Portfolio: Metaphors of Meaning
The Art of Julie Elliot
Viriditas #26, Mixed media on cradled panel, 36 in x 12 in, 2008
In recent years, my art practice has been to print found objects on my etching press and then use those monoprints as the first layer of my paintings. So rather than use paint to block out shapes and colours on a blank white canvas, I use printed papers to start the painting. I do this because I like the effect of the paper edges and I like working with the patterns and textures that are printed. There is a sense of surprise that is engaging. Using found objects also connects regular life with my art practice. On a walk through our orchard, I'll be excited to find a scrap of frayed rope that will inspire a series of birds and nests paintings. As I go through my day I see ordinary things and wonder how they can be used in my studio.
This type of wondering was learned as a child. My mother was always taking on projects that required ingenuity and fearlessness. We weren't a family who headed off to the art gallery or museum but we were encouraged to be inventive and we were allowed time and space for our own creations. Value was placed on "making it yourself" and I have memories of long summer holidays where we built elaborate worlds from whatever we could find. We built some amazing things with very little. I realize now that the value that was placed on doing it yourself and doing it your own way was my earliest art training.
My formal art training was at Okanagan College where I received a diploma of fine arts (Honors) in 1989. Looking back, I think the best advice I received came during a life drawing class. The instructor watched me overwork five versions of the model on a single sheet of paper and remarked, "Julie, you work quickly and you're very inventive. It would be a good practise for you to do five drawings instead of just one." The advice to work on more than one thing was excellent. Over the years, I've learned that each painting has its own pace its own timing and it's easier to respect that timing if I spread my energy over several paintings. I might have to wait awhile to know what's needed for a piece to be done. Having many paintings underway helps me be patient and not rush a painting into completion.
"How do you know when a painting is done?" is a question that I'm often asked. Because I don't start with a sketched out plan for a painting, the knowledge that a painting is finished comes from a different place. The artist with the sketch knows the painting is finished when the sketch has been fully realized. My way of working evolves through a series of steps that build on each other without knowing what will come later. For example, I will know that my eye is staying in an area because it's dark and dominant. I might lighten that area or paint even more darkness in order to find a visual balance. Then another area will call out for attention. It's an intuitive process where I work back and forth, building up and breaking down the surface and layering paint until one day I walk into my studio and there it is done. It feels right and I know there's nothing more to do.
Ideas and themes also help me know what's next and how to get there. One series that is ongoing is called Viriditas and these are paintings inspired by the 12th Century mystic named Hildegard of Bingen. She believed that nature has a greening power that exalts the divine and she called this power Viriditas. Her ideas have inspired me to create images of trees, leaves, roots, seed shapes and circles to explore ideas about connectedness, wholeness and balance. Circles are rich in meaning for me: the Creator (who has no beginning and no end), the earth, the sun, the moon, and life cycles that repeat without interruption. I'm aware that viewers won't necessarily be aware of these meanings but my images come from the natural world and I trust viewers to respond in their own way, from their own experiences.
The same is true for my paintings of galloping horses. To me they are metaphors for life as a journey; one of constant change. I use running horses to investigate aspects of this journey what it means to cross borders, travel through difficult times, move on and seek transformation. Lately, I've painted the figure and she stands in archways which signal a threshold between one place and another.
Archways, rooted trees, galloping horses, circles they're metaphors and symbols that help me paint and find meaning along the way, but I don't intend to set out a message that is supposed to be interpreted and understood by the viewer. In fact, the need to interpret can stand in the way of a viewer's full response to my or anyone's art. I don't believe there needs to be an interpretation of art at all. Paintings have a visual language that is itself and need not be explained with words. It's a language of colour, space, movement, texture, line, shape and a whole lot more. My understanding of this language is continually evolving and changing. This visual language allows me to say things I couldn't otherwise say and it helps me know things I wouldn't otherwise know. I've developed an art process that combines painting and printmaking in a way that feels entirely open-ended with limitless possibilities. Ideas come from finding things, from daily journaling, from what my teenage children say and do, from living in Oyama with our orchards and gardens, from talking with friends and reading good books, from walking in the hills and listening to CBC Radio Two. It's compelling to work in my studio and see what, out of all this living, will arrive in my paintings.
Julie Elliot is represented by The Art Ark in Kelowna and Gallery Odin on Silver Star Mountain in Vernon. For more information: www.JulieElliot.com