An Interview with Issue 16 Featured Artist Ellen Wiener
December 11, 2023
Interview by Joyce Chen, TSW executive director
It’s been a while since The Seventh Wave has commissioned a featured artist to create a unique piece to accompany our contributors’ outstanding work. But when we came across Ellen Wiener‘s intricate artwork, submitted to us as part of Issue 16: Proximities‘s winter edition, we knew we had found the exact visual artist who could help bring our contributors’ pieces together.
Ellen’s work is studied, intricate, and boundless, all at once. She was kind enough to share two artists books with us to select from — “Metes and Bounds” and “Neither” — each of which speak to the ever-shifting concept of “place” and how we define it at different moments in our lives. As she says so eloquently in her artist’s statement, “[The two projects] share questions on dissolving categories, perimeters, and edges and are informed by the pressure I personally feel from straddling huge notional continents that are actively drifting.”
Ellen shared more of her thoughts with our executive director, Joyce Chen, in a brief email exchange in which the two touched upon concepts of boundary, home, time, and the ways that we still have much to learn from Nature and its abundant wisdom.
Joyce Chen: Something I’ve always been struck by with your work is the breadth and depth of each piece, how you create such a sense of intimacy with each individual “moment” within a work. You’ve mentioned before how you liken your landscape pieces to a novel or a book, with different elements slowly revealing themselves over time. How would you define a “moment” within your work, or does that measurement not feel apt for the kind of time you’re trying to capture in your pieces?
Ellen Wiener: For decades, medieval illuminations have been among my most enduring influences — in part because of what they show us about reading and looking. In Books of Hours (which were often the only book their owners might have had access to), each single page is a world unto itself and each prompts a radical shift in perspective. Opening a book is a “yes” response to an invitation to go on a journey. Like footsteps, or beads on a necklace, the increments accrue to become a whole.
This engineering methodology is particularly true in the accordion book “Metes & Bounds,” exhibited in this issue of Proximities. I am asking observers, readers, or lookers to hold how each panel unscrolls to both tell its own story and make meaning in concert with the rest. For example, the prefacing image features a shovel and a winding path leading up a hillside. This, in itself, implies labor, digging, walking and a manipulation of the landscape. But the symbol of the shovel also introduces the work as a kind of archeological dig into the tools of navigation seen throughout the book. Observatories, lighthouses and star-gazing instruments are all historical artifacts for way-finding — yet, how many of them have we left behind as outmoded? What does that say about our own “facts” of time and space, or even how we mark the boundaries between spaces?
The title “Metes and Bounds” is itself taken from an archaic legal term used to describe property perimeters based on natural landmarks. Because the tallest tree can be felled and creek beds waver over time, the “real” of Real Estate is now measured by an imaginary net; flexible, efficient, and huge, it covers the whole of the earth’s surface and beyond. And yet we, with our real and metaphorical shovels, constantly invent new borders and boundaries. Our sense of boundaries, where and how we inhabit place, even, is inevitably filtered through the trending intellectual constructs of our lifetimes. Yet, perennially, we mistake these as being permanent truths.
Joyce: I love what you’ve said about wanting your art to envelop a viewer “like a pit occupies an olive.” What, for you, does that immersive quality do for the viewer? For you as the artist? How does the proximity of both to the work itself impact its efficacy and effect?
Ellen: I’m not sure where that pit and olive quote comes from but I am grateful to whoever said it. What I appreciate about the metaphor is the sense of a perfect fit. You actually used the word “envelop” in your question and I am going to add an “e” to that to make another excellent pairing: a letter in its “envelope.” Envelopes, like books, writing, prayer rugs, and gardens are all vehicles that mediate between the intimate and public, the inner and outer life.
In a similar way, I intend for the sometimes dense fleshy “surround” in my work to create a kind of visual hum of immersive detail, an embracing field that mediates connections. Here, the eye automatically seeks focus; glitches and breaks become outliers and seeds gleaned from the mesh. I try to orchestrate the elements of symbol, color, and space as plays between close and far, in and out, pits and fruit. I recognize that this sifting process takes a bit of work and maybe even some of the close attention one might more naturally bring to parsing a poem.
You asked about time earlier. Time has been a key subject in my work: calendars and memory in particular are recurring themes for me. Books of Hours eponymously map a system based on the progress of a day. I think of how our calendars are imagined to be ideological safety nets; we drape them over time as though they might actually order some aspects of human experience (!).
But I also think about the time taken in the process of looking. The “thickness” of my work asks lookers/readers to slow down — to consider, think, shift focus, look again, shift back, and understand anew. The harvest of this time-consuming labor is that one might participate actively by manipulating the object and the order of the reveal, so that ultimately meaning is created somewhere “outside the lines” and off the page. And, ideally, the viewer is meant to be enveloped in the process.
Our sense of boundaries, where and how we inhabit place, even, is inevitably filtered through the trending intellectual constructs of our lifetimes. Yet, perennially, we mistake these as being permanent truths.
Joyce: There are such striking environmental influences in many of your works, and definitely in “Metes and Bounds” and “Neither.” How would you describe your relationship to the natural world in the context of these two pieces, and what are the qualities (sounds, textures, colors, scents) that most impacted your creation of these two books?
Ellen: Some Books of Hours feature sections on the subject of Purgatory. Visually, as in Dante’s version, we picture this as a vertical descent. So I began examining the underground in my imagery by visiting caves, grottoes, and mines. I acquired a pick-axe. I made drawings and paintings of rocks and minerals, and then eventually also of fossils, which I came to understand as a giant notional hinge that transformed our understanding of geological time and our planet’s age.
The fossils led me to botanical illustration, a tradition committed to a strict representation — everything measured with calipers and dividers, every single seed and spine and leaf counted with utmost attention — that was new for me. It changed my drawing. And in the process, I found myself back from whence I’d just come: my detailed leaf drawings, seen close up, resembled nothing less than granite grain, shale beds, or unfolded crystalline structures; I saw that pollen mimicked sand and chlorophyll formed steppes and mesas. The biological and geological were not so distant, it seemed, but rather symbiotic neighbors.
Through all of this, I kept sketchbooks, as I have done for half a century. But as I was drawing and re-drawing rocks and leaves with meditative precision, I began to use the images differently. I scanned sketchbook pages and collaged back and forth between paper books and digital images. I could flip things, distort them; take a pencil drawing of a seedpod and then make it an element for an entirely different sense of scale. As the drawings became plant/rock hybrids, I developed the content of the book “Neither.” In this book, geology and botany, rock formations and plant fossils, are literally pressed together, mirrored, and inverted. Tiny spores on a fern, seen through a microscope, are wedded to vast geological features. These hybrid views, all completely non-normative abstract landscapes, don’t exist in real life. The book presents a ripped re-ordering of research, personal archive, and a wonderment log.
And so it made sense for that book to exist digitally. Unlike some of my more sculptural work, “Neither” doesn’t really physically exist. So, perhaps it is fair to say that I am a student of the natural world, but also of the accidents of our developing comprehension of evolution and what forms exist in the ecology of the imagination.
Joyce: I’m really excited about this process that we’re undertaking with your two books and the pieces that we’re publishing within this winter edition of Issue 16: Proximities. It feels almost like a reverse ekphrastic, in that we’re taking your artwork and pairing it with the words of other writers and poets. What has been your own experience working between words and visual art? Do you find them to be complementary, parallel art forms, or something else altogether?
Ellen: Well, I am a reader and artist, inseparably. There are words throughout my work — notes, poems, letters, definitions — and there is always a relation to books. I have kept a journal since the age of 14. Books are containers; they are lenses to view the ideas that shape our identity, memory, perception, our sense of self. “Metes & Bounds” and “Neither” are books and ask to be looked at with a bookish point of view, but other works, like “Mason & Miner,” are carved into the physical body of books; or like “Cave Diagram,” peripherally involve themselves with text added to a painting.
Beyond my personal relationship with books and texts, I’ve benefited enormously from my relationships with poets. Sometimes these have begun with the poem, sometimes the other way around.
When I randomly read Andrew Joron’s “Boreal,” I felt a jolt of recognition — that the world of his poem echoed the drawing I happened to be making at that very moment. He gave me permission to use his poem in an accordion book, and as I manipulated each cut-out word, recited it, noticed where it opened for breath — all this changed the color of my skies, the length of the image, suddenly the drawing now needed to rush thickly across folds where the poem seemed to speed. It was a great lesson for me, a musical one.
With poet LB Thompson, the process has gone in both directions. LB and I met at a reading of her work in a gallery showing the first poem-accordion-book I had made, and that sort of opened the door for us to work together. I made the painting “Cabinet of Cards” as a response and as a physical site to display her work, “Poems in the Suit of Diamonds,” and together we produced a deck of cards for an exhibition that could be dealt out like a tarot spread. Later on, we created “Between Red and Green” in the opposite way — she wrote the poem for my painting and I was let to chime in on its creation. Throughout the process, LB and I worked together in an exciting very lively “give and take” way. I would bring up a book I was reading, and she would say, “Oh, I have that,” or vice versa — so it’s been an ongoing exchange of ideas, and formed a deep tribal friendship for me.
In general, I am an artist largely because I’ve sought refuge from chaos in the quiet of books and ideas — I spend a lot of time in my own hermit head. But I do also recognize that I am bound by the limits of my own imagination, education, and a selfish character — I recognize the need for other voices to feed and water my tiny garden plot. So these collaborations with poets have produced a sum greater than their parts, their familiar but alien cadences revealing — and stretching — the boundaries inherent to my own native language.
Perhaps it is fair to say that I am a student of the natural world, but also of the accidents of our developing comprehension of evolution and what forms exist in the ecology of the imagination.
Joyce: I would love to hear a little more about the process of creating “Metes and Bounds,” as it is an incredibly intricate, long scroll that sutures together landscape and image and story. What was the original seed of an idea that sparked this book, and how did you sustain that energy and intention throughout the creation of the piece? Were there particular rituals you invoked in its creation, certain songs or sounds that you listened to whilst making, or specific stories or narratives you were pulling from?
Ellen: I’ve spoken about the fossils and pickaxes and calipers, above. That journey sustained me, you could say — as curiosity always does.
I’ll add, though, that the working title for this book during most of the three years I fussed over it was “myth remembers more than science,” a quote from William Thompson’s book Imaginary Landscape. I take it to mean that all of our facts and proofs are ephemeral, fragile and mutable, while Myth (with a capital M) is rooted in emotional and biological foundations. You can know every detail about a tree species, the name of every leaf-part, but a forest at night is still very scary — getting lost and the fear of falling seem ever-true. Human nature is, after all, a part of Nature.
Joyce: What is the role of space or spaciousness in your work? Upon first glance, it can appear as though many of your works are filled with art and gesture; but upon closer study, I notice that there is a lot of deliberate open space and breath. How does space factor into your making, and how does the proximity of space to object or landscape help to define your finished pieces?
Ellen: “Metes & Bounds,” like most horizontally oriented formats, instantly implies a trip or a ramble; whether it’s through the subtle eye-scanning of a reader or feet moving noisily through a thicket, we proceed. Walks are passages through time as well as space. There is a perpetual “next,” repeated “agos,” and plenty of goodbyes. Perhaps the less crowded parts of the text are spaces to pause and reflect, regroup and re-orient, before being plunged in again. There are a lot of literal reflections in my work — pools, mirrors, repetitions, and inversions — that often correspond with these more open spaces.
“Neither” is different, because although it resolved itself into a book, it is not a walk. It is rooted, actually, in suspension and the vertical. I began this investigation about caves and grottos and rocks because of my curiosity about purgatory, which is an invented political space envisioned by select theologians not very long ago. But visceral power exists in notions of the liminal — some version, facet, or aspect of it plays a part in almost every culture. This can look like suspensions of gravity, the mysterious landscapes between earth and the starry dome, hell and heaven, ancestors, the living or dead, ghosts, spirit guides, the list goes on. Purgatory, apparently, is suspended somewhere on a vertical axis — it occupies a moral waiting room between “above” and “below”; so it inverts the horizontal nature of both landscape and reading. Thus the digging, which contrasts with preoccupations with the celestial (windows, telescopes, astronomy, navigation) that are so evident in some of my earlier work. Some of their signature is still present in “Neither,” but the specific images — these in-between, un-real hybrids — are suspended on their pages. They are of landscape, but they are not tethered to it.
Joyce: You’ve spoken before about this idea of territory and place and ownership, and how it fascinates you and inspires much of your own landscape work. What are some landscapes that you have yet to explore in-depth that you’d like to evoke in future projects? These can be real or imagined, physical or metaphysical.
Ellen: I’d actually like to explore the domestic: the idea of Home, the daily, the diary, the ordinary. This may seem drab compared to monumental landscapes or far-flung pilgrimages, but I have come to see this symbol of stability as an element many of us, both newly arrived or staid in our habits, sorely need. I am conscious in this moment of what a privilege “home” is.
And I am interested in asking: What changes when you are anchored? When sameness blooms? When chaos is not a constant threat? No one is ever immune to change, disaster, revolution — but the ability to focus, to be still, to create, to sustain and comprehend long sentences, is rare in our day and it’s a skill I’d like to cultivate further. For many of us, the most incomprehensible landscapes are those of our own intimate lives. What happens when we turn the tools of looking — invented for the wild beyond — towards our recursive interior narratives?
I am interested in asking: What changes when you are anchored? When sameness blooms? When chaos is not a constant threat?