Scott Daniel Ellison’s images of flora and fauna are suffused with personhood–trees wave bony limbs, bats have human faces, and animals wear jewelry. Working at a small scale and focusing on black and tertiary colors, Ellison conjures Edward Gorey‘s children’s book illustrations and the quirky-creepy characters in many of Tim Burton’s films, but his attention to surface, the inventive mark-making, and psychological depth of his imagery distinguish his work. Curious about Ellison, a reclusive upstate artist whose work I had originally seen on Instagram, I contacted him via email to ask a few questions about his process, imagery, and influences.
Two Coats of Paint: Your biography says you are trained as a photographer. When did you first become interested in painting? Would you consider yourself self-taught?
Scott Daniel Ellison: It became more satisfying for me to just create what I wanted to as opposed to going out and looking for it with a camera or setting up a tableau. I still go back to photography and try to have it somehow inform my paintings and vice/versa. I started painting without any formal training. I went back to school to study art after I had been showing for several years and I’ve always been, in some respect, immersed in the arts so It’s hard to say whether I’m self-taught or not. I think every artist that has a unique style is in some way self-taught. I obtained an MFA at SUNY Purchase after pretty much having my own particular style but I also developed there immensely. I was also an assistant, briefly, to Sol LeWitt and I worked for Dia:Beacon when I started painting seriously…so that was also an education of sorts.
TCOP: Was there a period of experimentation in the early days? What kinds of imagery were you initially drawn to?
SDE: I was drawn to outsider artists and self-taught artists as I felt some sort of affinity with them. At the same time I felt outside of that circle as well-having been to college for literature and having some aspirations to be an artist that wanted people to see my work in a gallery. I never really went though any period of experimentation other than I wanted to limit myself and refine, refine, refine until I developed my own style that I was happy with. Intuitively I did a lot of trial and error.
Since childhood I’ve been drawn to horror imagery, heavy metal imagery, wildlife imagery and other images from my working-class upbringing in upstate New York. I think, when speaking of art, it was a small group of photographers that really influenced me-Arbus, Meatyard and Roger Ballen. I like awkward, uncomfortable images. I also seemed to emulate the compositions of these photographers.
TCOP: I’m drawn to the limited color palette in your work. Can you talk a little about how you approach the color choices in your work?
SDE: It’s really intuitive. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of black and white work and I can’t seem to, or don’t want to, get out of it. I’m enjoying it though. I know I have issues with blues and yellows..not sure why but I just don’t go there. I think a lot of my color choices early on-dark greens, wheat colors- were coming from much time spent growing up surrounded by farms and meadows.
TCOP: You live upstate. Do you pay attention to what is going on in the NYC galleries? If yes, how do you see your work in relationship to contemporary painting?
SDE: I was born there, in the Bronx. I’d like to see some of the bigger galleries take more chances and push work from artists that may be disenfranchised instead of waiting for them to become vetted or trendy. I pay attention but not so much. I’m represented by ClampArt in Chelsea so I’m down there often. I usually pop in to a few galleries just to see what’s going on. I think my paintings are an extension of my being, and I find that my work relates to several artists that are currently showing in NYC and around the world…kindred spirits.
TCOP: Who are your favorite painters?
SDE: Right now a Cuban painter named Amalia Angulo, Rebecca Morgan who shows with Asya Geisberg and Allison Schulnik. I’ve always loved Guston, Bill Traylor and Rousseau.
TCOP: What are the other important influences on your work?
SDE: Childhood, dreams, and I often work from emotion and restlessness. I never really have an exact idea of what I’m painting until it starts to develop. I listen to a lot of music as well–Nick Cave, Kate Bush, Prince, Black Sabbath. Movies have also been a huge influence on me both for tone, composition and sense of narrative–in my case a suggested, loose narrative. I love Spielberg, horror movies from the 1980s and 1970s and Swedish cinema. I lived in Sweden for quite some time.
TCOP: Describe your process from start to finish: from conception, choosing a support, developing imagery, to calling a painting done?
SDE: I usually paint on wood using both oil and acrylic. I start out by painting many layers on the wood to build a thick and mostly smooth surface. I use towels, q-tips, water, brushes and palette knives to do this. I’m never really sure of what I will paint and I don’t do any under painting or drawing on the wood. I just start painting and see where it goes. Sometimes I’ll have a general idea in mind but not too often. Once something starts to form–an idea or a figure– I will then start to work with and for the painting. It’s a conjuring of sorts.
TCOP: What do you do when you aren’t painting?
SDE: I’m quite restless so I’m always driving somewhere. I also work in Arts-In-Education at Caramoor–a great place in Katonah, NY that has an amazing collection of Chinese and Renaissance Art. I spend a lot of time there discussing and looking at a painting by Cranach. I also have two little kids so that’s a whole other life in itself.