I am hesitant to describe anything I do with too much specificity because I hate to pigeon hole the work I do. I am most well known for the painted “tattooed” vintage women’s gloves. I see myself as a painter as well as an illustrator, I work with fabric and I use photography as well. So mixed media/artistic mag pie would be the best over all description of the medium.
As for the subject matter, I am usually working through some sort of visual or emotional tension. Either finding a harmony or sitting with discordant or tense imagery. With the work on vintage gloves there was a tension created by the contrast between aggressive masculine tattoos and the feminine gloves. I was trying to find a balance point between the two to better express my own feelings around sex, death, love, motherhood- big life themes.
My latest work is purposefully playful and rough around the edges. I am trying to sit with a more free form space. The gloves as a metaphor for feminine expectations are still a part of work but I have put them within a larger story of objects. I am still working with a lot of tattoo symbolism but again- breaking them apart from their original contexts and putting them into larger mixed media spaces. Its all about trying to find balance between too much too little. Its all about the midlife as a place to explore conceptually.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I come from a small university town in Kansas. Its where William Burroughs lived and died. Its not far from where the right wing fundamentalist bigots of the West Borough Baptist church have their headquarters. Its a place full of contradictions where these artsy progressive academic counterculture types live within a larger culture that is pretty conservative. So I was really influenced by the whole freak scene of my town. The contrasts and tensions there. Folk art, diy, punk, punk feminism all set in stark contrast to the bible thumping fundamentalism. It made me a bit of a hell raiser to grow up there.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
Its pretty traditionally studio time. I think one thing that sets it apart is that I usually have to balance the studio time with motherhood, work and home life so the studio is still a very sacred and alone space. Its where I meet myself and work through thoughts and emotions that I pick up from “regular” life.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I am a shy person. Making small talk and social chit chat is not my cup of tea. So to show my work is a way that I connect. I find that when I am speaking my truth- even if it seems to be embarrassing or weird or that voice in my head says “who do you think you are?” that if I am brave enough to put it out there that someone will connect to it on a personal level. And when someone sees your work and connects to its honesty it allows the viewer to be more brave and honest with themselves. Artwork is powerful medicine and images can set you free. I don’t care about the “art world” or status or money. I do it so that I can be a better human being and inspire others. I didn’t realize that when I began.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
I love getting to it first thing in the morning. I usually take whatever I can get but first thing is best- fresh full of coffee and sunlight.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
My work is always changing. I am always changing. If one body of work was super colorful the next one I may strip it all down to black and white. I am always trying to keep things fresh and moving- willing to break it all down and build up again.
Things that have not changed are that I have been a mother, wife and tattooed woman through the last five years. Those are some characters or ideas that move through time into various pieces even if they are address with a different medium. Its a challenge for me to keep consistent, its to a fault that I change so much- I always am seeking grounding.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
My daughters and my husband have to be the largest impact on my work because they are what consumes my life outside of the studio. My mother is important because she was the first person to champion me as an artist and believe I could do it. Family is a big one because they keep me grounded.
Its hard to say wether I love pop culture or history more. I feel like I am influenced by so much imagery and ideas from the turn of the century as in 1900’s and that time period in tattoo imagery as well. I love myths and really old folk art and general history nerd stuff like those ken burns documentaries.
I also live with two young girls who are constantly exposing me to girl culture, so there has been a lot of barbie, disney princess and such in my world that if I did not have
children I may have not been exposed to that aesthetic. So it is a mix of these influences that I really play with in my work. Alicia Eler, Peregrine Honig, Kate Durbin, and Cori Winrock are all contemporary ladies who are really honing in on a particular style of writing and making artwork that feels like a sisterhood of sorts. The internet has been crucial as a tool to connect with each other.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
Right now I am a mother, that is my other occupation. I have also been in fashion retail, worked with my husband on his design business and for a few years I home schooled my kids.
I am looking to go back to work in retail as we speak. I love retail, I love a store and I love new challenges so I am excited to put back on my career lady shoes and hit the sales floor again. It also appeals to the fashion hound in me- I am a sucker for pretty clothes. No matter what though, the art is there- it will always need its pound of flesh from me.
Ellen Greene was born and raised in Lawrence, Kansas, a town full of contradictions. A mad mix of frat boys, Christian evangelists, ex-hippie hobos, punks and professors all called Lawrence their home. Drawing compulsively from an early age, Ellen was influenced by 80‘s pop culture, small town art scene and the colorful characters of her town. Folk art from found objects, DIY fashion and tattoo culture each inspired the red- headed girl who always felt strange in her small town surroundings.
After graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute she embarked for Chicago where she now runs her art studio. Her work is still infused with the same compulsive intensity instilled in her childhood; a quirky Americana aesthetic born out of contrasts, grown in the Midwest.
Her studio artwork has been shown extensively in solo and group exhibitions throughout the Midwest, United States and abroad.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.