By Rachel White
Copyright 2012 by Rachel White
Arts-Louisville: Tell me about your upcoming show, A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures, at garner narrative.
Dana Ellyn: The title of the show came about because my work has always tended to be narrative, which is why when Angie [Garner] invited me, I read the title of her gallery and thought, “Well, that makes sense.” I consider myself a storyteller with my paintings, and the idiom “A picture is worth a thousand words” is really the reverse for me because so much of my work comes from books I’ve read and, more importantly, the project I’m in the midst of – 31 Days in July. It’s a project I started in 2003 where my husband and I both do one painting a day for the 31 days of July and document the news.
AL: Did you paint the show specifically for garner narrative?
DE: The majority of it, and that’s what I try to do with all of my shows. This year has been the biggest test for me because I have fifteen shows this year. A couple of the pieces roll from here to there, but I do try to create a body of work for the show and supplement it with pieces that fit into that theme.
|Cardinal Sins – Gluttony, by Dana Ellyn.
Image courtesy of garner narrative.
AL: You have a series in this show called Cardinal Sins. Was that specifically for garner narrative, with the cardinal being a Louisville mascot?
DE: It was actually a very happy coincidence, because I had a show in March of this year called The Birds and the Bees and I came up with the title thinking that I was going to use it idiomatically again. I realized from that show that I liked painting birds, and the birds became a really big part of my work. When I was working for garner, I thought I had to include birds in this show. I also paint on religious themes very often, and my best time to think is when I fall asleep at night. One night, the word “cardinal sins” popped into my head. It fit into all of my agnostic themed work and the birds, and I thought, “That’s the series.” It wasn’t until well into the series that I realized the cardinal was the Louisville bird.
AL: You have a Derby image in there as well.
DE: That was absolutely on purpose. I thought I had nearly enough work, and I knew I wanted to do that one more good impact piece that I thought would be great for the window. It was in the back of my mind. When the winner was announced asI’ll Have Another, I thought, “That’s the perfect title of a painting.”
|I’ll Have Another, by Dana Ellyn.
Image courtesy of garner narrative.
AL: Is there any work related to this year’s election?
DE: I do paint about the election, certainly during this 31 Days in July project, and in past years definitely. In fact, during the last election cycle I assigned myself to do something called The Year of Presidents. It was the year prior to the election, and I painted a painting for every president who had ever served, whether it was a portrait or inspired by some quip or some story I heard. I also did all the candidates. The project was that I had to be finished with all the paintings by the time the election happened, and then when the election ended, I would paint whoever won.
AL: How does The Wizard of Oz fit into your show?
|Death and Destruction and War, Oh My!,
by Dana Ellyn. Image courtesy of garner narrative.
DE: There are two pieces in the show that have The Wizard of Oz theme, and I’ve used the iconic nature of that theme in several other pieces. The title of one of them is Death and Destruction and War, Oh My and is a comment on the political climate, especially this month. Halfway into the month [during the 31 Days in July project], I hit my saturation point: There was a day where I was like: “Oh, my god. The world is horrible, there are bombs dropping and people are dying and the Emerald City is blowing up!” And because The Wizard of Oz is this fairytale about the “merry old land of Oz,” I realized that’s what we’re trying to find; and the question is, is that something we could even anticipate finding or will it still be there when we get there?
AL: Have you always done political work, or is that something you have developed more recently?
DE: It’s something I started in 2003 when I started this 31 Days in July project. That’s definitely a marker for when my work really got more political. Being in D.C., I’m surrounded by it.
AL: Did being in that climate affect the way that you paint?
DE: I had skills and I had an art history background; the art history definitely factored into my art. The biggest take away from when I was a kid is probably art history, because now when things happen in politics, when things happen in the world, I’ll pull up something that relates to some classic image by someone like Da Vinci and I’ll use the iconography.
AL: Have you done that in this show?
DE: Well some, like the Cardinal Sin Lust, where it’s a cardinal sitting with a bird on his lap; that is probably the most blasphemous painting of the whole series. My goal with a painting is never to make fun – it’s me coming at the subject matter very irreverently as a non-believer. I wanted it to be beautiful and I wanted it to be very classically rendered, so I used the Renaissance style. I wanted the beauty of the classically painted painting to be a comfortable inroad for everyone.
AL: When you do a work like that, do you often get positive reactions? Or do you ever get the opposite where people get confrontational?
DE: I live in D.C., which is a good place to live if you are liberal minded, and it allows you to become even more liberal minded because you are surrounded by like-minded people. When I do shows outside of D.C., there is definitely a different reaction. I had a very blasphemous show here in D.C. and the reaction was 95 percent positive; I sold all of the work. Then, I had a similarly themed show that ended up getting international attention, and that was completely turned on its ear; it was more like five percent of positive feedback. But I do have collectors all over the world, so the support is out there.
AL: Do you think that’s an important quality for a painter to have, to be engaged in the world?
DE: I do, but there’s room for everything. I’m not a fan of pure abstraction and I’m not a fan of installation; it’s not my cup of tea. But I would never say all art should have deep meaning and have a political statement. Some people just want a pretty picture to hang over their couch. That’s not what I do, or what I want to do. For me it’s very important for my work to have a lot of meaning and make a statement.
AL: Are feeling and emotion important to you in your work?
DE: My husband is a full-time painter and his work is emotional to the guts of it. We paint about a lot of the same subjects, but his paintings come out as an emotional response. If you say a word, he’ll emotionally respond to that, put it on the canvass and it’ll be awesome. Whereas you give me a word, and I’m like, “I need to research that word and paint about the history of it.”
AL: Do you ever just get inspired?
DE: Oh, definitely, and this month’s 31 Days in July is the perfect example. For this project, I do have to paint one a day. I only have so much time to sit and do my stewing and thinking, and if it’s not done then I have two paintings to finish the next day. So I really have to not bite off too much more than I can chew. Every once in a while one will role to the next day. But you can’t get behind, because by July 31 they all have to be done. So I love it when I wake up and in the morning and, bang, I have my idea and start painting.
AL: Does that bring a lot of vitality to the work?
DE: It does, and that’s what has been so great for me, because this is not my typical personality to have this gut reaction to things. Having to do one a day is almost like training. It forces you to have to get there.
AL: Do you have any plans for the future, any areas you want to explore that you haven’t already?
DE: This year has been the best so far; the year prior to this year has built me to here. Even if things don’t get better than now, I’m thrilled with the career I’ve developed. And if I could sustain this level of energy and this level of interest – heck, that’s a really great life! There are certainly times where as an artist, no matter what your field, you feel like you’re doing all this work to no avail. So I guess one goal for the future is just to continue with the feeling that there are people out there who do appreciate the work I put into it.
A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures
642 E. Market and Clay Streets
Louisville, KY 40202
August 3 – September 29
gallery hours: Wed-Sat, 1-6 p.m. and by appointment
Angie Reed Garner