A Studio Visit with Ellen Holtzblatt

October 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

Ellen Holtzblatt is a Chicago-based artist who creates paintings, woodcut prints and artist books. She has exhibited her work nationally and internationally at venues including the Museum of Biblical Art in New York, Inselgalerie in Berlin, Harold Washington Library and the Chicago Cultural Center. Her work is also conserved in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection and The Center for Book Arts in New York. Many of her paintings utilize religious texts and old photographs to reveal a paradoxical access to and disconnection from the past. In preparation for Holtzblatt’s exhibit From Birth to Memoryopening at Josef Glimer Gallery on November 21, assistant director Nicole Rhoden sat down with the artist in her Rogers Park studio to discuss how her practice is shaped by spirituality, familial dynamics and the mystery that lies between personal and collective memory.

Chicago artist Ellen Holtzblatt in her studio

Nicole Rhoden: Can you talk a little about what you’re trying to summon or access by creating these images?

Ellen Holtzblatt: I’m trying to summon my dead relatives. They’re like a séance! [laughs] I’m just joking. I think, not just with these images, but every time I’m painting, I’m working from a pretty internal place. So it’s mostly about making connections. When I’m painting, that’s when I feel the most connected to myself emotionally, with who I am as a person, and in general—just feel connected to living. When I go through periods when I’m not painting, I feel very disconnected. There’s a discordant quality to my life.

NR: All of the paintings I’ve seen do have a similar feeling of connecting with ancestors.

EH: When I first started my other series, Yizkor, my father died on my birthday. He had been sick for a while. There were a few years that had sort of a surreal quality, because you’re supposed to celebrate your birthday. I’ve heard that people who are dying, if there’s an event coming up, often will die on that day—on an anniversary, or on a birthday, something that has some emotional meaning. Of course I would think of him on the day he died, but now it’s especially built into my calendar. I can’t celebrate my birthday without also remembering the day of his passing. They’re eternally connected.

After he died, I said Kaddish [a ritual prayer] every day for a year—that’s a Jewish tradition. There are many purposes for it, but one of the purposes is when you’re mourning, like the anniversary of someone’s death. It depends on who it is and your relationship to them; in the case of a parent, you say it for eleven months. Then there’s another prayer you say four times a year to remember people from your life who have died—it’s called Yizkor. I remember the first Yizkor we had after I finished saying Kaddish. It’s actually more about life than it is about death.

Then I started also painting images of my mother when she was younger, after going through old photographs and taking some photos from her house. She kind of wondered [why I was painting her] because I had titled the series Yizkor and she’s a living person [laughs]. But it started becoming not just about people who had died, but also about the spirit that was—the spirit of a person.

At different points in our lives, we are these different parts of ourselves. It’s kind of a strange thing. I have memories from when I was younger, where I can’t imagine why I behaved in certain ways. I’m trying to access that, to remember, “Where was I at that point?” I think everybody at different points in their lives has that. We evolve, but as we’re evolving, we really don’t lose those parts of ourselves. We are still that person, but we also become different people.

Ellen Holtzblatt, I Saw Her Across the Room, 2011, 42 x 60," oil on linen

Ellen Holtzblatt, I Saw Her Across the Room, 2011, 42 x 60,” oil on linen

For example, this painting, [gestures toward I Saw Her Across The Room] was one of the first paintings I did in this series, when I had a CAAP Grant from the City of Chicago. This was from a photograph of my mom when she was on vacation with some friends. In the photograph she just looked very carefree, like she was just experiencing the feeling of the wind and of the sun, and the air and the water against her legs. That is so not my mother [laughs]. She is a very anxious person. She always has been. She worries about everything; she can’t stop herself from trying to direct everything around her. So there was this contradiction between that image and the woman that I grew up with. It was more about connecting to this person who may or may not have existed. That’s where that series started moving.

NR: So sometimes you’re connecting with hypothetical versions of a person?

EH: Hypothetical, or maybe that is really a part of who she is that I just don’t know well. Maybe she has even forgotten that person. I’m not sure. It could be hypothetical or it could be something that has just been a part of her that, because of events in her life, were lost, and that she doesn’t even know exists anymore.

I don’t always think this hard about why I’m painting what I’m painting. [laughs] I’m telling you all these things about it, but I didn’t think that at the time I chose the image. I try to just let go, make an emotional connection with something and just let it happen. Then afterwards I understand it. This relates a little bit to my art therapy background, because when I worked with patients, that was something I would have them do. Art can bypass that kind of conscious rational side of our brain. But I do think it’s helpful to then understand at least part of what it is that you’re connecting to. I might not understand everything, and it’s also just my understanding. As soon as I make something public, then it belongs to somebody else and they can make their own connections. Hopefully they will. I’d like for other people to make their own relationships.

Holtzblatt's studio in Roger's Park

Holtzblatt’s studio in Roger’s Park

NR: So is creating these paintings therapeutic for you?

EH: I don’t really think of them as a means of therapy. I think of them as expressive. This is my work, so obviously it’s work that I love, but people always say, “Oh that’s so great, you get to hang out in your studio, it must be so relaxing.” [laughs] Actually, no; most of the time I’m banging things, stressing when things aren’t working well, and [thinking] “Why the hell did I wipe out something I’ve worked on for three days just to recreate it?” But it’s therapeutic in the sense that it connects me to my internal world, and it provides me with a means of gaining insight into that world. I guess that is therapy, isn’t it? [laughs]

NR: A lot of your paintings have an aspect of memory. Any specific memory or events that molded you in the direction you have, working this way?

EH: When I talk about memories, sometimes it’s memories I actually have, and sometimes it’s trying to understand things I wasn’t present for—accessing more of a collective unconscious or an ancestral unconscious. For example, this painting of my mother out in the water, I wasn’t even alive then. It’s going back into her life for that moment to understand her more, to understand myself more. I believe that we are created not just by the events that we personally experience, but also by the events that we did not experience but have been passed on to us. Things that our family has gone through. It becomes a part of our unconscious. Or perhaps it could be events that they have in their lives that then play out in how they interact with others. My parents went through some very difficult times in their lives when they were younger. They were very poor. My father lost his father when he was really young. My father’s father lost his father when he was very young too, and was in an orphanage for a while because his mother couldn’t take care of him. When I talk about memory it’s not just my own memories, though they are also present of course.

The painting of my parents sitting on a park bench with a baby—that painting was really difficult for me to do. The baby in the painting is my brother and, honestly, I don’t speak with my brother. So there was a part of me that really didn’t want to paint him. But it made me go back and remember, to put him in a place when he was innocent. There was sort of an idyllic quality, but also kind of a looming.

Ellen Holtzblatt, In the Refuge of the Most High, 2012, 42 x 60," oil on linen

Ellen Holtzblatt, In the Refuge of the Most High, 2012, 42 x 60,” oil on linen

These aren’t nostalgic paintings where everything is wonderful. There’s a real conflict in them that I feel as I’m working on them. I know my parents loved me, but there were also some very difficult decisions that they made and things that they did which had consequences in my life. But I think that things are complicated, that most emotions do not just travel in all hate or all love, all happy or all sad. There are all sorts of things that become mixed in with each other.

NR: Do you decide from the start of each composition who you’re going to depict, or does that reveal itself later in the process?

EH: I usually know, but sometimes it doesn’t work out. For example this painting started out actually as being one of my daughters. I felt like I needed to situate the figure before I was able to really move a lot through the rest of the painting. I struggled a lot, and I repainted that thing many, many times. And then it just kind of came to me that it really wasn’t about my daughter, it was more about my mother. I mean—I think they’re all really more about me, to be self-centered [laughs], just like our dreams tend to be about us.

NR: What do you think causes a shift in subject like that?

EH: My daughters are both leaving [home] and I’m going through a lot of sadness about that. I have gone through a lot of issues with my own mother, especially in the last few years, that my daughters were witness to. There’s always this thing in my mind of how my daughters are going to relate to me when I’m old.

NR: Some of your subjects are placed in surreal surroundings, while others are in specific places. Can you talk about that contrast?

EH: At the time [I was creating the Yizkor paintings] I really did think a lot about the environment, but the environment was only important as it related to the figure—or at least, I really edited for that. The background of the painting with my parents on the bench is completely fabricated form different sources. It wasn’t a specific place.

That’s very different from what I’m doing now, where I’m working in a real landscape. Though I do sometimes change the figures. In this one, [When I Wake As When I Sleep], my dad never went to Orkney. That was actually [painted] from a photograph of me in Orkney, but then I superimposed my father. So in a way it’s a self-portrait, the artist as her father, [laughs] or the father as the artist.

NR: And you haven’t seen that place, the Orkney Islands, in over 25 years. What is it about this place holds such meaning to you?

EH: Before Al and I started dating, I told him I wanted to go to Scotland, and he did too. But I couldn’t afford it. I was working as an art therapist part-time three days a week and painting three days a week. He said, “I’ll buy one of your paintings and we can go together!” [laughs] So we moved into our relationship and made plans to go to Orkney.

It was amazing. We went to these ancient monuments where there were no people. They have these tools that are thousands of years old, laying out there, with no one working there or guarding them. You have to go through cow and sheep fields. It just drew you in. You could feel the age. There was nothing to distract from that. You could feel the history, the people who’d lived there. They were there. It affected our sleep. We were having these crazy dreams every night, and I was writing them down. It was very emotionally moving experience.

When we got married we didn’t register; a lot of people just gave us money. So we took all the money and spent it to go back to Orkney for three weeks for our first anniversary. We still felt a real connection. Around that time we started thinking we wanted to start a family. Part of that was being there. You just kind of feel this urge to be part of this cycle, to fit into that cycle of life, to surrender to it.

Ellen Holtzblatt, When I Wake As When I Sleep, 2014, 40 x 30," oil on wood panel.

Ellen Holtzblatt, When I Wake As When I Sleep, 2014, 40 x 30,” oil on wood panel.

NR: In this resulting Morning series, it seems like everyone is interacting with, or looking into, the surrounding scenery.

EH: I feel like they’re looking but they’re not. When I look at them, I see more of a looking inward.

Orkney is what inspired this direction of these paintings, but I also started working with images from Maine, because we just went to Maine and it was so beautiful. I think it was partly because I was there with my family; we were all together with my daughters. It was our chance to be together and connect before they sort of scattered their separate ways.

NR: What else do these portraits represent to you?

EH: The motivation that I’m telling you may be true, but it might not be the whole story. I feel like I live 95—maybe even 99 percent—of my life in my unconscious, completely unaware of my own motivations. And I don’t think I’m the only one [laughs]. But I think they represent my internal self: my emotions, my searching, the moving inward. In some ways they are probably all self-portraits.

NR: Do you relate at all to Apollonian vs. Dionysian philosophy—finding the harmony between reason and logical thinking versus emotional instinct and chaos?

EH: I think that’s just part of the process. There’s this rational side where I’m thinking very much about all the formal elements of my painting. And in doing so, I let go of thinking about what might be the meaning behind it, because I don’t want to control that direction. If I just focus mostly on all the formal elements, I feel like that leaves the room for the irrational to happen without my trying to direct it. I’m rather an emotional person, and I tend to feel things strongly, so I begin to connect to that. I think that living within a structure, for instance by working within the representational world, I’ve created certain rules that I live within. Did you ever see [the movie] The Matrix? The matrix is this program, and there were certain rules that were created within that program. Sorry to be referencing The Matrix, [laughs] but there’s a structure that helps us to feel comfortable in the world that we live in. If we walked around completely without any of these things, we’d be considered insane, and it would be so painful and difficult. But if you can live within some of these rules, then you can begin to bend some of them. You just have to know what they are. Before you get to that point, there has to be some sense of a structure.

NR: And these very specific, identifiable people and objects help you access something more metaphysical or internal?

EH: They’re my language. It almost doesn’t even matter what [images] I choose to use, because it has my mark. Anything that I paint, as long as I go in it with the same spirit of submission—submitting to the work—and dialogue, where the work and I are constantly communicating with each other, then that language is going to speak the same thing. I need to connect to something tangible, and then I can take that tangible thing and it becomes something else, based on my mark and whatever filter I have at that moment. I sometimes think, “Well, I was supposed to paint that day and I didn’t go in. What would it have been if I had gone in yesterday instead of today?” It would have been a totally different painting. I’m also known for completely wiping out [parts of paintings]. I wipe out things if I feel like something has been worked to a point where it’s too precious or overworked, or if it loses its life and starts to feel dead to me. Sometimes they’re elements that I love, but I have to get rid of them. And I have this faith that if I did it once, then I can find it again, and I will find it in a more genuine way. It’s scary, but I have to believe I’ll find it again.

Ellen Holtzblatt's palette

Holtzblatt’s palette

The opening reception for Ellen Holtzblatt: From Birth to Memory will be held on Friday, November 21, 6:30-900 p.m., with an artist’s talk at 7:00p.m. The exhibition will be on display at Josef Glimer Gallery, 207 W. Superior in Chicago, through December. For more information call 312-787-4640 or email info@josefglimergallery.com.

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