Ellen Hanson’s paintings are shape shifters. They are optical illusions that miraculously turn the canvas into a window, a screen, a wall, a window, and (soon enough) a garden partition. She physically builds her own canvases that fit her own dreams and desires: they sit on the ground propped up from the back, they curve and fold, and sometimes the wooden frame is exposed with just a slice of canvas delicately hanging on to it’s edges like a flag. These assembled canvases act as a frame—and within that frame is often another frame created within the painting itself. Planes of surfaces and patterns are cleverly used to both flatten and expand the space within the painting, as if extending out of the frame. Through her unique use of perspective, the artist plays with the painting’s foreground and background, bringing the viewer into her constructed worlds.
In Hanson’s paintings, there is often a lone figure: the artist herself. Holding paintbrushes between her toes, we sense the artist’s tension, her physical labor. These self-portraits often reveal the artist mid-creation—a painting of the artist painting. In this interview, the artist shares with us her thoughts on how isolation during creation is often romanticized, and how to deal with this almost certain and perpetual state of isolation we all now find ourselves in.
Let’s start with what drew you to painting in the first place. Have you always been an artist? What prompted you to pursue being an artist as a career?
I’ve always wanted to be some sort of artist. My first creative aspiration was to be a fashion designer. In middle school, my BFF and I would make outfits for our beanie babies out of tissues during class. What drew me to painting was my high school painting teacher, Mr. Bowers. He loved painting and wanted to teach us everything. I remember trying to make a glaze painting my sophomore year. Who has the patience to teach Dutch master painting to a 16 year old?! It would be cool to come full circle and do a fashion collaboration with prints of my paintings. Maybe a cross between romanticized studio wear and loungewear.
I first came across your work in person in Chicago. What brought you to Chicago and where are you originally from?
I grew up in Wilmette, in the suburbs of Chicago. After I graduated from Bennington College in Vermont, I moved to Chicago kind of by default. Now I’m in Richmond, Virginia at Virginia Commonwealth University for my MFA--who knows where I’ll be after graduating.
Your paintings tend to play with space, toying with planes and often create a frame within the frame. Can you talk a bit about this element of your work and your interest in perspective?
I like to play with illusion while simultaneously stressing the physicality of the surface. My paintings also frequently become a mise en abyme by repeating the image inside of itself and showing its own creation.
I personally love your larger paintings that are installed sitting directly on the ground, slightly folder like partitions. Do you build your own canvases? What inspired this change in your work initially?
Thank you. Yes, I build my own canvases. I had been making paintings that were windows and started to make shaped stretchers that added a forced perspective. I love engaging the formal elements of the canvas by creating a push and pull between illusion and facade. I wanted to push this by bringing the paintings off the wall. Now, the paintings could be windows, screens, and walls that engage the viewer and the surrounding space in a more dynamic way. With the T-shaped canvases in “Hold Sway”, I was thinking about privacy and discovery. The viewer can’t see the whole painting from a single angle; they have to move around it. Caitlin Cherry, one of my favorite painters and a professor at VCU, made a joke about the back of the canvas being like showing your thong in low rise jeans and I’m pretty obsessed with that metaphor. It’s hot.
The figure in your paintings is often painting herself. Do you see this figure as yourself? Are these self-portraits?
When I got to grad school I really honed in on self-portraits. These paintings were about the conflation of the artist and the muse and self-sexualization. Conceptually, these paintings needed to have me as the subject, but I’m ready to move on.
Let’s talk about one of your recent paintings, Untitled. The more textural, mixed-media details and the text on the composition seem to be a departure from your earlier work. Can you tell us about this piece and the direction your newer work is going?
Yes! I’m very excited about that painting and it’s the beginning of my thesis work. It’s one of four freestanding paintings that will act like garden walls turning the whole installation into a Hortus Conclusus. It utilizes similar themes as my other work--self-portraiture, landscape, the canvas as a formal element, etc.--but the energy is different. I wanted to make a painting that was more emotional. It’s not about the viewer or being seen, but about feeling. In some ways it's a reaction to the pressures of grad school. There’s so much doubt here. I wanted to lean in to my intuition and make a work that I believed in but couldn’t explain.
How has been your experience being a graduate student during COVID-19?
Oof. I don’t know where to begin. Grad school has been a wild ride. Covid-19 has had a huge impact. Our classes have been mostly online for ¾ of my time here and a lot of the things I came to grad school for were cut. However, we still have our studios and I get to continue to work among really inspiring artists who are now my good friends.
What is something you hope to accomplish in 2021, whether it is art related or otherwise?
Graduating! I also hope to create a more sustainable studio practice. My relationship to painting is very volatile and grad school has accentuated that. I’m looking forward to building healthier routines outside of school.
I was wondering if you wouldn't mind sharing any tips/suggestions on how artists can deal with being isolated while creating, or how to stay in a good headspace--especially during quarantine?
I’m really happy we’re talking more about mental health as a society--it’s long overdue. I’m especially happy to see these conversations making their way into the classroom and the workplace. To be honest, I could probably tell you more what not to do than what to do. Art romanticizes isolation, struggle, and bursts of inspiration, but usually it doesn’t work that way. A good painting can come out of going to the studio when you didn’t feel like it. The year before grad school I moved to a cabin in rural Wisconsin to paint alone for six months. I had always dreamed of doing something like that. It was a real gift at the beginning, but towards the end the isolation took a toll on me. I thought having more time to paint would solve all of my problems, but it turns out community is essential! Little did I know we would all be isolating again.