Something Hiding in There, 2016. Oil on canvas. 30" x 32"
GREENE's hand-painted, white gloves and tattoo tearsheets augment the
visual vocabulary of vintage tattoos—which often objectify the female
body—with empowering, female-centric imagery. Her hybrid creatures, like the many breasted jaguar-mermaid and the tiger-headed lady with a gaping, heart-shaped vagina, confront and complicate the objectified female body with new symbols of what it's like to have a female body. She
has recently returned to her first love—oil painting—to explore the
expectations surrounding the myth of the Ideal Mother. Ellen earned her
BFA in Painting at Kansas City Art Institute in 1998. In 2016, her work
was included in the group show Spiritual Garb—Collars at Aron Packer Projects (Evanston, IL). Her solo show Murder Ballads
was first shown at the former Packer Schopf Gallery (Chicago) in 2014
and then traveled to Lindenwood University in Saint Louis in 2015. Other
solo shows include Invisible Mother’s Milk (2012) at Packer Schopf and Ballad of the Tattooed Lady (2011) at Firecat Projects, both in Chicago. Her gloves have been featured in Bust magazine, Skin Deep
tattoo magazine, Raw Vision magazine and online features at Mother-Musing, Lost at E
Minor and the Jealous Curator. Ellen lives and works in Chicago.
OtherPeoplesPixels: The aesthetics of vintage tattoos dominated your work from 2011-2013. What first drew you to tattoos?
Ellen Greene: Yes,
tattoo imagery really began to dominate my psyche and my body much
earlier than when it showed up in my work. It all began in the late 90s.
I began to get tattooed in art school as a means of self expression and
rebellion. I was determined not be just some girl. I wanted to be THAT
girl—the one with the tattoos. There were several women in Kansas City
who were heavily tattooed at that time, but it was still a rare thing to
see. Tattoo parlors then were still part of underground culture. This
was before reality TV shows and any sort of mainstream acceptance of
tattoos. It was a real act of bravery to walk into a parlor let alone
get tattooed especially as a woman.
Light Bringer, 2016. Acrylic on vintage collar, wood and steel frame.
OPP: What other aesthetic influences do you connect with the tattoos?
I loved early Northern Renaissance painting and the way that symbolic
imagery was used to tell biblical stories without words. The themes in
the paintings covered everything from redemption, love, victory and
grace to the depths of evil, pain, loss and suffering. When I looked on
the walls of the tattoo parlor, I saw all these little
drawings—glyphs—that covered a similar range of meaning and emotion.
It’s a visual language rife with subconscious meaning. When you see a
snake, a pretty pin-up, a rose, a heart a dagger you intuitively know
the emotional equivalence to those images.
Girls Girls Girls, 2015. Painted gloves.
OPP: How did you merge your own content with existing designs?
Beyond being just an Western Christian visual vocabulary, traditional
American tattoo revolves around a vocabulary of the sailor/hero. I was
interested in Joseph Campbell’s concept of the Hero’s Journey.
I was fascinated by the hero, who it is and how he/she functions in
society. In looking at my own hero’s journey, I realized that there was
little imagery in our Western culture for women to take as their own.
Sailors and biker outlaws had ways to mark their victories in their skin
but when a woman put those images in her skin she was not a hero; she
was a whore.
So I took the sailor tattoos and refocused them
as female-centered. For example, I turned the pin-up into a she-beast
with a multiple breasts all leaking milk in order to shift the narrative
away from the male gaze to an embodiment of the mysteries of female
life-giving powers. Giving birth to my two daughters was one of the most
gnarly and exhilarating experiences of my life. I had to create images
that reflected my personal journey.
Little Omie Little Omie, 2014. Acrylic on gloves. Approx 15"x 23"
OPP: Did you do a lot of research?
EG: I just
drew and looked at and drew tattoo images until I could draw in that
American tattoo style with my eyes closed. I wanted to have the
technical skills of a skilled tattoo artist to really upend the
vocabulary. It mattered to me that my friends who were tattoo artists
really respected my work. I wanted to reframe the symbols while at the
same time respecting the art form.
OPP: Why are tattoos conceptually ideal for exploring stories about and societal expectations placed on women?
In many indigenous, non-Western cultures, women were the main wearers
of tattoos, but they were symbols of status not rebellion. In Western
culture tattoos are just understood as masculine. It was only recently
that women began wearing them. But even today, a woman who is heavily
tattooed is viewed as sexually deviant or rebellious by more
conservative peers. A man is assumed to have his masculinity enhanced
and to have “earned” his tattoos.
I put the tattoo imagery on white gloves initially as a fluke experiment. I just though of a glove as another white canvas to work on. But because the glove is such a symbol of pure, white femininity, the tattoo combined with the glove really had an interesting effect. It became an object that is somewhere between masculine and feminine. It felt like an accurate reflection of who I am and of my experience in my own body. Something unconventional.
Snake Girls, 2011. Acrylic on paper. Approx 11"x14"
OPP: Have you ever designed actual tattoos? Does anyone wear your drawings on their body?
EG: So. I am going to take you to task about the word actual.
I am not a tattoo artist, but the designs I make are just as actual as
any design hanging on the wall of the tattoo parlor. They have the same
potential to be worn as any other tattoo design. But I get what you
I have a tattoo of my own design on my body and, yes, several people have tattoos of mine. It’s incredibly cool to see people take these designs that I am using as this theoretical and make them “real” on their body. Maybe thats what you were getting at.
OPP: Point taken. I meant, have you drawn imagery with the intention that it was for skin instead of fabric? I’m curious about the possible difference between drawing for a shaped and moving canvas—the body—as opposed to a static, flat one.
I appreciate your being generous with me on that. Yes, I think that
there is a freedom in that I don’t need to consider the body in my
designs. So you are right, there is something different about designing
on a flat object versus a curved form. But because my designs
are based on already existing formulas- i.e. traditional tattoo-they
follow certain rules that look inherently look good or function well on a
human body. Its why I am so drawn to this particular style of tattoo.
There are a lot of trends in tattoo. I’ve been around long enough to see
them come and go, but the traditional looks classic, it always will
“read” properly. They transcend a certain time or trend, and that is the
core component of why I use them in my work.
The Mother's Body, 2015. Painted gloves.
OPP: Tell us about the recurring visual motif of the droplet. It is alternatively a teardrop and a drop of breast milk.
EG: Yes, again, I was/am fascinated by early Renaissance paintings. There is a very famous painting by Dieric Bouts called Mater Dolorosa (Sorrowing Virgin).
The way he painted those tears—holy cow! It just blew me away. They are
so real looking. His painting skill with those tears allows the viewer
to empathize with her suffering. I wanted to be able to use something so
small and make it have an impact.
So in the context of my
personal symbology the teardrop stands for: tears, milk and blood. These
are the fluids of life. In my experience of being a new mother, I
remember being so overwhelmed by the degree to which all of these fluids
were coming out of me. It was comic and tragic but also amazing.
I use the teardrop to remember that life-giving power of a woman’s
body. Also within our consumer culture “wetness” is somehow related to
something shameful. Different products (deodorants, pads, etc.) are
always being marketed to us as a solution to “wetness.” These products
can only be marketed to us if we buy into the shame of our natural
bodies. So to give female bodies constant droplets is part of our heroic
symbology. I own all that messy stuff and try to elevate it.
Painted Lady, 2017. Oil on board. 16"x 20"
OPP: You’ve recently shifted away from painting and embroidering on clothing and accessories. Past, Present and Future
(2017) seems to be the bridge between the paintings on gloves and the
new oil paintings on canvas. What led you to embrace the convention of
EG: I began in art school as a painter,
but when I had children it was increasingly difficult to have a home
studio and oil paint around. I shifted to the gloves and acrylic and
mixed media so that I could be efficient and less toxic. During the time
that I wasn’t painting, I missed it so much. I dreamt about it; it felt
like an essential part of me I wasn’t using.
What led me
back to painting was a personal tragedy. In the simplest terms I had a
massive emotional and mental breakdown the spring of 2015. My life and
family was falling apart, and I was deteriorating mentally and
physically to a point where I needed help. Without being too esoteric or
spiritually “out there,” it was nothing short of divine intervention
that started the healing process for me. So as I have gained a new life
perspective I had to finally give myself permission to do my paintings
again. And now that I am painting, I feel so healthy and whole. It’s
really a testament to the old saying “its never to late to begin again.”
Mom, 2017. Oil on board. 18" x 24"
OPP: The thread of the painted body and motherhood connect these new oil paintings to the older work. How are the painted bodies in Mom and Painted Lady, both 2017, different from and similar to the “tattooed” gloves?
So before I had formulated this elaborate tattoo vocabulary, I painted
figuratively and mostly self portraits. When I started painting again, I
began where I left off. It had been some 16 years since I had last oil
painted. I found that I was not really who I was when I last lifted that
brush. It was both exciting and terrifying to get in touch with myself
and with the canvas as a creative space.
Mom and Painted Lady
are part of a larger body of work still in progress. It’s a slow
process, but I am working on weaving together the old imagery with the
self portraits in a way that makes a conceptual continuous arc. The
older work was more theoretical and based on these glyphs that were
trying to gain a new meaning. They were autobiographical but also
removed enough that I did not really have to identify too closely. But
now, I’m painting my face and my daughters’ faces. It’s us
unfiltered—well, filtered through my brain :)
With what I
have been through, I am no longer afraid to be direct in expressing and
owning my own experience. So with these new paintings I am searching for
a kind of truth about myself and my life journey. Very similar in the
way the tattoo imagery looked to upend the conventions of the form and
to create a new dialog about power symbols, this on-going series of
paintings looks to tear apart conventional forms of the ideal mother.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006 Stacia was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (Michigan 2013), Heaven Gallery (Chicago 2014), the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago 2014), The Stolbun Collection (Chicago 2017) and Indianapolis Art Center (Indiana 2017). In March 2018, her solo installation Where Do We Go From Here? will open at Robert F. DeCaprio Art Gallery (Palos Hills, Illinois). In conjunction, the atrium will exhibit two-dimensional artwork by artists who were invited by Stacia to make new work also titled Where Do We Go From Here?