to using only certain materials but I use a lot of fiber because of the malleability.
Do you have a favorite piece? If so, describe it and the ideas/vision behind it.
I try not to look back so I’d like to think of my favorite piece as being the next one I’m going to make. The first sculpture I made in college is probably my favorite even though I’d die of embarrassment if it ever unearthed itself from the landfill because it was a hideous thing. It was important, though, because it represents how much I learned from that class.
Have you always thought of yourself as an artist/creative individual? Have you dabbled in other art forms/mediums? What brought you back to your current medium?
I used to draw when I was little but it was always everyday objects, especially fruit, palm trees, couches, kitchens with microwaves and for some reason I would draw a Coca Cola can with a bent straw over and over again. I think it was my obsession with what I now think of as “suburban fantasies”. I always wanted to drink Coke and eat American cheese and have a den with a couch and carpeting. The house I grew up in is a school house that was built in the 1920’s. The aesthetics I now appreciate but at the time the ivy covered brick, wood floors with oriental rugs, vaulted ceilings, wood burning stove and spiral staircase just seemed strange to me because none of my other friends’ houses looked anything like it. I drew what I saw on TV and in magazines at other people’s houses. In high school and college painting and drawing was very frustrating for me because I had no desire to re-create three dimensional objects in two, essentially to flatten them. I do admire those that can do this successfully (one of my favorite paintings is of a glass of water on a table) but I wanted to pull it out, to touch it and move it. My hands are very sensitive, like a raccoon’s, and it just feels good to me to be able to touch and manipulate different textures. Sculpture appealed to me very much after I had a teacher explain to me how to activate space-how to make sculptures come alive and how to charge the air around them. I was an art history major at UK at the time and quickly switched to art studio because I enjoyed thinking about all the materials I could use and the shapes I could create.
Tell me a bit about you and your life, your interests, your roles.
My life right now is about being loyal to my responsibilities, both financial and personal. I am career-centered, accruing experience in the medical field so that I can grow it into a job that will take care of me for a long time. In a perfect world, I’d split my time between part-time work and making art, all while traveling as much as possible. We’ll see…
What is your workspace/studio like? Tell me a bit about the place you create and the feeling it evokes.
In my new house I have the luxury of space for a studio. It’s upstairs and it has lots of storage and a good amount of light, though I’m planning to add some skylights for even more. I plan to paint everything white to keep me focused on what’s in front of me. Really I just need room for a big drawing table, another table for my sewing machine and enough floor space to lay out large canvas pieces. I’d love to have a small woodworking shop in the basement and to start making my own frames.
Who do you admire/who inspires you to keep creating?
My sculpture teacher introduced me to a lot of artists and I was a work/study student at the Fine Arts Library where I discovered Eva Hesse, Yoko Ono, Agnes Martin, Lee Bontecou, Maya Lin, Louise Nevelson, Isamu Noguchi, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Kiki Smith, Andy Goldsworthy, Ann Hamilton and Tim Hawkinson-who all blew my mind in their own unique ways. Eva Hesse especially because she used everyday items to create works of art that were strange and abstract but also personal and moving without being too obvious. She was also professionally successful on her own merit even while living in a very male-dominated New York art scene, I appreciate this very much. So, these things started coming together for me and I began to create a style that I enjoyed in materials and colors that spoke to me. It was a very rich time because I had a group of friends who were extremely creative musically and artistically. They worked hard and took these things very seriously. Irene Moon was a big inspiration to me when she lived here in Lexington. She brought a lot of music and ideas to this city when there wasn’t much going on. I’m currently poring over Georgia O’Keeffe, Hideaki Yamanobe and David Hockney drawings. Writers like Annie Dillard, Dylan Thomas and Denise Levertov as well as musicians like Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell can also send me to the moon. Flora and fauna are a constant source of inspiration, especially birds, their flight patterns and architectural skills are very appealing to me. I’ve volunteered at several wildlife hospitals and would love to rehabilitate wildlife if I could support myself doing it. And my mom’s work ethic is astounding; she works three jobs and gets up at 4:00am to run and do yoga (she’s in her sixties and does backbends and pushups).
What do you do outside of creating?
Other than work and making art I enjoy things everybody else does, I suppose; gardening, hiking, going to the movies. I’m not much of a cook, I can make soup and oatmeal. I play the viola and enjoy phlebotomy.