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.
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