Friday Featured Artist: Dana Ellyn
by Julie Alvarado
AltDaily, December 9, 2011

When and how did you become interested in art?

As early as I can remember, I loved creating. I have vivid memories even as far back as sitting on the floor as a toddler with my building blocks creating and recreating sculpture after sculpture and loving the process. I had one structure I would build every time I played. I think I am a little bit OCD. I did two drawings when I was very young that have lived in infamy ever since-I wish I still had them–I drew a naked picture of my aunt and uncle naked at their wedding. But not just naked, it was very creative; my uncle’s penis extended up and around his neck to be used as a tie and her boobs slung over her head as a veil. I don’t know when I drew this but it was sometime around six years old.

Although I’d always wanted to be an artist when I “grew up,” I didn’t really know what that meant or how to get there. I wound up letting myself be pulled in to a very traditional trajectory. I married right after college, landed a well-paying job and got bogged down in the suburbs. I was following the path that I thought I was supposed to take. I studied hard, got great grades, went to a good college, landed a super job and spent the next 10 years or so after college looking for a way to pursue my dream. It worked splendidly.

I was a dual major in Fine Art and Art History and graduated from George Washington University in D.C. The pragmatic side of me knew that I needed a job when I graduated college. So I decided that I would get the art history background and maybe get a job at a museum and do my art on the side as a start. It’s pretty much the same reason I had no interest in going to art school. I love academics and I don’t think it’s realistic to graduate high school or college thinking “I’m going to be an artist!” First you need to live life and have a host of experiences to pull from in order for the art to have some depth.

You left a corporate job to pursue art-making full time. Tell us a little about the circumstances and challenges surrounding that situation.

In February of 2002, I quit my job at one of Washington DC’s biggest law firms. I’ll start by clarifying that I was not a lawyer. I worked there for over 7 years-first as a graphic artist, then managed the Help Desk and my last position was heading up the training department. Going backward in time, my previous job was at a map company as a cartographer and graphic artist. And, during college and just past graduation, I worked at the Holocaust Museum in a variety of departments.

It wasn’t that the corporate world didn’t keep my interest but it certainly wasn’t completely fulfilling to me. I would often think, “I could stay at the law firm for many, many more years and move up the ranks and have a great career – but that’s not what I want for my life.” For the last couple of years at the firm, my goal became figuring out a way to pursue my art full time.

It was a huge leap and a pretty big gamble to leave the cushy well paying job at the law firm at the age of 30. I first asked my boss if I could go part time and when they said no, it was just the push I needed to jump ship. In preparation for leaving my job, I had saved enough money for about 6 months of living expenses. During lunch hours, I would work on developing my website. After work and on weekends, I’d try and muster the energy to be creative. It’s now been over 10 years and I’ve never looked back!

I definitely see some Expressionist and Constructivist influences in your work, among others. Who and what do you find yourself influenced by, artistically? Prior to studying art in college, I gravitated toward the fluffy lighter work of the Impressionists, but that was quickly quelled. I grew to love the religious iconography of medieval art and the incredible skill and draftsmanship of the Renaissance painters. I even gained a tremendous appreciation for some more contemporary painters once I learned the story behind the artists themselves. I still don’t necessary get any emotional reaction to looking at, for example, a Pollack painting, but I am utterly stimulated knowing what went in to the creation of the work. For me, the story is equally and sometimes more important than the painting itself. That is probably the realization that has had the most influence on the work I create today.

I’ve been greatly influenced by my husband, Matt Sesow. We’ve been together since 2001 (and married since 2010). Matt has taught me to loosen up, make mistakes, and take chances. Essentially, I’ve been trying to unlearn some of the properness I learned in college. It’s no longer about getting good grades or proving to the teacher that my technique is correct. Now it’s about the emotion, the expression, and telling the stories.

All of my significant paintings are created and imagined from a long process of quiet and thought. I oftentimes draw from the peace, quiet, and comfort of my downtown studio as I come up with the ideas for my paintings. I keep a multitude of notes and sketches to work out my ideas and have a whiteboard hanging near my bed so that I can jot down ideas in the middle of the night. Drinking wine during the thought process helps too.

In your case, Picasso’s quote, “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth,” rings especially true. Your work is often times part satire, part social commentary, but always wry, ironic, and witty. Do you seek to expose the situations and characters you paint from your personal perspective, or do you aim to convey them from an objective point of view? There are certain topics that I have strong opinions about and those are the topics I paint about. By nature then, they are not very objective. If something strikes a nerve with me, that’s the spark that leads me to a painting idea.

One major inspiration for my work comes from watching the news–pulling from news and commentary sources such as Democracy Now, Russia Television, Al Jazeera, Alex Jones, and CSPAN. 31 Days in July is probably my most important project – especially since it’s been ongoing for 8 years. But each new project brings new excitement for me. I love projects and assign myself projects periodically to keep things fresh – both for me and my audience.

Another major source of inspiration for me is religion. At age 1, I heard my father say that he believed in god and I was befuddled because the subject of belief was not discussed at any time before that. In my confusion, I would sometimes look up apologetically at the sky and say “If there is a god up there, you must understand why I don’t believe in you, right? Nobody ever told me you existed!” My first real introduction to religion was through art history classes in college. Gods and goddesses of mythology were presented as fiction and Christian themes were treated as history. But to me, they were all just stories. Throughout my twenties and thirties, I continued my personal quest to learn more about religion and come to terms with my lack of belief. Now, I’m finally fully comfortable with painting (and talking about) where I stand on religion. My paintings are not meant to offend. Instead, I hope they foster open-minded discussions and perhaps induce a giggle or two along the way; as for me, the very important thing is freedom of expression. I am a painter, I express things and I express ideas. I have hundreds and hundreds of paintings that I have done, however, this subject I visit in addition to personal and political themes. I have been told that some of my paintings are blasphemous and I take an issue with that because they are labeled negatively and I did not paint these things to be blasphemous; I simply painted them because it is my take on things.

You are quite a prolific artist, but do you ever find yourself with “artist’s block?” How do you work through or around it when it happens?

I’m not sure I ever have artist’s block. The challenge for me is not what to paint, but what to paint first. I have countless sketchbooks full of notes and seeds of ideas. Sometimes I find it hard decide on what to paint because I feel I should keep brainstorming for an even better idea or image. I often need to remind myself to pick something, paint it and then do another one…and another. I am often asked if I worry about running out of ideas. The answer is no. But I am afraid of running out of time.

You currently have a solo show hanging at the Lorrie Saunders ArtGallery that will be open through Saturday, January 14th; Tell us a little bit more about the show, its theme and content?

The name of my exhibition is “Storytelling.” My inspiration for this exhibit comes from my thirst for knowledge, which takes me on a self-imposed mission to read (or re-read) classic novels. I am also obsessed with watching the news – digesting news from as many sources as possible and comparing/contrasting their handling of the information. And sometimes I simply have an opinion to profess or an anecdotal story to tell that comes from my childhood, travels or random happening from everyday life.

Since it’s a diverse body of work, it is hard to pick a favorite. But I will select my “Allegory of Arab Spring” as my favorite piece – partly because it was the first painting I created for the show. It is also among the most complex paintings I have ever created. It combines my love of classical art with my infatuation for current events. This painting also satisfied my nerdy side because it took a lot of studying, research, and problem solving.

Every step of the process is enjoyable to me…from coming up with ideas, to creating the paintings and then sharing them with an audience. I invite viewers to stop, pause and “read” each painting – then examine their reactions and start a dialogue. By exhibiting my work, my paintings are getting an opportunity to tell their stories.

The closing reception for “Storytelling,” a solo show featuring work by Dana Ellyn, will be held at ArtGallery on 21st Street in Norfolk on Saturday, January 14, from 12:30 to 3:30 PM with a Gallery Chat from 1:30 to 2:00 PM.