Being observant and alert are central to the act of drawing and painting. Our culture has sped up so much that the act of slowing down and noticing helps one to see more deeply – especially within relationships between things. I believe that the interdependence of all things is key to life and work. I see the beauty and meaning of physical things as metaphors for this interdependence of forms, which is a moral imperative. Unless we see what is around us in a rich way, we are likely to discount and become more anxious: looking always for something that may not be there, when what is there is really remarkable. In the end, even the most mundane contains lyricism.
My paintings are about revealing the specific nature of a place through repeated encounters versus capturing a particular moment. Over several visits, I find out more about a setting to see if I can unearth a rhythm of mark and color that elevates what I notice into something that others will find compelling. Every place has stories. As I work I discover what they are. Sometimes stories are brought to a place by the individuals who populate my paintings with their errands, their play, and their work. While I choose a site primarily for its visual quality, the stories contribute to the richness of the experience.
Such stories contribute to why I choose a site along with the visual quality of a place and its particular structures.
My work is based on drawing. Drawing helps me to begin to see a place or a structure, and to understand its proportions and interrelationships. I like the moments in drawing when a form appears with very few marks or tones and the paper is transformed. After I make drawings I can begin to paint. Paint is then applied. I paint either on linen primed with oil or on wooden panels coated with shellac to leave the wood grain visible. I find it interesting to respond to the grain of the wood in the painting. In some of the small panels, the color of the wood becomes an integral part of the painting surface.
The quality of light in my paintings is paramount. The color must articulate the light and depth of a space, but also create its own rhythm within the painting. Light is a physical sensation, not just visual, as it is specific to both place and time. Without light, a painting is dead.
I aim to have my artwork appear as if it made itself, effortlessly. Previous decisions may be part of the visual fabric, but I like the work to be inevitable rather than versus labored or improvisational. The initial colors and marks left in the surface of the painting are an expression of the ongoingness of time and place - evidence of the act of looking.
- Elaine Wilson
Elaine Wilson was born and raised in Massachusetts. She received her BFA in painting from Washington University School of Art in 1980, and an MFA in painting from Yale School of Art in 1983.
A grant from the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation in 1983 allowed her to travel to Italy for 2 months.
She lived and worked in New Haven, CT until 1991 teaching part time and waiting tables. At this time her paintings were of the houses in her neighborhood in New Haven, and the oil storage tanks in New Haven Harbor. Her work at this time was geometric in nature; simple planes of light with a dominance of the two dimensional surface. She was represented by More Gallery in Philadelphia, PA. Her two children were born in New Haven.
In 1991 she moved to Ann Arbor, MI with her family. In Ann Arbor she taught as a lecturer at University of Michigan School of Art and Design teaching courses in Drawing, Painting, Life Drawing and Color.
In Ann Arbor she began work on large-scale paintings in an elongated format that brought together influences of Chinese landscape hand scrolls and the narrative murals of the Italian quattrocento. After working from the large oil storage tanks in New Haven, she was looking for cylindrical forms and found them in the grain elevators in the small towns outside Ann Arbor. The grain elevators remained her motif for ten years, with explorations of the farmland surrounding. She painted three 20 feet long paintings during this time period.
In 1996 she received a National Endowment for the Arts Regional Artist Fellowship. Subsequent to this, Grand Rapids Art Museum acquired Around the Saline Silos. She was represented by Alexa Lee Gallery in Ann Arbor, MI.
From 1999 to 2000 she worked in a local gravel pit, making 5 paintings. At this time she began showing with Sonia Zaks Gallery in Chicago, IL. In 2000 she sold all three twenty foot long paintings, one to Herman Miller, one to the University of Michigan, and the third to a private collector.
In 2000 she began making paintings at a family dairy farm close to her studio. This farm would be her subject for the next 10 years. She painted numerous small paintings and 5 large narrative works about the life and activity of the farm. The first, The Manure Spreader is both an homage to Pieter Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus and a paean to the quotidian life of the dairy farmer. Painted in 2001 and 2002 it is also a personal response to 9/11.
In 2003 she took up a full-time teaching position at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, MI.
In 2012 she relocated with her husband to Washington DC, taking a leave of absence from her teaching position. Since 2009 she has been at work on a project called "Charting the Wolverine" which maps and pictures the experience of riding the Amtrak train from Ann Arbor to Chicago. This project was inspired by seeing a Japanese 18th century scroll map of the great Tokaido road, also the subject of a print series by the artist Hiroshige. The project is ongoing, and has both web application and digital print formats.
In 2013 she spent two months in residency at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, CT.
She is currently at work on paintings of the McMillan Filtration Plant between North Capitol and First St. NW in Washington DC.
born 1958 Arlington, MAeducation
public collections1983 Yale School of Art, New Haven, CT, MFA1980 Washington University, St. Louis, MO, BFA
Ann Arbor District Library, MICigna Corporation, Philadelphia, PADC Commission on Arts and Humanities, WashingtonGrand Rapids Art Museum, MIHerman Miller Inc., Zeeland, MILibrary of Congress, Washington, DCMott Children’s Hospital, Ann Arbor, MIUniversity of Michigan, Office of the President. Ann ArborUniversity of Michigan Library, Special Collections and Stephen Clark Map Library, Ann ArborWashtenaw Community College, Ann Arbor, MIMeditech Corporation, Framingham, MA
Fred Horowitz: Review of Elaine Wilson's painting exhibition
Alexa Lee Gallery, Ann Arbor, Michigan
February 9 -- March 11, 1995
Ever since late-nineteenth-century painters introduced the concept of painting as artifice, much of modern painting has had to do with exploring its implications. For representational work, the questions are: what can a painting do that the camera can't? And how does a painting do it? Elaine Wilson's exhibition at the Alexa Lee Gallery provides some impressive answers.
Wilson presents affectionate views of Washtenaw County rural vernacular. In this world, agricultural architecture -- silos, grain elevators, sheds -- coexist amiably with furrowed wheat fields and vapor trails in the sky. The images are derived from on-the-spot drawings, paintings, and photographs that Wilson reassembles in her studio.
Using the panorama format -- Around the Big H is 20 feet long -- Wilson does much more than merely string together pretty scenes. Changes in the horizon signal shifting viewpoints. Wilson knits these changes together seamlessly, like the dissolves in a movie. Suddenly, you're someplace else. Wilson also subtly alters the perspective of buildings to reintegrate them into a larger compositional logic.
Camera vision is likewise trumped in the crisp, distant views that appear unexpectedly, like pictures within pictures. Despite the distance, the focus and the brush handling remain consistent with the foreground objects, so these miniatures lock in formally with what's up close.
Along with these compositional sleights-of-hand, Wilson's brush handling keeps us aware of the fictive aspects of painting. Every edge is carefully considered for its optical effect. In September Noon the border between two silos dissolves, while just below, razor-sharp stripes pull the eye to a sign that looks like a minimalist painting.
Wilson enjoys letting us in on the mysterious transformations of paint into illusion. Up close you can see the images give way to discrete patches of color. Isolate any six inches or so of the surface, and the colors you see will interact like a classic color study. The flat patches of color push one another like a perfect date, asserting their individuality within a winning combination. Surprisingly, the individual colors are restrained. Wilson prefers to underplay her hand, letting the careful combinations of colors do their work.
The quality of light that results from those combinations is spellbinding. However bright or dark, the light is well-tempered, like perfect pitch. It's a miraculous effect, consistant throughout, and one of the glories of Wilson's work.
Like traditional painters, Wilson builds the images gradually, applying colors in layers. But there's an audacity here. Those valiant blue skies have orange under them. Even the grays aren't really gray: they're blue combined with orange, and red combined with green. Wilson lets you savor the way these colors transmute into image and light.
Wilson's brushwork is purposeful: never showy, too thick, or too thin. However serviceable the brushstrokes in the image making, they also function to energize the surfaces. In Around Saline Silos, for example, carefully built paint in the patterns of a sun-drenched silo abruptly and surprisingly gives way to free-wheeling brushstrokes in the shadow. Here and elsewhere, variegated brush handling persuades us that paint has a life of its own.
Wilson pulls off certain passages of painting so adroitly that she makes it look easy. The muddy ruts and puddles in Around the Big H are organized into a design that makes them look as sensible and dignified as a formal garden. The strokes of paint in this area, built up in patches, and occasionally dragged over a surface, are a tour-de-force of brush handling, creating the convincing image of ruts and puddles, while simultaneously remaining active as paint.
Other areas have their own challenges. The huge, convex silos threaten to disrupt the compositions, but they are carefully related, either by color or pattern, to what is beside them. Their surfaces are softened into luminous textures, or become quietly shifting, all-over patterns. At the opposite extreme, a shed roof, with its web of beams, or the thin spokes of a wagon wheel, demonstrate how patience wins out over complexity and a very small amount of room.
This is intelligent and highly conscientious painting; no corners are cut. Wilson is devoted to her subject. She gets behind it, shows you why she loves it, and convinces you to care about it too. At the same time, it's highly imaginative work. By taking risks, Wilson manages to overcome the burden imposed by the beauty of the subject. She ensures that you don't just get a view; you experience the excitement of viewing. her painting stakes out the territory where the camera eye ends and the mind's eye begins.
Paradoxically, you feel as if you're seeing the subject for the first time. With this body of work, Wilson, approaching mid-career, enters the ranks of the best realist painters in the country.
Turning Ordinary Scenes Into Extraordinary Images
By Christopher Millis, Contributing Writer to South End News, Boston MA
June 12, 1997 (Vol 18, No. 20)
Review of Exhibition at Bromfield Gallery, 560 Harrison Ave.
Elaine S. Wilson paints elongated images of a particular sort of perversion: those junctions of contained industrial sprawl that dot the farmland of the American Midwest. Wilson seeks out the machinery and wires and piping that attach to silos and storage tanks as they exist against backdrops of blue skies and verdant fields, and she renders those objects with celebratory exactitude.
Farm equipment, metal tubing and giant bins are depicted in the bright light of day--intricately nuanced, boldly colored, exquisitely composed. And the canvases’ distinctive proportions--none is more than a foot and a half high, and two works in the show are eight feet long—makes her paintings read like images on a the window of a mile-long stretch limo. Their compression suggests our passing by, while their duration suggests our never leaving.
Wilson has found formal ways of rendering perfectly ordinary vistas so that they become mesmerizing, otherworldly. Rather than seeming like blights on the pastoral horizon, her metallic constructions convey a sense of fruition, as if to say that the land at its best yields bulky precursors to urbanity.
Among her unobtrusively powerful techniques) which could only be possible in works of such length) is to subtly change perspective over the range of one work. The left third of “Looking Through and Up" depicts a dark, square tunnel of the sort one imagines keeps combines from rusting the train. Through the overhang, a minuscule image of land and sky is visible in the distance which means that the visual logic is entirely wrong; for the land to appear so far away, the agricultural carport would have to be as long as a football field.
Immediately next to the tunnel we see a section of a guan, round multifaceted silo on which light shimmers as in one of Monet’s cathedrals at Chartres—and our perspective has gently shifted from gazing toward the remote to beholding an object only inches away. Then our eyes are sent heavenward to a lofty water tower crowned by a flag. The seamless integration of the three images, their compositional complementarity, their distinct yet related use of color, all conspire to make three perspectives appear as one.
One senses that if Elaine Wilson painted in an urban area, she would be drawn to the flowering weeds and de bris that overrun empty lots. By positioning her eyes, and by extension ours, on the least representative aspects of the land where she lives, she captures the importance of the unlikely—its power to communicate through indirection. We know we’re in farm country when we look at her extraordinary “Michigan Paintings,” but we’re never quite allowed to see the farm except in its most intense details. With grace and humility and sharply delicate skill, Wilson accomplishes what many aim for and few achieve: a realization of the visual, spiritual vitality in the life we live every day.
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