Ellen Schillace, Woman on Fire, 2000-05, ink on paper, 33 in. x 39 in.

How would you describe the work that you do?

I did visual journaling as a child, but didn’t discover my own voice until [age] 29, when I began what has been called my signature style in black and white. This black and white discourse was essentially an intuitive process. . . . My images were primitive and not identifiable at times in any measure of gender, race or culture. Recently, I was listening to words of Dominican writer Junot Diaz, who says [in his book The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao] that everyone and particularly immigrant populations, “miss parts of most conversations for lack of comprehension.” It was apparent to me that I sought out a language that was simple and universal at the same time. The images were always inspired. With the black and white series, the simplest forms spoke to my need for connection. The layering of color introduced the ancestor series, which connected me to my family and the ancestors. In my most recent journey with Water is Life, I realized the connection encoded in the body (the body is more than 60% water) and this series of painting has taken on the voice of our connection to the natural world and the universe.

Are there ways in which you intend your work to challenge the viewer?

Ellen Schillace, In Community, 2007, print

I’m hoping that it creates a surprise for someone . . . like an “aha” moment. . . . I think one of the greatest gifts that I’ve had as an artist is when someone calls me up and is crying and says, “I want to have a piece of your work.”. . . [For example,] I have a piece with three children and every time I display it, I get a different response. I have prints of the piece and I had one woman say that she was sitting in a coffee shop and the print was on view. . . . She was talking to someone about her divorce and its effects on her three little girls and the woman looked at her and asked “How are you going to do this?”. . . . The name of the print is called Together . . . and she said “together” and then just burst into tears. . . . She called me up [later] and said [that she] had to buy my piece. . . . So it’s a surprise to me and it’s a surprise to somebody else.  This has actually happened over and over again.

Is there something you are currently working on that you are particularly excited about?

Ellen Schillace, Cocktail Party, 2010, print

Most of my energy is going into the Women and Money project [that will open at the Nash Gallery in fall 2016]. That’s a huge learning curve, the curating process. . . . It’s very exciting, challenging and fulfilling at the same time. And feels like social practice art as the larger project is evolving. . . . Recently, I’ve gotten into photography, which has been very satisfying. It has really worked for me . . . [as] I’m always playing with stuff.

What have been the greatest challenges to your art career and how do you navigate them?

Growing up, art was encouraged in my environment as the child of an artist . . . I went to galleries, I spent times at museums, I read art books. . . . My father had numerous art books such as Renoir and Degas, the Renaissance artists. . . . So I was very educated at young age to artists and museums. . . . But there was this conflict . . . you can’t make money at it, you have to prepare yourself for something practical. My mother’s family, who were much more affluent and better off than we were . . . guided us and said that I couldn’t major in art when they were over-helping my mom when my father died suddenly when I was a senior in high school. . . . They were not supportive art as a career even though several of them were professional musicians and art and music was a large part of their social life. . . . That conflict has always pushed me into this duality with my life.

What advice has influenced you or your art making?

Work in Schillace's studio

There was something that my father said. . . . He always talked about painting more than what the eyes could see. There is his quote that I think has really influenced me. . . . He said, “In art, I believe that what is not said is just as important, if not more so, than what is explicit. A detailed portrayal of the subject matter is of less importance to me than the emotional content or the inner perception.”. . . So that has really impacted me. . . . In addition, I’ve come to learn that you really need to listen to your own voice and what you need to do, because no one else can do your work.

How do you know when you have been successful?

I think it is just something that is inside of me that feels like it works, something works. Even if somebody else doesn’t like it, I feel that it works for me. . . . There is also something really self-satisfying when your work has a purpose. [For example,] there is a sense of actually making a difference with my art . . . through donating it . . . [it] feels like an acknowledgment of success. . . . Feedback is always something that you want and need not necessarily for doing the work that will never stop with feedback or without it but for engaging in a dialogue with the public. The dialogue will be there whether you want it or not. . . . Part of the challenge as an artist is to come out of your hole . . . and to be engaged with the world. . . . As an artist, you tend to be solo . . . but when people start noticing what you’re doing, there is something to that engagement with the world. . . . You are creating some sort of language and dialogue.

Schillace in the studio

How do you identify yourself as a feminist artist?

As a child . . . my voice was inaudible . . . I was quiet and shy and I drew. . . . As a woman it took  me a while to create that voice that is so important as a woman artist  For example I’m not a great promoter. . . . It is hard for me to promote what I’ve done. . . . I feel like it should be okay to be that way. We don’t all have to be the great self promoters, out there and tooting our own horn. . . . People will say, “You have to do that, because if you don’t, you’re not going to ever be heard.” But it’s so much easier to make a difference in somebody else’s life or to advocate for others, . . . and hard to advocate for ourselves. I think, in a way, why do we have to do that? Why is there no mechanism for really empowering each other? There should be avenues to support people at every level so you don’t have to be the great self promoter all the time. . . . Artists really hate this part.

I don’t know that I was ever a “good feminist” because when the feminist movement started, there was a bit of a tussle. . . . I got divorced in 1983, and that was the beginning of the baby boomer’s cycle. . . . Eventually, every second person I knew was getting divorced. . . . Initially I kind of felt like I was alone in that process and supporting my kids. . . . Feminism at the time was a thing that said, “You need to do x, y, and z” and “You can do it all.”. . .  “You should be able to support your kids and work and change the oil on your car.”. . . I tried changing the oil and sparkplugs on my car and I don’t ever want to do that again. . . . There was a point at which I thought, “Why do we put that on ourselves? Does feminism put that on us?” But I realized that was really me who was doing that. So then I had to figure out what feminism meant for me. I do know that I was always attracted to organizations like WARM and WCA because there was this acknowledgment of . . . being an artist . . . a woman artist and taking yourself and art seriously and . . . making a difference with your art. Those things are really important to me.

Ellen Schillace







More information available here