Ellen Soffer is a fantastic, Louisiana-based abstract painter. When I saw her work http://ellensoffer.com/ on social media, I felt an immediate connection and asked her for a chat. What I’ve found is a very introspective, purposeful artist whose life seems lovingly consumed by art. Here’s our cool chat …
“… I think the process of painting centers me and helps me feel more connected to myself. When I miss going into the studio I feel disconnected and have more anxiety …”
MICHAEL: Hello Ellen, Your paintings feel very familiar to me. In fact, when I look at them, I see seas of humanity. It's almost as if your paintings are aerial views of crowds of people ... all kinds of people along landscapes. That’s what I see. How do you see your work?
ELLEN: Hi Michael, Thanks for asking me to do the interview. I don’t see people in my work at all, although I did have figurative imagery in my work a long time ago. Now I see the marks more like particles, waves, energy, close-up shots of something invisible. Sometimes I see something that reminds me of landscape, but mostly I think of it as more of an internal landscape about memory, a snap shot of a feeling, moment or dream. Maybe a response to other paintings or art that I’ve seen or thought about, but the response is something that comes spontaneously and I recognize it later.
MICHAEL: Shots of something invisible. Intriguing. I don't want to get spooky here, but this seems to touch somewhat on faith. Just because we cannot immediately see something doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. What do you think about this?
ELLEN: I wasn’t thinking of it as something that you would have to think about. More like you can’t see your feelings or when you get a feeling from a dream or memory of an event … that is not a literal thing, but something you experience.
MICHAEL: I see.
ELLEN: My ideas about close-up particles aren’t something I think about when I’m painting - just something when I look back on some paintings after their done.
I could also think of them like poems too - not specific poems, but a memory of a poem, a feeling after you read a poem that might not be about the poem, but a personal association after reading it.
MICHAEL: Your particles seem random yet orderly at the same time. I love the way you use color too. How do you begin and even progress through a painting? Do you dab and dab until it feels complete?
ELLEN: I like the - random but orderly - maybe that’s why I think of particles. Glad you like the color. Color is one of the things I love most about painting.
MICHAEL: Me too.
ELLEN: I usually mix up only one or two colors at a time. When I start a painting, I make short marks or dashes all over the area of the canvas or panel. That makes the whole area seem activated. Once I have enough marks to feel like the whole area is activated, I may work on one area longer. I have no plan usually about how the painting is going to go. Or if I do have a plan, like an idea to have a certain structure, most times I leave it behind before the painting gets to the middle stage.
I have a system of using colors in different orders. I am not sure why I started this system and I don’t always follow it and I also change it, but it is part of how I work.
I work on about 10 medium-to-larger paintings and 10 small paintings at a time. I may only work on a few during a painting session. The areas that I work on have to be mostly dry for the brush strokes to stay separate. I like having paintings that I can work on when waiting for others to sit for a while.
I know when I’m in the beginning and middle of a painting. Toward the end, I let them sit for awhile and after a few weeks, decide if they are done. I have been using longer brush marks in some of my more recent paintings. It’s done when I start to feel that there is nothing urgent to do, the surface does not seem open to more working.
On paper I may do things differently. I don’t feel as compelled to follow the same structures or systems as in my oil painting.
MICHAEL: When people look at your work, do you want them to see it as you see it?
ELLEN: No, not necessarily. Once in a while, someone talks to me about my work and I think they see the way I do. It’s more common for people to see it somewhat differently and I think that is good. I don’t have expectations for people seeing my work the way I do.
MICHAEL: Does your physical environment inspire your work or is it more about internal inspiration?
ELLEN: It’s more about internal inspiration although I think I am affected by my physical environment. It’s an unconscious affect, but I think being in a different space, area, light changes the color and structure of my work.
I’m motivated by having a way to process my emotions. Other art inspires me and the need to see my paintings evolve.
MICHAEL: Do you ever get a burst of inspiration and dash for the canvas as fast as you can? How does it generally work for you?
ELLEN: I always have a lot of paintings going at once so there is a lot to work on when I go to the studio. When I get there, I sometimes start on a certain painting but may choose to work on a few.
Most of the time when I start painting, I feel calm and focused. I just go in and start painting. I usually pick up where I left off. I listen to audio books while painting, which for me creates a neutral space that allows me to focus without being overwhelmed by other emotions.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the contemporary art world and art market? Do you understand them and feel like you're part of them?
ELLEN: I feel isolated where I live. I try to go to Dallas (my closest city - 3 1/2 hour drive) often. I try to go to New York two times a year so I can to see galleries and exhibits. I also go to the Dallas Art Fair each year.
Currently, I am exhibiting at the Mary Tomás Gallery in Dallas. I’m in a four-person exhibit coming up. Recently, I had an exhibition at the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette, Louisiana. That’s between Shreveport and New Orleans. I am mostly showing my work currently in Louisiana and Texas.
The internet gives me a filtered sense of what is going on in other places. I feel like I am outsider in some ways living far from New York and Los Angeles. When I’m thinking about art that interests me, I don’t think of a conversation just with other art made close by.
MICHAEL: Ellen, I have to tell you that I feel isolated where I live as well. Many artists and writers feel this way. It feels like the only people who understand art the way I see it are the art people I chat with here online.
I think many people online are fake, but when it comes to chats like this, people tend to be more authentic and connect better. To me, your work looks very connected and it's very much on par with anything being created anywhere else, including New York. Do you think your work would be different if you lived elsewhere?
ELLEN: Michael, thanks for mentioning you’re having feelings of isolation too. I forget sometimes that other artists and writers have similar feelings. I’m glad my work seems connected to you. Thanks for mentioning that to me. I think my paintings would be different if I lived somewhere else, but I don’t know what that would be.
It seems as though when my space changes, my work changes, but it’s hard to tell because maybe the changes would have happened anyway. It’s just seems more noticeable when they coincide with an outside change.
MICHAEL: Do any issues develop for you when you’re painting? What does art in general do for you?
ELLEN: Sometimes I have problems stopping painting on paintings. I like to wait a month or more sometimes when I think they’re done and before I title them. Lately I have been thinking about whether I could make decisions about what is done sooner. I tend to wait until I have five or more paintings done and then decide they are done.
I think the process of painting centers me and helps me feel more connected to myself. When I miss going into the studio I feel disconnected and have more anxiety.
Looking at other art is my passion and I feel uplifted and excited after going to galleries/museums when I see exhibitions that I like. I feel connected when I see exhibitions that I like. It’s like I’m reading a language that moves me. Sometimes even work that I don’t have a direct use for or connection to can still inspire me. I still can feel some communication even if I can’t totally process everything I see.
MICHAEL: Finally Ellen, what purpose do you think art serves in the 21st Century? I mean, most people on earth will never visit an art gallery, but many people in even very poor countries like Jamaica have cellphones! Should people care about art?
ELLEN: The last two questions were hard for me. On one level, I see art serving as a kind of historic and futuristic record. I am not sure what purpose it serves - I think art digests its environment and time and reinterprets/processes it … and for people who are interested it is meaningful.
I am not sure about who should care about art. Usually it is people who are drawn to art, exposed to art in their environments. Exposure sometimes produces a connection. I think it makes life more interesting and deeper. Art is important to me, but I don’t know if can be important to everyone. Maybe because of smart phones the audience for art will grow.
There’s so much exposure across borders with phones and the internet. My early exposure from going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art with school trips as a young person and my father’s interest in art influenced me.
My father was a self-taught artist, but did not always have time to paint. He did mention to me that he had art lessons in the army from someone who was connected to Picasso. I wish I had asked him more about it while he was still living. In my childhood bedroom my parents put Picasso posters.
MICHAEL: Ellen, this has been a lovely chat. Thanks. Love your work.
ELLEN: Thanks for asking me do interview! Glad you like my paintings! It’s been nice having the conversation.
Check out Ellen Soffer at http://ellensoffer.com/.