Artist Profile: Ellen Greene - Chicago
Last week, we spent the afternoon with Ellen Greene at her new exhibit, “Welcome Home”. She showed us around her immersive installation, located in an old home in Logan Square. Before the house gets gutted, Ellen is giving it a last hurrah with an art show. We were so glad to sit down with Ellen in this space to talk about artwork, motherhood, and the feminine experience. All photos in this interview are by Kerri Sherman in “Welcome Home”. You’re welcome to visit this experience on September 29-30 or October 6-7 from 10:00 am - 2:00 pm at 2048 N Kimball Ave. Chicago, IL.
Hi Ellen! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in 1975 in a small town in Kansas. It was an artsy college town, but it also had this really strange mix of fundamentalism, from hillbillies to frat boys to artists - it had a really wild mix of people. I felt like there was a lot of freethinking outsiders in that small town and I saw people making art from a really young age. No one else in my family is an artist, but I felt really inspired by things around me in my small town. I don't remember a time when I didn't make art.
Did you anticipate making a career out of art?
Art making for me has always been a calling rather than a vocation and I've always struggled with that aspect of it. I knew I needed to go to art school, so I went to the Kansas City Art Institute and I had never felt more like, oh my gosh, I'm with my people than when I was around other artists. After school, I struggled a lot, and this was pre-internet so there weren’t people starting their own businesses and putting them online.
I was just making art and working, and I didn't know how I was going to make it, I still don’t know how I’m going to make it, but I had even less of a clue. I just had this impetus to make. So I did, and then I fell in love, got married, and had children. For 13 years I was a stay at home mom and that was a really big part of feeling like I had a purpose.
And so art making had to be put to the side. Until I didn't have time, I didn't realize how much time I had to do the thing that I should do. It was always this dance and struggle to be this person - this mom to these girls, this artist for myself, this wife to my then husband, and this daughter to my parents. How do I function in all of these roles when all I want to do is be an artist?
Art making, as you know or may not know, is an incredibly selfish, self-centered, time consuming enterprise. I carried a lot of guilt and shame. My artwork was patiently waiting for me to come back to it, but setting it aside took its toll on me emotionally, and mentally I was not happy or well.
Were you still in Kansas at this point?
I had moved up to Chicago, so I was also in a totally foreign land, so to speak. Because I didn't go to school here, I wasn’t plugged into the art scene. It wasn't until I had been living in Chicago about 12 or 13 years that I had my first show here. I had shows here and there, but I had my first solo show at Firecat Gallery when Tony Fitzpatrick and Stan Cline had it as a partnership on Damen. That was with the tattooed leather gloves.
Where did the idea for your tattooed leather gloves come from?
I had painted on gloves back in Kansas. I can remember the moment it happened where I was like, whoa, these do something different. I didn’t actually know how to paint tattoo very well then, but I thought it was interesting how I could make a drawing look like a tattoo and put it on something that wasn’t canvas. I was very lazy and didn’t like to stretch canvas.
I am a constant thrifter. I love old things because I can sense their history, so I would find old gloves and think about who the women were that were wearing these gloves, because I would have never been able to.
At the time, you didn't leave the house without your gloves on or go to church or go to any kind of public event. I thought of how that when you're wearing white gloves, what you touch is absorbed and recorded. You can't do anything unlady-like - you can’t do anything other than keep them in your lap and keep them clean and presentable.
Being raised by hippies born in the seventies, I had no concept of formality and what those gloves implied. I was really interested in who the women were who could wear these gloves. Why was that not me and so then who am I? So where's this in between zone of past femininity and present experience? That's where the gloves started.
Then as I continued making the gloves they started to be more about motherhood and bodies. I was imagining as if all of these things that women suppress, like rage and feelings that don’t feel feminine or ladylike, were coming up through the skin. I personally thought that I couldn’t be the only one who feels this, but I just don’t have a very good way of keeping a lid on it. That stuff has to come out. So what does that imagery look like and how is it this shadow aspect of the white glove to femininity?
That went on for a long time and then I had this shift back to oil painting, which was my first love. I love the gloves so much, but they were just a sliver of what I wanted to express. I needed a bigger space to convey those same ideas.
Are there aspects of the feminine experience in all the work that you do?
All of it. And it's also always about a bit of a deconstruction of that. So a lot of these new paintings are on this formal, floral wallpaper, like the gloves. Then there are these moments where that wallpaper is interrupted with little graffiti marks or stickers, and I imagine that being childlike in nature or the freedom of a child who doesn't care about the rules of the wallpaper. Right? They're just like, oh, sticker here. And there are parts of my body that felt like that too.
I'm this human, but my kids were like you’re mom, we’re gonna paint on you, we’re going to tug on you. We're going to destroy you and all you think you want to construct about you. I mean there's definitely this breaking down of self in the experience of being a mother.
These paintings feel so feminine, but in an unconventional way. There’s always something that’s wrong about them, and I feel really comfortable with that.
Previous to this show, has all of your work been in galleries or have you done other interactive experiences?
This is the first fully immersive experience. I’ve definitely shown in a lot people's homes turned gallery space and group shows. I had two solo shows with Packer-Schopf Gallery in Chicago (now closed) and my work has been exhibited extensively in the United States in a variety of traditional gallery settings.
I’m never going to be satisfied with just art on the wall. I’m always going to want to manipulate the space to reflect the environment that these paintings are made in. They’re made in my home. They're made in the midst of dinner time. They're made in the midst of trying to navigate parenting two teenagers.
How do you create a life out of all these different rules and still stay authentically human to who you are because there's so much external pressure. It's so tricky to stay just where your feet are, with who you are, and keep really pure to that expression.
How did Welcome Home come to be?
A benefactor said “I know your work and I want you to put it in this house before it gets gutted.” My work was ready to be shown beyond my space, but I didn’t know where it was going to go. So when I got that opportunity I was just like, yes, yes, yes.
I was almost was like, if nobody even sees it, this is where I need to see it. And then the bonus is that other people get to experience this house the way it was. It feels like a memorial to the home.
How are you wanting people to experience this show?
I’m letting in just one or two people at a time, and I want them to just discover it and just be with that presence.
Does guilt still come up when making artwork now?
When I was a child, I didn't feel guilty. I was totally free. Even as a child though, I did remember getting the message very early on that art is not important. We would get it once a week - an art teacher would come in and bring her art supplies on a cart and that's when we would get art. We got math every day. We got English every day. We got recess every day. So then I was like, oh, my core is clearly not important. It didn't stop me though.
It has always felt like a struggle to give myself permission to be an artist. It’s so much easier performing really well at being a mom, right? Having your kids look good, having their homework look good, having high achieving, well behaved, good looking, healthy kids. The harder part is to say let me be me and let them be them, and I’m going to hold some of this space, energy, and time to making this thing that doesn’t necessarily have a prescribed commercial liability. It’s an act of faith to just make. It’s a gift to yourself.
Another thing is that my kids are going to know me, they’re going to know me for this, and they will see who I am 100 percent. If I just performed as a good mom, they would find stuff in my closet long after I died and think we never knew our mother. Hopefully this will give them the permission to not fall into those same traps of thinking that if they just follow this role and do it really well, they will then get approval.
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
The patriarchy wins when we're isolated. Those external forces of capitalism, racism, sexism, patriarchy, all those forces, need us separated. They need us to fight against each other and they need us separated and divided. So women helping other women is the most radical act because when we're in each other's presence, it breaks down all those walls.
I had that experience really viscerally when I had children. All of a sudden I needed other moms. I needed other women to walk through this with because nobody knows what I’m going through except the other person that’s there in the trenches with me.
Before being a mother, I had a very clear indication of women supporting women in the punk scene, back then it was so aggressive and so masculine. It was so hyperdangerous to go to punk shows and they were always in funky warehouses in sketchy neighborhoods, so the girls had to stick together and we had to look out for each other.
I did make a sorority in art school as a feminist art statement because we realized that girls saw each other as competition instead of community. Who was going to tell the next incoming class about the professor trying to date freshman girls or the senior sculpture guy trying to lock people in bathrooms? We did a performance piece as a sorority for the freshmen girls. We wanted to tell them what it was like at this school and how to navigate the world they were coming into. We needed to impart something back, something that nobody ever told us.