In this issue ~~
Have you wondered what the life of a working artist is like? New York artist/musician Sally Elliott graciously agreed to an interview to share her experiences and insights.
SHARON GOOD: Welcome, Sally. "Living the Creative Life" focuses on various topics, some directly related to artists and some more about bringing creativity to one's life and personal growth. It would be fascinating to hear how you began and how your work evolved.
SALLY ELLIOTT: There is a lot of personal growth very closely connected with my art, because it reflects my changing viewpoints throughout my life. For instance, as a young artist starting out, I was quite traditional and went to the Ecole des Beaux-arts, where I learned to paint in a very academic manner, and I thought, that's absolutely the correct outlook. Then, after two years there, I went to the Art Institute of Chicago and was exposed to different viewpoints on how to paint art. That was when Pop Art was coming in, and I thought it was the most trivial thing in the world. I was still painting figuratively, but getting more abstract-expressionist, a looser style. I also majored in printmaking, principally etching.
SG: So, you've been through a variety of styles.
SE: Yes, I have, and I keep changing all through my life. Then, I came to New York, and I was painting very expressionist-landscape-type things. I tried to get into a gallery, but really couldn't. I got some encouragement from some very good people, but at that time (this is in the '60s), they were telling artists to mature. Personally, I was sort of searching for the meaning of life and for a style in art. I would join book discussion groups and this and that.
I studied Japanese sumie ink painting. It was really fascinating to step into another culture. I think that it's a very good idea, for anybody who's developing an art, to get very closely involved in another culture, another world view, because it helps you triangulate into a broader view of the world.
And it was very freeing, because the method is to just paint without thinking. For instance, to look at a bunch of grapes on a table and then just savor the quality of the grapes and their texture and then just paint it, boom. And very, very often, it comes out much better than consciously thinking about the texture and the composition.
It's a Zen form of painting, closely based on the Zen art of meditation, which I was getting interested in. This is getting on toward the later '60s, and there were a lot of people meeting in groups for sensitivity training and meditating and seeking altered consciousness.
I was still doing landscapes and nature studies and things of that sort. And then one day, I had kind of a spiritual experience. I really can't describe it very well, but I felt like all of a sudden, the room I was working in had a feeling of being filled with light and love. I didn't see anything, I didn't hear anything, but it was an overwhelming experience, and I burst into tears . . . with happiness, you know. And I just really felt like there is something that is great out there or around or all through everything.
I had a terrible time describing it to my dubious friends, so I thought, I'll try church. I found that a good structure to put this overwhelming feeling into. Then, I entered into my religious phase.
SG: And how did your artwork shift after that experience?
SE: It got religious! I was very challenged to do religious art that's not that sappy religious art that you see a lot. I did a lot of studying of art history, and I found the Byzantine style, and it was, wow, this is it! At the time, in my art, I had two trends going, and I was trying to reconcile them. One was the abstract, geometrical style that I was working in, and the other was a figurative style, with figures, people and whatnot, more realistic. And I wanted to find a way of reconciling these.
I saw on a Greek manuscript the Transfiguration of Christ. The way the Byzantine do it is quite geometrical, a very formal design, with Christ standing on top of a mountain, and I thought, wow, they really know how to combine the two worlds. I started doing woodcuts and paintings, and I got church and private commissions of a religious nature. That was all through the '70s.
In the '80s, there was a school of sacred art founded down in [Greenwich] Village, and they had courses on all sorts of sacred traditions and art from all over the world – Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, Native American. I studied for more than three years with a Russian icon maker.
SG: That also speaks to what you said earlier about the multicultural influences expanding your viewpoint.
SE: Specifically with icon-making, they have a reverse perspective, where objects get larger in the background instead of smaller. It truly gives you a whole different sensation when you look at it. Your vision expands instead of contracting down to a point. And so, therefore, the whole system of setting up an icon composition is opposite from the west. And it is really, truly more spiritual to me. I led a seminar a couple of years ago on that question of how different perspectives in different societies lead to different ways of thinking and to different spirituality. Studying different cultures, you just see that they have to see differently, because they have a different way of showing it in their art.
And having had the experience with the Japanese and then with the Russian Orthodox method, it got me to see that there are many ways of seeing the world instead of just by our traditional western way. When I went to art school, I took a lot of art history, and they had this theory that there was a continuous line of progress from ancient art to contemporary, and that's just not true. It was a very limited, culturally-bound viewpoint. When we were in the Dark Ages, for instance, the Chinese were at the epitome of their landscape painting, and they did their finest work. It was just totally unimaginable to us.
SG: How have all these influences changed your work as it is today?
SE: I did Christian art until about 1990, and then I became dissatisfied with that viewpoint. I got very interested in outer space, with the things that they were doing [at the time]. For instance, I think it was in '92 that they sent up the Colby satellite, which had a study of looking back into the beginning of the universe. They could see the radiation background, where there were slight variances in temperature, and from that, they concluded that the universe is lumpy.
And that just blew me away. I had had a love of cosmology and astronomy and physics. In fact, I started out majoring in that, but you had to be absolutely brilliant and fluent in math to get anywhere, and I just didn't feel that I had the qualification. And I really was basically an artist my whole life, so I went back to that.
But this reawakened this love of cosmology that I had had. In 1993, I got access to a large studio. Just being in a big space expanded my horizons, you might say, psychologically. And I started doing star landscapes – large nebula and galaxies and clouds and stars and things of that sort – on a large scale. And then, all of a sudden, I started seeing sort of heroic, mythological figures in it. So, I thought I would just put a wash over it and draw it and delineate it, and all sorts of different figures came out, semitransparent with the stars shining through them.
That was also another form of perspective, and I became intrigued with how to depict that. I would look at this speckled painting, and then figures would appear. I found it freed me up compositionally. Very interesting compositions or poses [would emerge] that I never would have thought of in a more academic way. And so, I've been pursuing that in various ways ever since.
SG: How do you get your ideas?
SE: I put down a dark background, and then I drop light paint on it (I paint flat), and it makes lots of interesting shapes. Then, I let it dry, and I set it up and look at it, and then the idea comes: "Oh, there's a woman leading a lion."
SG: It's almost like looking at clouds and finding shapes in them.
SE: Yes! Even Leonardo da Vinci said that one could just gaze at a wall, with its irregular surface, and see ideas, and that that would lead to more interesting compositions than just thinking of the composition. And that's absolutely true. It gives you access to the unconscious, which is much more inventive than the conscious.
SG: You mentioned that you've done a couple of commissioned pieces. How has the creative process worked where you've had a deadline or a specific goal in mind?
SE: Oh, it's tough. Sometimes it's inspiring, sometimes it's really hard work. Back in the religious days, I had a commission to do carvings of the Stations of the Cross for a church. At first, I was going about it in a more conventional way. Then, as I got more into it, I carved deeper and found interesting problems – to depict both a two-dimensional design and a three-dimensional design posed problems. I got absorbed in the story of Christ's Passion. And about that time, my father died, and I put some of that sorrow into the carvings.
And . . . well . . . it inspired me. It pushed me to a place that I never knew I could do. I always had liked carving wood, but carving a high-bas-relief was a different thing altogether, and I really felt that I had a flair for it. And I don't think I would have ever found that without the commission.
SG: You're involved in music and enjoy books. Do you find that you get a lot of inspiration from other art forms?
SE: Oh, yes. I'm very fascinated by music. I particularly like old music, fifteenth-sixteenth century, mostly sacred stuff.
SG: And that correlates with doing sacred art.
SE: Yes, and it's transformative. I feel like art should take you to another place, and music does that. It's also the flow of the line, the flow of the phrase, and I try to get that flow going around in the painting, too, all pulling together into a whole. Great music does that, and I think great art should, too.
I particularly like English Tudor polyphony. With these complex lines of music weaving, it takes the brain out of that nonlinear place into a bigger world, into a deeper place. It expands it into that place of that original religious experience, where you just feel you're one with the universe; it's indescribable. It takes you out of your little linear life into this place that's filled with light and energy, and it's beautiful. And I try to do that with my art. And so, I listen to that music to put myself into that state, and hopefully, some of that will transform into my art.
SG: Are you formally trained in music as well?
SE: I took five years of night courses at Mannes [College of Music]. Being interested in early music, I took up recorder to teach myself notes, and then I studied voice and ensemble playing. I sing in a couple of groups, and I play recorder.
SG: How is the experience of working solo as an artist or a musician different from working with an ensemble?
SE: I haven't worked ensemble as an artist very much, except occasionally, when my art club would meet, we would do something as a joke together. But I have done a lot of ensemble work with music and some solo playing. In fact, I lean toward ensemble work with music. It's interesting working with different people, because we come out with better ideas as a group than we do singly.
SG: Maybe art is more of an individual experience, where music is more of a synergy experience.
SE: That's what I've pretty much found. And I like that, because here, my life is lonely as a painter, and I need to get into group activities to have a little contrast.
SG: Have you always made a living as an artist, or have you done other things to supplement it?
SE: Oh, other things to supplement it. Bookkeeping, secretarial jobs, baby-sitting, the array of part-time jobs you pick up. No, I've never really made a living at it. There are very few artists, unless you're very famous, who can do that. I inherited some money, which helped out, too, so I don't have to work so much anymore.
SG: What advice would you give to somebody who was just starting out, following a similar path?
SE: One thing I would say is, each painting is entirely new. You can never work from formula if you're really being creative about it. Any true artist finds any painting a whole new thing, a whole new problem to solve, a whole new way of trying to depict something. Every time I do a painting, I don't know what's going to happen, and sometimes things just go in a wholly different way than I expected.
SG: So, let it be an exploration, rather than trying to recreate something you did before.
SE: Right. And just not to worry about that, because I just think the most interesting work comes out that way.
SG: Thank you so much,
Sally! I really appreciate your sharing your experiences with
If you feel stuck in your work, whether it be art or business, see how other artists, companies, cultures do what you're doing. Try an approach that's radically different in style or point of view from your own, and let it meld with your current approach to find a new ground.
"Individuality of expression is the beginning and end of all art."
"In a very real sense, the writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself; the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratification, is a curious anticlimax."
"Writing is an escape from a world that crowds me. I like being alone in a room. It's almost a form of meditation -- an investigation of my own life. It has nothing to do with 'I've got to get another play.'"
(click on the book graphic to see a description at Amazon.com)
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