– Ellen Wetmore

Interviews with Artists

In 2017, as part of our ongoing commitment to arts dialogue and education, we began archiving interviews with the artists we have worked with at the Arts Research Collaborative. It is our hope that the collected conversations will continue to be a vital resource for all who visit.

Ellen Wetmore 2017

Ellen wall install

What would you say that you “do” and what kind of work have you done prior to this show?

These were drawings that I developed during my sabbatical last year, which is this magical period of time that you can work on your own research, which for artists means making art. All of the projects I wanted to do fell through. I had four things lined up and all of them collapsed. On the side I had learned from Raul Gonzalez how to make drawings on paper that had already been stained, and in that way you aren’t looking at a blank piece of paper and also, the paper’s not precious, so you aren’t afraid of it. He stains his stuff with coffee, or anything else that’s laying around. Inside the coffee stains he can see things and work with them, or sometimes he just uses it since it’s a good color. So I learned how to do paper marbling, the Turkish stone method that’s full of blots of color, and from those I can just sort of daydream about what’s in there. So you know, it looks like a bunny, it looks like a car, it looks like clouds, strange eyeballs, or skulls, or whatever, and so if I see that in my head I just draw it. I’ve been doing that as a time fill-in, like a fidget thing, like if I’m in a meeting or waiting on something I have no control over, I’ll just draw. They’re throw away drawings to start, right? They’re supposed to be non-important, not precious, okay to make mistakes on, okay to screw up, and I was trying to learn how to draw better. A couple of years ago I was trying to make a comic book, and I didn’t like any of the drawings I was building. They just didn’t feel right. They were trapped somewhere between realistic and goofy, and it wasn’t working out. So I just decided that whatever the paper told me to do, I would make.

Would you be working on multiple drawings and come back to them?

Yeah, I would work on about four or five at a time. That way if one of them is not talking to me I could just move onto the next one. There’s a stack of rejects at home.
Wetmore Installation

You mentioned the Italian Grotesques in your artist statement. Where did inspiration for this work come from?

I kind of have an encyclopedic knowledge of certain areas in art history, so chances are there’s a painting in there that I’ve looked at before. I’ve been looking at Ukiyo-e period prints from Edo Japan. I look at common cartoon characters that are really popular. I look at classical European painting, particularly the Italian stuff. Sometimes I’ll look at, you know, animal pictures – “It looks like a bison, go find a photograph of a bison, quick!” Elephants, that kind of stuff, like those charismatic, big animals that people recognize really quickly. I look at a lot of patterns in different cultures, like Islamic tessellations or Victorian floral patterns, I’ll go hunt for those. It also depends on whether I’m traveling. I was in Sante Fe, New Mexico last year and there were pictographs there that were very old, so I was drawing the pictographs everywhere. Then I went to Colombia and there was this Indigenous art down there called molas that I was drawing for a while, so it kind of depends on where I’m located at the time. I can date the drawings depending on what’s in them since I know where I was.

How did you treat symbolism in the work? Did themes develop as the work progressed, or did you have a vision after the marbling process?

The objects talk to me. You know, they sort of present themselves. “This should be here, and that should be there” kind of things happen. Sometimes they happen organically while sometimes they’re totally silent. Sometimes they don’t say anything and I have to wait, and if that happens, I use this Lynda Barry bit about the “constantly moving line” – she always says to draw spirals, but I’ll just pick a shape and draw that shape until something makes sense – so it’ll be, like, roman arches, since they repeat, or a leaf pattern, or a Celtic knot or something. So if they’re being quiet, i’ll just start patterning in certain areas. Now I’ve developed a set of patterns where if I see certain kinds of marks on the paper – “This one is going to be a flying, winged breast” or “that one is going to be this sort of monocle, cyclops girl that wears this little school girl shift dress” – that shows up quite a bit now. So there’s certain things that keep appearing nowadays that I’ve made, and there’s other stuff that I borrow from other people.

Since these were pieces that you’d come back to over time, how did you know when they were finished?

I don’t really know when they’re done. Sometimes I’ll look at them in the frame on the wall and go “Argh, I forgot to put the blah blah blah in there!” At a certain point last year I was doing one a day, so it was done because the day was over and it had to be done. I was trying to produce a certain volume. If I can’t be talented then I can at least be prolific, and then maybe in there somewhere there would be a couple of good ones.

Did you have a favorite?

No not really. I have certain ones that talk to me more than other ones do. There’s a few I haven’t shown anybody because they’re really personal. The ones that resolve as really clear, single characters, like the ones that are obviously an elephant, or obviously a bison, or obviously a skull, tend to be the ones that I like better because there’s one unifying icon that people can recognize in them.

Do you have any closing thoughts?

It’s really good to have found a process that is really immediate, that doesn’t require a lot of forward thinking or planning. Before these drawings I was doing video – I still do video – and you find a site and you have to find an actor and you have to find a videographer to help you and you have to set up lighting and you have to make sure your camera is working properly. There’s just a lot of moving parts that have to be perfect to get the video to go, and I don’t have a lot of money and video can be expensive. If you need something special it can get pretty pricey. They’re kind of about the same things, the drawings and the video, but the drawings I can work very fast and immediately on and the video is kind of a slow, meticulous, error-filled, kind of precious thing that takes forever. They’re kind of two halves of the same process. I try to get these weird images out of my head and I always feel like I’m evicting thoughts that won’t go away. I feel like if I make a drawing out of them then they go away and won’t bother me anymore, and that’s great. I think that’s why I teach as opposed to trying to sell these things because I know on some level that all of them are just these mental purgings that are not necessarily designed for other people to love them. I’m not trying to satisfy an audience, while with the video I think I’m definitely trying to satisfy an audience because I’m always doing them for a specific audience of people that I know. For the drawings I just try to get that crazy thing out of there. Move it out.