Friday, September 17, 2010

Ellen Hill, Dali Mama and Elizabeth Green

This week's visit takes us up a winding driveway to the home and studio of Ellen Hill.  Ellen will be showing with Louise Akin (a.k.a. Dali Mama) and Elizabeth Green this year.  Unfortunately, Elizabeth could not join us for this visit.  My visit with Ellen and Louise was a visit I won't forget.  While sipping saft - a Swedish drink made from Elder berries - both Hill and Akin regaled me details of their rich and fascinating lives.
Louise Akin (on left) and Ellen Hill
Ellen Hill grew up on the Dxwlilap (Tulalip) reservation in Western Washington state.  Her first art teachers were the "grandmothers", the older women of the tribe who could still speak the Dxwlilap language.  She fondly recalls sitting under "story poles" as a child, listening the the stories of the tribe.  The children learned basketry, dance and a myriad of other handicrafts.  She learned that art is sentient, and has something to teach us.  Hill spent eleven years on the reservation.  Many of the skills she learned on the reservation have stayed with her to this day.  She has a deep love and great appreciation for hand made goods of any kind.  She still makes porcelain bead jewelry.  The beads are usually strung on cotton or silk.  The Tulalip people used dog fur as "wool" and were renowned for their weaving and knitting.   Hill knits, and even taught her son to knit.
Ellen Hill, Burning Bush

Art was always a part of Ellen's life.  Her mother knitted and did embroidery, and her father was a woodcarver.  Hill's father made his living as a logger.  The family moved to Vancouver, WA because her brother had cerebral palsy and was deaf.  He needed more care than what was available on the reservation.  They later moved to the logging town of Stevenson.  Ellen went to the University of Washington on a scholarship.  Even though she was interested in art, she was unsure if she could make money as an artist.  She started school as a pre-med student.  She then immigrated to Canada, where she had to choose her major.  She chose to continue studying medicine.  It was about this time that her brother was killed.  She took time off from school and began "trekking" and painting.  Painting was therapy for her - a way for her to deal with the loss of her brother.  She spent time in Yosemite, hiking, climbing and painting.  Ultimately, she found herself in Ojai, California with no money.  She found out about an art show in Ojai.  She didn't even enough money for the entry fee.  However, she managed to show her paintings to someone in charge who told her she could show her work and if she sold some paintings, she could use the money to pay her entry fee.  She hung her art on a clothesline, and did end up selling some work.  She remembers how the art community encircled her and helped her.  She then found out about another art festival in Ventura.  That was the beginning of her career as an artist.
Ellen Hill, Echo Canyon
Ellen Hill, Inland Sea
Ellen Hill, Colors of Life

 Hill has shown her art at outdoor art festivals as well as art galleries.  She has traveled a lot, settling in the desert in 1979.  She still has connections in Canada.  Hill's approach to her paintings is unique.  She mixes her own paint, using high quality materials she has researched.  She then creates a traditional watercolor painting, usually with strong landscape elements, and then cuts the painting up.  The pieces are manipulated with medium and then re-assembled.  This process of cutting her paintings began in college, as a way to break free from trying to make her paintings too perfect.  The resulting images feel like abstracted landscapes, and have rich texture.  Ellen has been a self supporting artist her whole life.  Money from the sales of her art even enabled her to study homeopathic medicine.  She has a doctorate in homeopathic medicine, and has used her knowledge of homeopathic treatment to help "incurable" patients free of charge.  Ellen Hill will be showing her distinctive paintings, original art note cards and her porcelain bead jewelry for the art tours this year. 
A collection of Hill's porcelain jewelry and animal totems.

Louise Akin has been working since she was 18 years old.  Louise shares Ellen's appreciation of handmade goods.  Her mother did embroidery and other handwork, while her father was a tin smith.  He created metal sculptures for community centers.  Akin studied at an LA trade technical school for two years.  While she was in school, she won a "Gold Thimble" award for an evening gown she designed.  She always felt at home in fashion.  When she finished school, she went to work for Tadashi.  Louise was hired to do a couture line there.  She remembers the challenges of working in couture.  At that time, there were no computers and every thing was hand done.  The work was both creative and technically challenging.  They were given a drawing at the beginning of the day, and by the end of the day they were expected to have created gowns in different sizes finished and in a box, ready to ship to New York.  In addition to her tenure at Tadashi, Akin also worked for Catalina and Platinum.  Akin worked in couture until a rotator cuff injury prevented her from continuing in fashion.  It was because of her injury that she started learning to paint fabrics and learn the techniques she uses now to create her hand-painted and hand-dyed silk clothing. 
One of Dali Mama's silk shawls.
Dali Mama and a silk jacket

Many of the techniques used to make Dali Mama's silk paintings were discovered through trial and error.  Louise was first inspired to dye silk when she saw some beautiful sarongs from Bali.  She wanted to find a way to emulate the beauty of those batiks.  She has studied Japanese techniques, such as "shibori" which is the Japanese art of "memory cloth."  The cloth "remembers" what you do to it.  She has discovered that natural dyes are quite toxic because they contain heavy metals.  The dyes she uses are French dyes.  They are expensive, but high quality dyes.  Apparently, these French dyes have quite a history.  Originally, they were from Russia.  After the fall of the royalty in Russia, the dyes went, along with the women who knew how to make them, to Paris.  The secrets to make these Russian dyes were finally sold.  Now, the same secrets are used to make watercolors as well as high quality silk dyes.  Akin says she has "fallen in love" with wax, and uses beeswax for her batik work.
Louise Akin with another luscious creation in silk.
Each silk piece in Akin's collection begins as a piece of white silk.  She applies color using sea sponges, stiff bristle brushes and other tools, some of which she makes herself.  The layers of color are preserved with beeswax.  Once the painting on fabric is complete, the silk is put in a steam cooker to set the color in the fabric.  She has the pieces dry cleaned to remove the wax.  The beautifully painted silk is then cut and sewn.  Each piece is painted, cut and sewn by Akin, making it a wearable piece of art, unlike any other.  Louise has been working for herself as an artist for twenty five years.  For the Art Tours this year, she has hopes to introduce pieces painted and dyed in Indigo.  Working in Indigo dyes sounds complicated, as the pots of indigo dye must be checked every day.   I wait with anticipation to see what this artist does with indigo dye and silk.
Elizabeth Green is a gourd artist who is currently living in Idyllwild, but has lived in the desert for a long time.  
Elizabeth Green, Jasper Swirl Vase
Elizabeth Green, The Road Within
Elizabeth Green
Make sure one of your stops this year is reserved for a visit to Ellen Hill, Elizabeth Green and Louise Akin.  You'll be glad you did.

written by Karine Swenson

No comments: