Dana Ellyn   www.danaellyn.com

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The Falcon Flyer Newspaper
March, 2008
Interview with Dana Ellyn

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What got you started/when did you start your art? (Influences, other artists, family, etc.)

I have been doing art since I was little. I suppose all kids do their share of drawing and crafts but I think I always felt serious about it - beyond the normal childhood playing. I spent hours in my room drawing people I saw in magazines and catalogues. My parents encouraged me by buying me art supplies and art books. I remember going through the books page by page, lesson by lesson and learning all of the techniques...shading, perspective, human form, etc.

I lived in a very small town in Connecticut. My entire grade was only about 50 kids. In such a small school system, the teachers get to know you very well. I had the same art teacher from 3rd grade through 10th and she was a fantastic influence on my development. With such a small class, everyone winds up with their individual roles...the "jocks" the "nerds" and I was the "artist". So, anything creative that needed doing came to me (not JUST me, of course, but I was among a very small group of creative types). I wound up involved in creating sets for the school musical productions, campaign posters for student council and the giant banners for the team to bust through at the beginning of every basketball game. I enjoyed it all - which is probably why, in my 20s, I experimented in all sorts of mediums from sculpture to photography - and always keeping up with my primary interest of painting and drawing.

The biggest landmark in my early years was being recommended for an accepted in a program called The Center for Creative Youth at Wesleyan University. I attended this summer program between my sophomore and junior years of high school. It was my first time being surrounded by and immersed in the arts. There were intensive art classes which really helped me develop my skills and the overall experience of the program brought me out of my painfully shy shell. After that summer, my family moved us to Florida where I transferred to a tremendous school - my class was nearly 800 students. I found my niche there. I founded and became president of the Art Club. I was accepted in to the Advanced Placement art class and which earned me college credits.

In college, I was an Art History and Fine Arts major. I figured it would be helpful to have an academic as well as a technical art education. I had no allusions of graduating and "becoming an artist". I knew I'd need to get a good job to support myself financially and paint on the side to start. Post college, my job history went like this: intern at the Holocaust Museum (fundraising, history department, cartographer), ADC the Map People (cartographer, graphic artist), Skadden Arps law firm (graphic artist, help desk, trainer). There were months and/or years here and there that I didn't do much painting after college. Marriage and long hours at work both got in the way. Nine years ago, I got a divorce. Six years ago, I left the law firm and made the leap of doing my art full time. Life is good.

Describe your creative process (to someone who has never seen your art before).

My creative process can sometimes be a long process....there are days that I think all day and never get to touch the paint. I can't get started on a painting until l have at least a seed of an idea of what it will mean or why I am painting it. Of course, there are the occasional light-hearted paintings just for fun but they are in the minority. I might read the news for ideas or flip through photographs to find some inspiration for the day. I also task myself with projects. For example, one of my most recent projects is a series of the Ten Commandments. I am creating one painting for each of the commandments. I give myself projects like this because I love the problem solving aspect. I had an idea for the second commandment "Thou shall not worship false idols" and I figured "heck, I can come up with ideas for the other nine" ... and the series began.

As for the painting process, I have two major styles. When I use oil, I tend to create very tight and refined paintings. For those, I do a sketch on the canvas and work very traditionally with an underpainting and layers of glazes. When I work in acrylic, I am much looser. I start by throwing down a lot of color, then some more color and I let the painting emerge from there. No sketching, much less planning and an ever-morphing painting as I work on it.

Has your politically-charged work ever gotten you in trouble or caused controversy in anyway?

Um. Yes. A couple of times. The earliest story I can remember is the silliest. I had a drawing of a girl picking a wedgie hanging at a group show at The Naitonal Press Club in DC. A member complained about it and I was asked to remove the piece. I'm still not exactly sure what's offensive about a girl picking a wedgie - but it makes for a good story. My most recent story is almost equally as baffling. I live in a mixed-use building. Two floors of my building were reserved for artists through a live/work housing lottery. The condo board decided it would be nice to exhibit some of the artists' work in the lobby on a rotating basis. Several of my neighbors (who are familiar with my work) decided it would be best if I did NOT go first. I understood their thinking....hang some more decorative "safe" work in the first couple of exhibits before taking the potential risk with my work. I waited until I had what I considered to be my safest, nicest set of paintings for the lobby. I hung them up one morning and the very next day I get a call from the condo president with something along the lines of "we have a problem". One of the residents found my work "disturbing" and "didn't want to come home to it every day". Wow. And this was my NICE stuff I hung down there - doing my best to not offend. Imagine the reaction had I hung my religious and/or politically charged pieces. There are a few other stories but those two are my favorite for their utter ridiculousness.

How did you come to develop your style?

My natural style is very realistic and 'correct'. Having taught myself through 'how-to' books and always wanting to get the A grades in school, I always did everything the right way. It's taken me many years and a lot of effort to break free from that tendency. That is, if I have truly broken free. I do still embrace my ability and skill but have worked on loosening up and becoming more expressive in my style. I quit my job 6 years ago and it's been in those years that I've experienced the greatest growth as a painter. Having the time to experiment and make mistakes (mistakes that nobody needed to see) was crucial. Believe me, it pained me to make what I considered "bad" art but it helped me learn. Every time I visit a museum, I have conversations in my head about how great a certain piece is BECAUSE it is not realistic.

There were many years of creative ideas in my head that I was afraid to express on canvas. One of my biggest stumbling blocks was always "what will people think". Over the years, as I've gained confidence I've been able to shed some fears. I realized that the more I learned to express myself on canvas, the better the work was received. I love the feedback and the reactions to my paintings. When I put emotion in to a piece, the viewer brings their emotion in when they view it. I still have a long way to go on that front. There are some topics I haven't touched and others I have only begun to tackle. It should be an interesting future..

What are some other hobbies you enjoy and how do they relate to your art?

For a lot of people, art is their hobby. For me, even though it's my career, it still feels like fun. Admittedly, there are times it feels like work - but enjoyable work. My hobbies are reading, watching movies and playing video games (on my Nintendo DS). The first two definitely relate to my art. The video games are purely for fun. I have decided to go back and read classic novels I didn't get to in school (or perhaps don't remember reading). Many of these classic tales inspire fantastic painting ideas. My most recent favorites were 1984, Catcher in the Rye and Picture of Dorian Gray. I take notes as I'm reading if I get a blip of an idea for a painting. I would love to do an entire show in the future with paintings inspired by famous novels and call it "The Book Club" or something along those lines. My movie watching habit plays a role in my art in a couple of different ways. Sometimes the stories or imagery inspire paintings. But, very often, they act of background as I paint. I have what might be described as an arsenal of movies on dvd. Once I have figured out what I'll paint (a process which requires total silence), I often pop in a favorite flick and have it running while I paint. I've seen my favorites so many times, there's no need to look at the tv to see what's happening - so it is not distracting, it's simply background entertainment as I work.

Why do you do art?

Not that I truly knew what it meant but when I was a kid, I'd say I wanted to grow up and be an artist. They "why" I do it was simply because I like to and I'm good at it. I was very strong academically, and especially excelled at math throughout grade school and high school. I toyed with doing something with that, or going in to teaching at different points growing up. Post college, working in the corporate world, I had less and less time to create and I felt increasingly frustrated by that...not having a creative outlet was frustrating. That motivated me to focus my goals to one day be able to do my art full time. Now, the questions of "why" do I do it is much more clear. I still do it because I love it. I also paint because I have something to say. The years I didn't paint were not just due to lack of time, they were due to lack of inspiration...working at a job, being married, living in the suburbs zapped every ounce of creativity that used to thrive in my head.

Who is your biggest focus in your art? Do you have a certain figure you tend to include more than others, and why?

My art is always figurative...it is always about people. When I took the leap to painting full time, I was going through a lot of changes. I had divorced a year earlier after being married since I was 22 years old. So, at age 29/30 I was out there on my own for the first time in my life. I was testing the waters, figuring out who I was. So I painted myself a lot. I can still be found in many of my paintings but they are with purpose and understanding, not with questions.

Who/what inspires you and how do you stay motivated when creatively dead?

The only way to survive as a painter is to be self-motivated. That said, I will admit that my boyfriend, Matt Sesow, who is also a full time painter, is my biggest external source of motivation. He was a motivating factor behind me quitting my job, and his influence is responsible for how far I've been able to come as an artist. His style is the epitome of expressionism and emotion. I've always prided myself on my technical skill and faltered at expressing emotion in my work. He is probably the most prolific artist alive today...and on pace to eclipse the most prolific artists in history. Let's just say, that's a lot to keep up with! Our partnership is amazing on both an emotional and professional level.