Briefly describe the work you do.
I make images in a broad variety of media ranging from 12th century techniques of silverpoint and egg tempera to digital animation, artist books, and interactive installations. The installations combine bamboo structures, and handmade felt with sewing. They offer the viewer an opportunity to share a direct message via text or drawing regarding human experience.
My work is abstract, with dream-like forms, evoking sensation, flux, imagery that requires contemplative time on the part of the viewer.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I grew up in New York City and vowed to become an artist when I was in kindergarten. During elementary school I attended Saturday classes at Pratt Institute, and often visited the Brooklyn Museum with my mom after my dad died. These early opportunities to see art opened my mind to a larger world than the one I inhabited, as my formative years were characterized by loss, loneliness and a preoccupation with death. During the 1970’s while at the School of Visual Arts, I worked for Louise Bourgeois who deeply influenced my feeling for materials and furthered my appreciation for the phenomenal and internal experience involved in making art. The psychological dimension was a basis for the way I thought about art and created a foundation for my interest in Buddhist practice. I worked at M.o.M.A for several years in the Education Department and became fluent in speaking about art with diverse audiences. It became clear that no matter what a person’s background, experience, gender or age, people sought to make meaning of their experience looking at art.
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 today anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
I maintain an engaged studio practice in an old barn with many rooms in which diverse activities take place. My years struggling for substantial workspace in New York City was the impetus to find a space bigger than what I thought I needed in which to grow and develop.My work areas vary in scale and provide space for separate mediums. except animation, which requires my computer. Additionally, the studio has been a site for performance work and recently hosted a Buddhist sangha.
For me, the praxis of “being in the studio” has expanded in geography and circumstance through my involvement with diverse communities, people who have been marginalized through mental and physical illness, poverty and the inevitable lack of resources.
I do extensive collaborative work with children, young adults and their families in the context of hospitals where I have worked for several years as an artist in residence. Collaborative practice is an amazing vehicle that allows everyone the opportunity to participate without feeling the necessity for an art background. This is much different than teaching art. Collaboration is based on free play, improvisation and simply being present in the moment.
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?
When I was a teenager, I lied about my age to gain employment at the infamous Willowbrook State Institution on Staten Island. I attempted to make art with people who had been institutionalized all their lives. This provided me with invaluable insight into the nature of suffering and the powerful refuge art could provide. Reading Paul Klee’s writings where he mentioned his interest in the art of the insane inspired me. Today we would more likely use the term mentally challenged. My art school education provided little support for these emotional perspectives. Later, when I attended graduate school, I became immersed in the seminal post-modern texts. In particular, Foucault’s work helped me re-think and re-examine cultural and historic issues in a way that felt closer to my experience. The vow to be an artist provided me with the chance to step outside of formal education and certainly while I was participating in the art education system it was difficult to imagine the alternative places I would investigate through my work.
When do you find is the best time of the day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
I am amused by the idea of a best time to make art and puzzled by the notion of how time can be set aside. We seem to be creatures of time. I have a daily practice of zazen in the morning and my intention is to show up for my work whenever I am able. Mornings are always filled with possibility and I like early light. I wish it were easier to work by moonlight!
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
The last five years represent a continuous unfolding of my work, filled with new awareness and an ever-deepening appreciation for tactile and sensory experience. I have been exploring new areas and materials yet the underlying concerns and interests have not changed. I’ve been immersed in silverpoint, metallic wool and egg tempera. My linear work with silverpoint now incorporates a more atmospheric, painterly quality with the addition of metallic wool pads. I have added the use of stencils and templates to my drawings and all are hand cut out of aluminum sheets. Metallic wool is rubbed against the aluminum edge and the results vary according to the support. The range of support can include, paper, boards, panels with gesso and clear panels. Each combination of metal and its underlying support will vary in oxidation and the way it will shift color over time. Additionally, I’ve been exploring digital animation via my iPhone. My animations have a journalistic quality and I have used stills from the animations as a basis for drawings. In the past year I have been making inter-active installations using bamboo as a primary material combined with exchanged texts between the viewer and the object. The bamboo is from a grove behind my studio. This installation work has been shared at many hospitals and galleries affording families, staff, visitors to offer and exchange healing words and thoughts. I am currently compiling a book of these messages.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
I have had rich and enduring engagements with all of the groups that you mention! Poetry and philosophy have been critical for me, especially in difficult times. My initial encounter with philosophy was via the work of French phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty. His work indicated an approach to seeing and perception that felt right. This past summer, I read Paul Celan’s late poetry and I was fascinated by his interest in geology which has become an environmental message that became suffused in my drawings. Currently, I am reading a collection of the Chinese painter and writer Mu Xin’s short stories, “ An Empty Room.” Mu Xin was incarcerated during the Cultural Revolution in China and his art enabled him to survive solitary imprisonment. I’m drawn to poets whose work has helped them save their lives and eased dire circumstance.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist what would that be and why?
I have imagined being a microbiologist or an astronomer. Seeing deep into unseen places both internal and external would feel like a natural extension of my curiosity about the universe.
Robyn Ellenbogen shows her work throughout the country. She recently had an interactive installation at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York where hundreds of messages were exchanged with patients, families, visitors and staff. In 2014, she was pleased to win a Juror’s Choice award from the Williams Prize in Drawing. Robyn resides in a house and studio built in 1789 and she is fairly certain there are no ghosts.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.