Seth Ellison: Animation to Automatism
Artist Interview & Feature
Untitled (Head) W 16 X H 20 " 2018 Oil, oil pastels and charcoal on canvas
For a Time W 24 X H 30 " 2018 Oil on canvas
The Eagle and the Tramp W 34 X H 44 " 2018 Oil, charcoal and oil pastels on canvas
Pipe and Sun W 9 X H 12 " 2018 Oil on canvas
Hangdog W 18½ X H 22 " 2019 Oil on canvas
Pipe Smoker W 14 X H 18 " 2019 Oil on canvas
Hillbilly Watching the Matrix W 20 X H 20 " 2019 Oil on canvas
A Composed Man (after Gainsborough) W 46 X H 40 " 2020 Oil, oil-based marker, charcoal and oil pastel on canvas
His Body (after van Gogh) W 30 X H 40 " 2020 Oil on canvas
Dawning Spell (after Gainsborough) W 44 X H 48 " 2020 Oil and charcoal on canvas
Cemetery W 30 X H 20 " 2021 Oil on canvas
How do you approach a composition?
When it comes to composition, I like to keep things interesting by mixing it up with one of two approaches. The first one involves no plan whatsoever, a blank canvas, some loud music, an overdose of caffeine, and a dash of desperation — which may be just enough to push me into my flow state if I’m lucky. The second approach is not nearly as deranged, but no less effective. I cut up little squares of canvas and let loose with cheap paint, emulating the Surrealists' technique of automatic drawing. The result is a composition that is completely spontaneous and unexpected. I’m a firm believer in the creative power of the subconscious. I ultimately want to give my intellect the slip to get out of my own way.
A number of your pieces have been completed using oil, charcoal and pastel. What drew you to mixed-media art?
Throughout my career, I've strived to blend drawing and painting into a cohesive whole. I think the desire began when I was a child, and I dreamed of being a Disney animator — so drawing really was my first love, embedded deep into my neuro muscle memory. Why fight it? All of these different types of materials also add multiple variables to the process that may turn out something completely unexpected and fresh. Finally, there is the cultural aspect. Using many materials in a freeform manner creates an almost quilt-like aesthetic that harkens back to folk art, which I deeply admire.
How did your early ambitions, particularly your desire to be a Walt Disney animator, influence your artistic development?
If you look closely at my art, you will see an animator's hand in the curving, soft, playful forms. Again, it goes back to my childhood, spending countless hours honing my skills, drawing cartoon duck bills and lumpy shoes over and over, and trying to get the shape right. There is also a sketchy, “searching” drawing technique animators use to find the right form that I love and use in my own work. For me, it’s just best not to go against what’s already etched so deeply within me, but instead try to use it to my advantage.
Many of your paintings reference Gainsborough and Van Gogh; how have these painters influenced you over the years?
I think that both painters touched on things that I’ve experienced growing up in a rural environment and my deep connection to nature — but from different vantage points. Gainsborough’s works echoed the luxury and leisure of aristocratic society through the Rococo style. He was very much a part of the upper class of society but painted idealized, sentimental and, some would argue, patronizing depictions of pastoral life in the rural countryside.
Van Gogh’s art, on the other hand, was not in service of the aristocracy and royalty. He was devoted to living a simple life, being immersed in the world of the peasantry and wanted his art to be of service to them. Though opposites in some ways, I like learning the history of how artists dealt with class, and then I sometimes recontextualize their ideas and symbols through my art for a contemporary audience.
You often obscure or hide the faces in your paintings; why?
I honestly don’t like to reveal the symbolism of my work because I don’t want to dictate what other people see. My art would begin to die at that point. I hope my symbols tap into something universal that transcends my original intent. It is my belief that the visual symbols we use are deeply embedded within the collective consciousness and may be even older than humanity itself. I hope that by curating them in a painting they will interact with nuance, which operates similarly to an effective colour scheme. I will say, however, revealing faces personalizes the figure and separates it from the landscape. I want both aspects to read as existing on the same plain. Interpret that how you will.
Tell us more about the pareidolic elements in 'Hangdog'. What inspired this painting?
'Hangdog' is an earlier painting, made a couple of years ago. During that time, I was looking at a lot of American Regionalism, in which many devotees of the movement depicted nature and the figure as intertwining and malleable — almost like dancing partners. To me, that is a pareidolic view of nature in that it reflects us. When I lived in West Virginia, I would constantly retreat to the forest to think and “see myself”. 'Hangdog', in some ways, is about finding personal consolation in the natural world.
Rural figures feature heavily in your work; what attracted you to this subject?
Growing up in southern West Virginia, bordered by Virginia and Kentucky, I lived in a town of a few hundred people surrounded by farmland. The majority of the population was comprised of blue-collar and lower-class workers who were very socially conservative. Additionally, many of my immediate family members worked in the coal industry, and some even grew up in coal towns where the company store was their primary shopping destination. I attended school with many of their children and was immersed in that way of life. Even though my parents did not fully belong to these groups, they oscillated between classes over the course of my childhood, providing me with a unique perspective on class dynamics.
However, my use of these subjects is intended to be more than site-specific. People as far as South Korea have contacted me and understood precisely where I was coming from. You don’t need to be from the South to understand poverty, isolation, bigotry, loneliness, manipulation, and the ecstasy of being in nature. I want my art to be both a diary and a mirror.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects?
Yes, I have several shows going on right now, and a solo of new work slated for this Fall in New York City. You can find out more or follow me at https://www.instagram.com/sethellison101/.
About Seth Ellison:
Seth D. Ellison is a Philadelphia-based painter and multimedia artist. He was born in Beckley, West Virginia in 1984, and lived mainly in the southern United States before moving to attend grad school. His formative years were spent compulsively drawing in preparation for a future career as a Walt Disney animator, a period in his life that deeply impacted the paintings he does today.
Seth received his BFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2009 and then an MFA from the University of the Arts in 2012, both with a focus on painting and studio art. He has also studied graphic design at Concord University and was accepted onto the SCAD Lacoste program. He has exhibited his work in Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, among many other places.