My work reflects an ongoing effort to integrate my two polestars: first, a commitment to environmental sustainability and scientific truth and second, my sheer delight in working with materials to make art. I always made artwork but, like so many of us, did not believe that it could be a viable career path. So after college I went to -wait for it - law school.
For the first 25 years of my working life, I was an environmental lawyer - as an Assistant Attorney General in Massachusetts, part of one of the first environmental protection units in the country, as a partner in a small public interest law firm, as General Counsel to the Union of Concerned Scientists and lawyer to many environmental groups around the country and as a partner in a large law firm.
The work was, for many years, deeply satisfying. But as time passed, I kept stealing more and more time to make art and, as I approached my 25th year in practice, I decided that half of my life had been given to environmental law and the next half could be dedicated to making art. I became a full-time artist. That was 20 years ago, as hard to believe as I find the passage of time. Before the leap, I did worry about changing who I “was” so completely and abruptly, but once it happened, I honestly never had a microsecond of regret.
Washington, DC is, in many ways, a good place to be an artist (although perhaps not the best place if you want to be an “art star”). It is a relatively small arts community that is easy to learn and navigate and I have found my fellow artists to be generous and welcoming. I have shown consistently throughout the region and been represented by several galleries over this period.
While I began as a painter, I quickly moved to experimenting with other media. I essentially gave up brushes about 15 years ago (although since seeing the DeKooning retrospective at MOMA several years ago, I have been yearning to pick up a brush again.) The first medium, after paint, that I worked in seriously was dry pigment and oil bars, laying successive layers down and excavating among them. I always delight in noting that one of those pieces, called “Twelve Linear Feet” is the largest work in the collection of the District of Columbia government shown at the Wilson Building downtown.
While the quality of artworks is a subject of eternal debate, quantity is objectively provable! I still make site-specific murals in these media on commission and I love to get back to it when I have the opportunity.
I think the next medium I became enthralled with was encaustic, a mixture of wax and resin that is applied to a surface while molten. Encaustic creates a beguiling surface that can be textured, colored, embedded with objects and manipulated in endless ways. I began making smooth encaustic paintings on panels, then fairly soon, began to physically manipulate, score, scratch, and dig into the surface.
I became interested in the fact that wax has an “objectness” that goes beyond being applied to a surface and hung on a wall; I worked for a couple of years, slowly uncoupling the wax from the support until I got it entirely free. I love the resulting sculptures.
When I find a new medium, I don’t give up the last one, I just add the new one to my repertoire. So it was with tar. I began working with tar in 2008. I saw an artist use tar like paint on paper and noticed that it created bleeding edges in shades of dark brown. It was a revelation to me that tar is a gorgeous brown, not black, and it led me to try slathering tar on boards and making images by removing the tar with solvent. (nasty, nasty - I know!) My first show of this work was at the Nevin Kelly Gallery in DC in 2009, called Dark Matter and it was followed a few year later by a show called Primordial Soup at McLean Project for the Arts. I put tar aside for a while but just this summer I have come back to it in preparation for a show in January at the Athenauem in Alexandria.
Finally, I am now working with wire and plastic coating to make sculptural forms. You may have noticed a strange preoccupation with nasty, smelly, probably toxic stuff. I don’t know why this is, but I do know that I don’t have an excess of brain cells to sacrifice. Maybe my next medium should be crayons.
I have always made prints along with whatever else I am doing, both as a way of keeping in touch with the satisfying immediacy of printmaking and a way to work through new ideas.
Beginning during a two-week residency in 2015 at the Zea Mays Printmaking Studio in western Massachusetts, I developed a process for creating monoprints directly on acrylic sheet. After the first week, during which time the snow outside the studio windows grew to several feet, I thought I had failed completely, but after a grueling period of trial and error, I began to figure out how long I need to allow for drying between applying layers, and it started to work. The prints have a depth and luminosity that are, in my experience, not achievable in other media.
Now let me move from the media to the message. My work has for many years been inspired by biological and natural structures and, in the past 5 years or so, by the threats posed by global climate change. I consider this to be the existential threat of our time and am committed to doing what I can with my artwork to help draw attention to the need for urgent action. Working with various collaborators, I have created installations dealing with the effects of the melting of the polar ice cap (Voyage of Discovery, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2014; McLean Project for the Arts, 2015), the destruction of coral reefs worldwide (White Hot, Artists and Makers, 2016) and the climate-change caused migration of infectious diseases around the planet (Migration of Pestilence, Otis Street Arts Project, 2017).
The wax sculptures, called Unidentified Specimens, were first shown in the AAAS show; they represent life forms that have been under the polar ice for thousands of years but are now being released. For Migration of Pestilence, I began working with wire coated in plastic to make sculptural forms. For White Hot, I made corals from wax.
I believe that artists should be actively engaged in the community around us. Soon after the last election, my friend, Jackie Hoysted, and I convened a group of artists - ArtWatchDC - committed to developing ways to use the power of visual communication to express support for true democratic values, such as inclusion, tolerance, equality under the law, and stewardship of the environment.
The first major project begun by ArtWatch is One House. Over 200 artists thus far have made 12” x 12” panels dedicated to one of her/his ancestors who came to this country from elsewhere - whether in 1620 or last year, whether voluntarily or involuntarily.
Participants who are themselves immigrants have used the square for their own story. Since Native Americans were the first inhabitants of this land, they are invited to honor any ancestor whose life story is important to them. We have panels from artists whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower and from artists who arrived in this country themselves very recently.
An underlying structure - the “house” - has been designed and it will be completely covered with the panels. One House will be shown in November 2017 at the Touchstone Gallery in Washington, DC.
We have designed One House to be replicable by groups around the country, artists or not, who would like to add their voices to the many around the country who stand for principle. Please visit our website contact us for more information.
This is Week 31 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Ellyn’s story today. To connect with Ellyn and see more of her work, please visit the following links: