Ellen Priest

Ellen Priest, Jazz Cubano #21: Arturo and Elio, Thinking Out Loud, 2014, Papers, oil flashe, pencil, MSA gel, 32 x 32 inches
Ellen Priest, Jazz Cubano #21: Arturo and Elio, Thinking Out Loud, 2014, Papers, oil flashe, pencil, MSA gel, 32 x 32 inches

About

If I could say one thing to a person viewing my paintings for the first time, it would be, “Give them time to move.” That’s what grabbed my imagination over 30 years ago when I saw Cezanne’s late watercolors and oils at the Museum of Modern Art’s 1977 exhibition, “Cezanne: The Late Works.” I had never seen paintings that moved so magically between two- and three-dimensionality. Then there was the glorious translucence. I felt it was an artistic avenue laid out by Cezanne’s work, and not well explored by his successors. To me, Cezanne’s late paintings were the work of a man who saw the physical world in color densities – not solids and spaces – and all of it was dynamic. From his work, I recognized my own vision over the next several years.

The rough, blunt emotions and compositional athleticism of Abstract Expressionism also grabbed me in those years. I came of age in the Viet Nam era. I had a tough, no-roses view of the world and my place in it – and a big heart. (Not easy to reconcile.) I knew that the kind of spaces I was “seeing” intuitively were not real-world (realist) spaces. They moved differently. So I began painting gestural abstraction, with Cezanne always in the back of my mind.

Fortunately, the artistic concerns of my early years have remained compelling and matured with me. My paintings today are abstract, multi-layered, translucent spaces full of color and light. At a distance the paintings read as spatial illusions. Drawn and painted forms drop deep behind the picture plane visually, or advance forward to meet the viewer. Color and underpainting help create space. Up close the pictures are layered relief-constructions made with superimposed layers of opaque and translucent papers, cut away in some sections or collaged with additional forms.

Since 1990 my subject matter has been jazz – a musical counterpart to the visual experience I try to offer in my work. Jazz that attracts me is full of joy and energy, able to transform sadness. I listen, study the score, and create my imagery with abstract-expressionist brush studies painted to capture the specific movement and sounds of that music. My compositional process is one of “choreographing” forms from the brush studies. Every decision is made with the music playing.

To my knowledge, my technical approach is unique. Experimentation was intense in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, often with the help of two museum conservators. I found then the standard building blocks I still use – heavy watercolor paper, two weights of tracing vellum, saturated colors painted with oil or flashe, pencil-drawn lines, and mineral spirits acrylic gel as my glue. The translucent papers and oil paint allow one to see, quite literally, an image through an image.

With “Jazz: Edward Simon’s Venezuelan Suite #1-23” – a four-year body of work completed in 2010 – my work intensified in two ways. First, I pushed harder visually on two pairs of opposing concepts – reality and illusion, and 3-D and 2-D – in all combinations. Second, my involvement with the music became more immediate, as I collaborated directly with Simon while he was composing his four-movement Venezuelan Suite and honing it through improvisation in live performances. Also, I began choosing my jazz subject matter specifically for its emotional range and intellectual rigor.

I have been fortunate to continue working directly with composers. “Jazz: Thinking Out Loud, Reaching for Song #1-31” is based on student music recorded during my 2010 residency at Berklee College of Music. Jazz Cubano builds on the Afro-Cuban Jazz of Arturo Stable and Elio Villafranca, who made our work a ‘conversation’ by improvising from my brush studies. And I am in dialog now with Chicago pianist Ryan Cohan as I paint The River – his hour-long Jazz suite that for me evokes panoramic landscape space. Today my artwork balances directly on the border between painting and sculpture. As I intensify the dialogue between imaginary deep space in my paintings and their immediate presence as physical objects, I suggest that both are equally real to me, the movement between them carrying the joy and energy I feel.

— Ellen Priest

Selected Solo Exhibitions

2020         On Being American/Jazz: Ryan Cohan’s ‘The River’, Delaware Contemporary, Wilmington, DE

2019         On Being American/Jazz: Ryan Cohan’s ‘The River’, Saint Peter’s Church, New York, NY

2015         Jazz Cubano: Color and Paper Constructions, Saint Peter’s Church, New York, NY  

2013         Ellen Priest, Delaware Division of the Arts Gallery, Wilmington, DE

2012         Jazz: Thinking Out Loud, Reaching for Song, Berklee College of Music, Boston, MA

2012         Improvising on Jazz: Ellen Priest’s Paintings on Collaged Paper, Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School, New Haven, CT 

2010         Jazz: Improvisations on the ‘Venezuelan Suite’, Delaware Division of the Arts Gallery, Wilmington, DE

2009         The Art and the Jazz, Gail Pierson Gallery, Cape May, NJ

2007         Jazz Paintings on Paper: Improvisations on the ‘Venezuelan Suite,’ The Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College, Collegeville, PA  

2006         The Jazz Series: Paintings on Paper, The Dupont Clifford Brown Jazz Festival in conjunction with Carspecken Scott Gallery, Wilmington, DE

2004         Jazz: Paintings on Paper, The Alva Gallery, New London, CT

2004         Jazz: The Brubeck Series, In conjunction with performance by Dave Brubeck and Singing City Choir, Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, Bryn Mawr, PA 

2001         The Jazz Series: Paintings on Paper, Mellon Arts Center, The Choate School, Wallingford, CT

2000         The Jazz Series: Paintings on Paper, Gallery 10 Ltd., Washington D.C.

1983         Soul Devils: Works on Paper,  J. Hoffman Gallery, Kent, CT

1982         Soul Devils: Oils and Works on Paper, Berkeley Center, Yale Divinity School, New Haven, CT

1979         Works on Paper, Mellon Arts Center, The Choate School, Wallingford, CT

Selected Group Exhibitions

2018         Transforming Jazz: A Visual Journey, City of Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, Philadelphia City Hall, Philadelphia, PA  

2017-18   On Another Note: The Intersection of Art and Music, Lyman Allyn Art Museum, New London, CT

2016         On Another Note: The Intersection of Art and Music, Green Hall Gallery, Yale School of Art, New Haven, CT

2015         All That’s Jazz, City of Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, Philadelphia City Hall, Philadelphia, PA

2014         35th Anniversary Exhibition, Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts, Wilmington, DE

2010         SPECTRUM: Contemporary Color Abstraction, Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts, Wilmington, DE

2001         Form and Color, The Alva Gallery, New London, CT

2001         Artist’s Choice, 3rd Street Gallery, Philadelphia, PA

Selected Awards and Honors

2012         Delaware Division of the Arts Established Artist Fellowship

2010         Delaware Division of the Arts Opportunity Grant

2007         Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant

2001         Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant

Selected Public Collections

Yale Institute of Sacred Music, New Haven, CT
Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College, Collegeville, PA
Astra Zeneca Corporation, Wilmington, DE
Pfizer Corporation, New London, Connecticut.
Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
BTG, Incorporated, West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.

Selected Private Collections

Agnes Gund, New York, NY
Christine L. Delucchi, Washington D.C. 
Alva Greenberg, CT
Cil and Gary Knutsen, Cleveland, OH
Lisetta Menardi Orlandi, Cortina D’Ampezzo, Italy
Jane Lyons and Mark Sucher, Washington D.C. 

Education

1977    Master of Divinity, Yale University Divinity School, New Haven, CT.
Christianity and the Visual Arts: Interdisciplinary Program in Collaboration with Yale University School of Art

1972    B.A. Lawrence University, Wisconsin