Chelsea Ellis : “The arrival of an idea that feels powerful is a sacred thing.”

When you think of this season’s theme, Kristin Chang’s poem “Etymology of Butch,” what elements / images / phrases most strike you? How does your work relate to these ideas?

While it seems to come from a specific place, “Etymology of Butch” deals with a struggle — between self-declared identity and socially or culturally imposed identity — that resonates with me and relates to themes in my own artwork. I appreciate how Chang is using imagery from her family history in butchery to describe and challenge gender expectations, and how she does this through an outline structure of the etymology of a word. It’s a really smart poem.

Phrases I love, and that relate to my artwork, deal with the deconstruction of bodies, such as:

“No part of my body uneaten, unused to butchery”

“With a handsaw I hack my hair a holy length”

“Bungled beauty: beast I aimed to skin”

“I wade without legs”

As a woman in this society and culture, my identity, my value, my confidence is so closely tied to my body. So, what happens when art destroys a body that holds that kind of weight?

To me, something powerful.

In a lot of my work, I use a combination of body paint, photography, and digital subtraction to present humanoid “creatures” through which I vicariously perform a range of expressions and suggest bodily functions. I’m exploring questions about humanness and otherness within the framework of my perceived gender and cultural identity. My process involves digitally cutting out parts of my body — a kind of butchery — to express something that my complete body can not.

As a woman in this society and culture, my identity, my value, my confidence is so closely tied to my body. So, what happens when art destroys a body that holds that kind of weight?

Describe the work you’ll be contributing this season.

I will be contributing at least one photographic piece that depicts a white, hand-like, and leaky vase that is simultaneously holding and cutting flowers. I wanted to create an image that illustrates the failure of an object to fulfill its assumed purpose — such as a vessel failing to hold water. This idea is inspired primarily by the defiance in the final lines of the poem.

“What god criminalizes creation? Mine                                              

divine. Mine of my own hands. Mine of a prayer arrowheaded in silence, my body a steed I ride to sabotage

C. gods:”

The digital subtraction in your pieces adds a surreal feeling to familiar forms. How did you come across this technique? What does this process look like?

I was given the photo-editing challenge of changing the background in a bunch of portraits at a company I used to work for. One of the headshots was of this guy with the largest and frizziest mop of hair. So, I figured out some masking tricks to isolate his hair in a natural-looking way. I’ve used and honed that technique in day jobs ever since then, but I just recently started using it in my own work to isolate body paint.

The imagery that I come up with often starts out as a drawing on paper. I have this little sketch book full of surreal drawings — a floating female head above a sea of hair; snakes weaving through holes in a human body; arms glowing and reaching. I revisit those sketches often to expand on the feeling they evoke, but in a photographic way.

The process behind making my “creature” pieces is a combination of me performing with paint on my body, taking photos, and digitally subtracting in Photoshop. Editing involves multiple images that are masked and layered together. Overall, the process is cathartic, messy, and a little tedious. There is paint all over my apartment.

We love your Instagram account. What kind of relationship do you have with social media? Does social media influence your practice / your idea of creative identity?

Thanks! These are definitely questions I ask myself all of the time!

I’d like to think that a phone app doesn’t influence my practice, but it totally has in great and not-so-great ways. I’ve found a supportive creative community on Instagram, and I  honestly didn’t take my work seriously until I started sharing and having conversations about it on social media. So, Instagram has been a great tool for me to build my confidence; to make connections more easily as a quiet, introverted person; and to share more about who I am and how I see. It sounds cheesy, but I consider Instagram to be a kind of passport to a less modest and more bold version of myself. Having that quiet and safe venue for expression has really helped me grow and to develop my creative identity over the past two years.

At the same time, I’ve noticed that I’m more active on Instagram when I’m anxious, which isn’t always helpful. Also, I often have the impulse — when I see anything remotely interesting — to document and share. I hate that impulse, especially when it’s already a challenge to be present.

So, my relationship with Instagram always revolves around finding a balance between productive connection and being present. To keep myself in check, I try to ask myself “Is this serving me?” and, recently, to take mini-digital detoxes.

It feels silly to talk about a phone app so seriously, but I don’t think my relationship with Instagram is extraordinary.

What types of ghosts haunt your work? What kind of relationship do you have / want to have with these ghosts?

I know by “ghost” you don’t necessarily mean the spirit of a person, but I have an ongoing photo series of lilies that is about my grandmother’s death.

Before she died unexpectedly, I brought her some lilies for Mother’s Day that she ended up being allergic to. After she passed, I found out that she had to keep the flowers outside because they made it difficult for her to breath. She had COPD, and died from a complication during a simple lung checkup. So, I’ve felt guilty about those flowers.

The project is cathartic for me, and explores the idea of reversing an event — the opening of a flower, or the death of person. It involves closing lily blossoms by sewing using my grandmother’s thread, and photographing the sewn flowers suspended against a white background.

I’ve recently started “cremating” these now dried flowers to expand on the idea of lilies being a traditional funeral flower. What I’m finding through burning them is that the flowers remain intact and become completely black. They also become incredibly delicate. When they are crushed to ash, the thread of the stitch remains.

And “what kind of relationship do I want to have with this ghost?” I try to honor my grandmother as much as I can, and want to explore thoughts about death and mourning in creative ways. That’s how I process most heavy life things.

Our theme this season relates to etymology, the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings change over time. How do you define yourself / your work? How has this definition changed over time?

That’s a big question!

I define myself as an artist, a girls advocate, a world traveler, a sister, a daughter, a woman, a gender bender, an optimist, and an introvert, among other things. My artwork is a product of the growing pains of coming into my current creative identity and independence. Like I’ve said, artmaking is a way I process a lot of things.

This is the first time in my life I can confidently define myself, and for that I credit two years of living alone with plenty of space to get weird and to make art. I also credit the handful of aggressively supportive friendships I’ve made.

Who is currently inspiring you locally?

Justin Levesque! (@onedynamicsystem) If you don’t already know, he’s a multidisciplinary artist living in Portland. He’s been a kind of mentor to me, and I honestly wouldn’t take my art seriously if it wasn’t for him. What I admire most about him is that he asks all of the right questions, and doesn’t seem to leave them unanswered in his work. He also doesn’t hesitate to give me honest feedback, or to help me out. I just have a lot of respect for him, and often ask myself “WWJD?”

Heather Lyon (@_heatherlyon) is a performing artist from Blue Hill. Her work feels like self explorations that use materials loaded with metaphorical possibilities.

Tom Butler (@tombutlerstudio) is a multidisciplinary artist, who I think lives in Portland? I follow him on Instagram and love that he uses performance in his photographic self portraits. His surreal Victorian Cabinet Cards are also beautiful and haunting.

Rosie Ranauro (@redladybluelady) is a painter based in Boston. She has a feeling in her work that is playful, sometimes dark, and powerfully female. I love her use of color, patterns, and distorted figures.

Lindsay Joy Stockbridge Stone (@lindsayjoystone) is an artist and designer in Portland. Her Ashes to Ashes series of objects covered in ash … so good.

What are you listening to / reading / looking at right now?

I go through phases of listening to the same songs over and over again until I have to retire them. Lately, I’ve been listening to the Black Panther soundtrack (because Kendrick) and a mix of “sad girl” music and electronic pop, like Sylvan Esso.

I definitely could make more time for reading like everyone says, but I’m hopping around a few books right now. For my art education, I’ve been digesting A Capsule Aesthetic: Feminist Materialisms in New Media, which is a short but dense read about new media art informed by feminism. It’s one of those books that I’ve had to reread chapters to fully understand, but it has been helpful for thinking and writing about my own work.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay is something I pick up for a quick, thought-provoking, sometimes funny, and sometimes frustrating essay. And then I have The Customer is Always Wrong by Mimi Pond next to my bed, which is a 450-page graphic novel that is fun.

Describe your workspace. What essential tools do you need before you begin your work?

I work in my apartment, which is either in moderate or complete studio-mode chaos. It has great natural light from a south-facing wall, which lights all of my photographs. Working in this space involves shuffling furniture around, covering my windows with light-diffusing sheets, a tripod, and an app on my phone to control my camera settings. I sometimes find it to be a stressful arrangement, living and working in the same place. But most of the time it’s actually ideal, because I’m naked a lot! And have to wash paint off.

So, what is essential to my work is natural light, space, privacy, non-toxic finger paint, a shower, and a towel by the tub before painting myself (something I always forget).

What wise words do you carry with you into your practice?

I try to remember to not be so hard on myself, especially when life gets busy and I feel the pressure to fill every moment of free time with something creatively meaningful. Everything doesn’t have to be meaningful, predefined, or have an immediately apparent purpose.

I am serious about chasing ideas the instant they arrive, which might mean stopping day-job work to sketch something out, or stripping off clothes while in the middle of washing dishes to throw paint on my body. The arrival of an idea that feels powerful is a sacred thing. It lives in a fleeting present moment. I try to respect the heck out of it!

The arrival of an idea that feels powerful is a sacred thing.

What is one important thing you’ve done for your own creative practice / own nourishment as a creative person in recent months?

I took a long weekend in mid-March to have a mini-digital detox, and to make and write about art projects. Outside of being an artist, I have a full-time job and I am the vice chair on the board of Hardy Girls Healthy Women. It’s a struggle, for most artists, to find that perfect balance of all personal needs and interests. February and early March were full of “burn out” flags for me, so I put the phone away and took a long-weekend break for art and mental health.

Describe a vivid dream you’ve had recently. What do you think it was trying to communicate to you?

Oh god. I had this hilarious dream about being chased by someone in the baby section of a department store. I was pushing over racks of baby clothes and diaper displays to stall the person chasing me. Of course, I woke up once they caught me, and laughed.

It’s just another day in the life of a thirty-something woman who’s subconsciously aware of the ticking of a biological clock.

What is one question you wish we’d asked? (And answer it.)

You: “How stoked are you to be a part of A Possible Practice?”

Me: “The most amount.” ■


Photo credit: Bonnie Durham (@bonniedurhamphotography)

Chelsea Ellis is a photographer and multidisciplinary artist who lives in Portland, Maine. She received her BA in photography from the University of Southern Maine in 2012. She most recently exhibited work at the Harlow Gallery’s juried art exhibition “Art2018” in Hallowell, Maine, and in the contemporary art series “Process” by AMPL Art Consulting in Portland. Ellis’ creative practice explores themes of mourning, ephemerality, anxiety and sensed-presence through combinations of object alteration, performance, body paint, and digital subtraction.


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