An Interview with Dana Ellyn|
Laura Horsley | 11.08.08 | Interviews, Vol1, Issue2 - Fall/Winter 2008
D.C. artist Dana Ellyn documents the political, social and cultural events of the day with the humor of a satirist, the mind of an informed citizen and the color and brush strokes of an engaging artist who is serious about her work. Her commentary on the 2008 presidential race and the self-inflicted crippling of U.S. financial behemoths is as timely and vital as anything the SNL cast could dream up, and if you've seen any of her Sarah Palin paintings - "Gunning for the White House" or "Sarah's Three Ring Media Circus" trilogy, you would know that Tina Fey isn't the only person giving Mrs. Palin a proper satirical skewering.Her paintings take us well beyond U.S. politics, though. On a recent trip to China, Dana painted scores of canvasses documenting the life of the Chinese people and the "happy face" world they live in, so perfectly depicted in paintings like "China Trendy," which displays the latest fashion in facemask wear. Recently, Dana welcomed me into her studio, serving up one of the best homemade rice and bean burritos I've ever eaten while dishing on matters of craft and inspiration.
LH: Can you talk a little bit about your evolution as a painter? It seems that some of your earlier work was perhaps more introspective and it has become progressively more political.
DE: I quit my job seven years ago. When I was working I didn't have a lot of time to paint and looking back I realize I didn't have a lot to pull from. At that time they were more introspective, more self-portraits, because it was kind of all I knew. As the years went on, a lot of the influence came from dating Matt [artist Matt Sesow]. His work was so emotional. I'm not as emotional a person and I knew I couldn't fake that, but I aspired to get more teeth into my painting - both literally and figuratively. I worked and worked and tried out a lot of different styles, just trying to find the way I was going to paint and what was going to be my signature. Also, the older I got, the more I realized the more I didn't know. When I was in my 20s, I knew I should be more interested in the news, but every time I tried to get into it, it was overwhelming. I was also in a job that kept me at work until midnight, and I didn't have a lot of time to study anything or know anything on the level I wanted to Ð you become so busy, just treading water. But once I quit my job, I started paying more attention to the world. I started studying religion and really getting into politics and really paying attention to the news and going back into history to figure out Ôif this is happening today, what is the history of this.' The more I looked around, the more I realized I didn't really see any other artists doing this with their art. In DC especially, there's a lot of abstract and conceptual art. There's a lot of art I've never understood. I remember being in college and going to the Dupont galleries and I thought if this is what the galleries are showing then I haven't got a chance in hell of getting in. Once I started doing my own thing, an entirely different world opened up. There aren't a lot of people out there painting about the news; it's not the prevalent thing. I felt it was going to be my little niche and I really enjoy doing it.
LH: Talk a little about how the presidential election inspires your art?
DE: I watch all the different news stations - MSNBC, FOX, CNN. And watching them all, I've come to the cynical point where I don't believe anyone. They are all on their own agenda. I'm happy to have all the input, but you figure 90 percent of people are getting the single path story depending on whatever channel they choose to watch. News is not news. If I'm cheering for one news station and hollering at the other one, neither one of them are presenting the facts. This is what fills my cup everyday, just flipping the channels and being like "oh, my god." Regarding the Sarah Palin paintings, it was the day that McCain was going to announce his running mate and I knew the announcement was coming at 11:00 a.m. Shortly before that time there were the rumors that it might be this person Sarah Palin from Alaska. So I started painting. "Gunning for the White House" was started before the announcement was made and I finished it that night. I wanted to get it done that day. It's great to know there's an audience waiting. The famous Kennedy picture of John-John underneath the desk in the oval office inspired it. McCain is this older, presidential figure, and Palin is like a kid, saying "oh fun, let's go play in the White House."
LH: I love your political work, especially your recent Palin paintings. What's the message in your paintings about the three-ring circus this campaign has turned into?
DE: It's really just about how the media grabbed onto her and went crazy. And as Olbermann [Keith Olbermann, host of Countdown on MSNBC] and others might say, did McCain do this just to get everyone riled up and not necessarily because he felt she was the most qualified? It worked. The media went crazy and it was a circus.
LH: You shouldn't necessarily vote for a person because you want to go Moose hunting with her.
DE: It goes back to what happened when people voted for the person they wanted to have a beer with Ð we got George. But I was also inspired for practical reasons. I needed some paintings for a show. I woke up at 5 a.m. with "Sarah's Three Ring Media Circus" idea. I had all three ideas in the dozing morning moments. I did the three paintings in five days and just worked until they were done.
LH: How has living in DC shaped your perspective as an artist?
DE: It's just knowing I'm surrounded by politics. I've been in this apartment for five years, which is four blocks from the White House. I'm palpably surrounded by D.C. and politics. Once I started going that direction, it gave me even more desire to keep going in that direction. When you look at the news and see them reporting [from the White House or State Department] I think I can probably run down the street and go catch them. Being right in it really helps. I would feel it was irresponsible to not be doing it.
LH: I imagine that some people view your work as confrontational, how do you see it?
DE: I get feedback from a lot of people, whether by email or to my face. Most recently it happened at the Arts on Foot festival. I brought the "Pope-nocchio" painting [painting of the Pope with a Pinochio nose]. I knew it was a polarizing piece, even though a lot of people who are religious can still find the humor in it. I took the risk of hanging it in the tent. There was one person who was truly offended and made a point of not just walking by but had to speak to me. He was so over the top upset that I actually thought he was joking. He was talking about getting me thrown out of the festival, that I had no right to paint this, how on earth could I paint such a thing about the Pope, why don't I paint about other religions, why just Catholicism. I told him I painted about other religions, they just all sold, and "Pope-nocchio" was my most recent one. It didn't make him happy that I sold all the other paintings. I kept very cool because I can stand behind it. I'm running the risk of offending people, which I apologize for, but I don't paint it in order to offend. For me there's a line. He was just not to be reasoned with. There was no reasoning with someone who stands that deep in his religion. I told him I totally respect that you feel that way, you have every right to, but you have to respect the fact that I have every right not to not believe what you believe. The woman in the booth next to me was worried for my safety because he was being so aggressive, so she called security and the police came and told him that he needed to stop harassing me.
LH: I've heard that you like to say "your paintings aren't made to match couches in people's living rooms." Do you have a disconnect between people who love your art but are afraid to display it?
DE: I've had a lot of couples where one person loved it and then they dragged their wife, boyfriend, or partner in and it didn't go over as well. I recently sold one of my "Ten Commandment" pieces to someone who is a recovering Catholic schoolgirl or something. She grew up very Catholic and her mother is still practicing. She said, ÔI'll just take it down when my mom comes to visit.' She still bought it but she thinks she has to take it down. The couch art thing is that my art isn't decorative. I'm not into decorative art, but there's a place for it. There are very pretty pictures out there. I think there is a lot of art being sold for the purpose of matching something in your living room. I'm not one of those people. Once somebody said, ÔI like this but can you paint it again and change the background color.' I said no, but maybe next time I'll tell them to paint their wall.
LH: I love the work that was inspired from your trip to China, much of which was in the recent "Made in China" exhibit at the Long View Gallery. It reminded me a little of the controversy of the "cute little girl" lip-synching at the opening ceremony of the Olympics because the actual little girl who sang was deemed "not cute enough." Did you get the sense that the state and the people were trying to create a sense of perfectness?
DE: That was a huge part. It's great to hear that it shows through. One of my paintings was about that girl, it's called the "The Party Mime." She's doing it for "the party," the communist party. I painted that specifically the day the news broke. I was a couple days into my trip before I started to see and pay attention to it Ð the whole "put on a happy face" thing. I read a lot of books prior to the trip and I tried not to let them taint my view, to make me look for the stereotypical behavior perhaps I read about. I didn't want to infer it jut because I was looking for it. But there were a couple instances you couldn't ignore. For instance, we went to an acrobat show our first night in Shanghai. It was the most remarkable thing. Chinese acrobats are over the top, they put Cirque de Soleil to shame. And it wasn't that they weren't skilled, it was just so over the top we were worried that someone might actually fall and get hurt. But they were remarkable and very, very young. Someone asked our tour guide Scottie, he was named after Scottie Pippen, how old the kids performing were. He said, "They look really young don't they? They're 20, maybe a few are 18. They just enjoy doing it so much they don't need to practice." Now, it was clear they were 10, 12, 14 and they were doing it 20 hours a day because you don't just do this stuff. But for him to go on that they are 20 and they don't really need to practice - that was the first thing to push me over the top. On the other hand, I love the optimism, I love the culture, I love the Chinese people. Their earnestness was amazing and inspiring and makes you turn around to America and say "you bunch of lazy people, get off your butt and do something." They are just so earnest and hard working. And I didn't think of them as lies, it's just a part of the culture.
LH: How do you hope your work documents our world? What are your future goals?
DE: I'm so happy with my life. I love what I do and the recognition and getting in shows, I can't complain. Life is excellent. But looking around, I think I have a chance. I've already been noted. If nothing else, I've been in the paper enough and I've been in enough shows that you're going to be able to find me when you look back. But the more I look around and the more I get into this, I think a lot of being successful is just keeping doing it. In seven years of full-time doing it, I can't tell you how many people have come and gone. Or how many times I have read an article about the new, hottest person on the art scene É and where are they now? They haven't painted since the article came out. With all of that anecdotal evidence, I'm still doing it. I see no end in sight. I have a place I now own that I can afford to stay in. But I'm not just another juxtapose artist or graffiti artist or "insert catch phrase here" trendy artist. I feel I have a chance and that's what I'm working toward. If I can make it happen, knowing it's not out of reach, that's my goal right now - to be the female artist of the times who documented day-to-day what's going on.