When Art Equals Activism: An In Depth Interview With The Talented Dana Ellyn

By Jodi Truglio — August 23, 2014

” I often dream about someone locking me in to my studio from the outside. I think that solitary confinement (assuming I had all my books and art supplies with me) sounds fabulous,” Said Dana Ellyn who is the artist behind some of the most popular thought provoking paintings related to veganism and animal rights.  Recently Global Looking Glass had  the opportunity to  interview the very talented Dana Ellyn. Below is what she had to say. Enjoy!

Can you tell me a little about yourself?

I’ve always wanted to be an artist since I was a little girl. But I wound up letting myself be pulled in to a very traditional trajectory… I married right after college, landed a well paying job and got bogged down in the suburbs. I was following the path I thought I was supposed to take. Although I always wanted to be an artist when I “grew up”, I didn’t really know what that meant or how to get there. So I studied hard, got great grades, went to a good college, landed a great job and then spent the next 10 years or so after college looking for a way to pursue my dream. It worked splendidly.

As early as I can remember, I loved creating. I have vivid memories even as far back as sitting on the floor as a toddler with my building blocks creating and recreating sculpture after sculpture and loving the process. I had one structure I would build every time I played. I think I am a little bit OCD. I did two drawings when I was very young that have lived in infamy every since (I wish I still had them)… I drew a naked picture of my aunt and uncle naked at their wedding. But not just naked, it was very creative. My uncle penis extended up and around his neck to be used as a tie and her boobs were slung over her head as a veil. I don’t know exactly how old I was when I drew this but it was some time around 6 years old.

imageWhen I was 16, I was accepted in to a wonderful summer art program at Wesleyan University called The Center for Creative Youth (CCY). It was the first major step for my art and in the growing-up process. To be away from home for a whole month in this intensive art program was amazing. Like I mentioned, I came from a very small school .. I had been surrounded by the same handful of people since I was 8 years old. So to be in a university setting with tons of strangers who were all much more ‘artsy’ than I took a little adjusting. But I found my footing really quickly and thrived in that setting. I was in the minority in that I didn’t have a cool haircut, my ears were the only thing I had pierced and the weirdest outfit I owned came from the Limited Express (you ladies out there who are my age will know what that is). Fast forward: when I quit my ‘day job’ at age 30 I did get my nose pierced. Other than that, I continue to dress rather ‘normal’ and don’t feel the need to put on costumes to look like an artist. I try to let my art do all the talking.

That was the summer at CCY I truly knew that art was something I wanted to pursue. But not just art. I am a self-declared nerd too. Second to art, I simply loved studying and still do. It was an activity I reveled in while ensconced in the quiet sanctuary of my bedroom. I never had any interest in going to ‘art school’. My plan was to get in to a great university. Always a pragmatist, I knew I should get a good education, get a good job and do my art on the side until one day, if I worked hard enough, I could pursue my art full time. And, that’s exactly what I did.

What inspired you to be an artist?image

I partly credit my childhood, spent mostly alone and in solitude, as the foundation for the works I create today. I spent the majority of my “happy time” with the door shut to my bedroom, reading books, drawing, painting, and dreaming. I’m exactly the same way today. I chose to steer clear of the arguments that went on at the dinner table and tensions between other family members. I much prefer silence and being alone. The ability to be alone is, I believe, a quality you need to be an artist.
I think a lot of kids are into art and that a big part of whether or not they do anything with it depends on how/if that interest is fostered by teachers and parents. I was fortunate to go to a small school which meant plenty of individualized attention. I had the same art teacher from 3rd grade all the way through 10th. My art teacher saw enough potential in me to spend the extra time to really encourage me. Looking back, I realize how important the positive feedback and attention I got from doing my art was to me. Part of my motivation to pursue it might have been fueled by the thirst for that attention.

What is your preferred painting medium?

I work most often in acrylic but I adore oils too. In the past couple of years, I’ve had the fortunate “problem” of having a lot of success and a lot of shows which has put the pressure on to create a lot of work quickly. Acrylic are very useful when you need to create on a tighter schedule as there is no wait time between layers. If there was unlimited time and no need to actually make money, I would spend an entire year working on one super detailed oil painting. But I don’t have that luxury. I try to have at least one really detailed painting underway that I can poke at from time to time to satisfy my roots as a ‘classically trained painter” while also embracing and encouraging the expressionist I’m striving to become.

I noticed you paint a lot of historical events and figures(Downtown Heritage Trail Exhibit) what inspires you? & What is the most difficult project you have taken on?
I often get asked where I get my inspiration from. My answer: Anywhere. Everywhere. From inside my head and from the outside world. I often get asked if I worry about running out of ideas. My answer is usually “not unless the world ceases to exist”. But heck, even then I’d still have things to paint about. And think of all the quiet time and alone time there would be!

I like projects and I like to learn so I often task myself with doing series of paintings. Most recently I’ve undertaken the task of painting about WashingtonDC history. All around the city, the Cultural Tourism office has put up these amazing Heritage Trail markers that denote important events and sites. For 10 years (from 2003-2013) Matt and I did a project called “31 Days in July”

While brainstorming one day about a project that we might do together, Matt came up with this idea and coined the title ’31 Days in July’. We were to do one painting every single day in July – each inspired by a top news story of that day. The motivation for the project was originally because the Iraq war had just begun and we knew the importance, as artists, to document the times in which we live. We did it year after year after year … when we realized 2013 made a ‘decade’ of paintings, we thought that was the perfect time capsule and called the project complete. For a total of 310 paintings each in the project. When he came up with this ‘painting per day’ idea (and he didn’t admit it at the time) it was completely a throw down challenge to me. you see, he was already a successful full time painter and I had just quit my full-time job to try and make a go of my art full time. He (quietly) didn’t think I could do it. I knew it was a test. I passed with flying colors (he told me so on about day 3 of the project). And we lived happily ever after as an artist couple who challenges, motivates, supports, criticizes and compliments each other.

I often dream about someone locking me in to my studio from the outside. I think that solitary confinement (assuming I had all my books and art supplies with me) sounds fabulous. I often give myself self-imposed ‘sequester’ weeks. No visitors, no leaving the studio, no exceptions! During my week of solitude, I can take chances with my style, freed my mind from outside distractions, and reflected on the project’s parallels to my childhood. When i was a kid, I wished I was deaf so it would be silent all the time and I didn’t have to talk to anyone. My process involves a lot of study, a lot of quiet … door closed. I can take as much time researching and pondering a painting concept as I do creating it. Every step of the process is equally important to me.

The images of the animals you painted are very haunting, did you do anyimage prior research before painting them? If so what?

Looking back, I realize I’ve been a vegetarian at heart since a very early age. Meat always bothered me. If I had to eat red meat, it had to be well done. Any sign of oozing red liquid was a deal breaker. And chicken on the bone was a big problem … because it still looked like an animal. And don’t even get me started about the tendons in a chicken wing. Or gnawing the meat off of a spare rib at a Chinese restaurant one night and realizing this is some animal’s rib!

I wasn’t aware that not eating meat was an option when I was a kid. My work-around was to chop everything in to very very small pieces and inspect each piece thoroughly on the end of a fork before putting it in my mouth. If the piece of meat was too big and i had to chew it too long, I would sometimes gag and have a hard time getting it down. I’d often spit things out in my napkin. Thankfully, my mother always cooked certain meats and side dishes together. So I minced my pork chops and suspended the shreds among my Rice-A-Roni. I crumbled my meatloaf and mixed it in to my Velveeta mac&cheese.

imageWhen i was married to my ex-husband (1992-1999) he was a true meat eater. If it didn’t have meat, it was considered a side dish. I begrudgingly cooked meat based meals while donning yellow dishwashing gloves to handle the meat. I wasted tons of money in my over-zealous trimming of anything remotely suspicious … tendons, veins, etc. When I was back out on my own, I rarely, if ever cooked meat but still would order it when I went out. Finally, when I met Matt, he was already a vegetarian. So when we started dating it was the perfect and obvious time to declare my vegetarianism once and for all. Several times over the years I’ve thought about and attempted to go vegan but was not fully committed. In a word, cheese. But about 6 months ago I finally went vegan … with 100% commitment. I have zero doubt about it and know that I’ll be vegan for the rest of my days. Hopefully there will be even more days and years in my future because of it! I love cooking so this new jump over to the vegan side has opened up lots of new and exciting recipe options for me to experiment with. If I do say so myself, I’m a darned good cook. I want to make my food for meat eaters to convince them that they don’t need meat/dairy and wouldn’t miss it. Matt told me the other day that he loved my vegan cheese more than he loved me. But I think that was the beer talking .

What is the exhibit you are most proud of? What inspired the exhibit?

For years I dreamt of having an exhibit of paintings inspired by books. I thought I’d call the show “book club”. After much turning that idea over and around for a couple of years it finally came to fruition. I would do a show inspired by books that have been banned … so I called it BANNED and secured the location for the show in the perfect place – the main branch of the Washington DC Library system: MLK Library.

More recently, last year, one of my favorite projects was a collaboration with the founder of DC’s Meat-Free Week. She put together a raw/vegan pop-up dinner along with an exhibit of my meat-free themed paintings at a local art space here in DC.
The response overall was fabulous and the food was over the top. But I was surprised by one thing … I had the expectation that everyone in attendance would automatically understand and appreciate my paintings. But I wasn’t completely correct in my assumption. With a few pieces I went too far even for the vegan viewer. One comment that stuck with me was “even though I know I’m eating vegan food, I still have a hard time eating while looking at that painting”. Imagine what it would do to a meat eater? I guess that’s my goal with some of the meat-free paintings … I want meat eaters to loose their appetite for meat when they see them. It’s worked on a few occasions. I’ve had several people “curse” me for making it hard to eat meat because the cute image of one of my “Look Me In The Eye and Tell Me I’m Delicious” paintings is in their minds eye. Mission accomplished.

My original thought when I started the “Look Me In The Eye and Tell Me I’m imageDelicious” was that vegans/vegetarians would want them. I thought my putting an adorable piglet next to a slab of bacon it might make meat eater uncomfortable and make them give thought to where their food comes from. Bacon=pig. Burger=cow. Chicken=chicken (why don’t we have a euphemism for chicken?) But the first painting I sold in the series went to a meat eater who loves pork. Go figure. I suppose I could have denied her the painting in protest but I dint’. My hope is that it haunts her a bit. That every time she sees the cute piglet she becomes more attached to it. Maybe she’ll name it. In turn, her pork chop will have name … and be more difficult to swallow.

Two paintings from the exhibit along with what inspired them and my intended messages:

Both ‘An American in Paris’ and ‘Deli’ deal with how different cultures and different countries eat different animals. To an American, cows and pigs are thought of as food. Bunnies and kitties are cute fluffy things we keep as pets or enjoy watching prance through our grassy backyards.

When traveling in France, I saw delis are full of ‘lapins’ (rabbits). My high school level French vocabulary not being what it used to be, I didn’t recognize the word “lapin” right away. And the bright red skinned stretched out creatures i saw stacked in the case didn’t resemble any animal I could place right away. Then I realized, rabbits. Oh my. When I went to China, I encountered a man selling little tiny kittens on a side street. Let’s just say it was obvious they were not meant to be pets.

As a vegan, the sight of any dead creature in a deli case is icky. But of course I’m somewhat desensitized to the countless chickens, fish, beef and pork products I’ve seen my whole life.

It’s examples like this that lead to these 2 paintings. It’s been interesting to show these painting to meat eaters and see their reactions. Someone who eats chicken/beef/pork without any qualms gets all sentimental when they see the rabbits and kittens being sold for food in my paintings. On an intellectual level they understand my reference that it’s about cultural differences. But they aren’t able to turn the mirror on themselves and fully admit that what their eating is no different.

imageWhat is your intended message?

When I was younger, I created very safe and very academic art. I received good grades in art class for having impeccable technical skill and following directions. I give credit to to my husband, and fellow artist, Matt Sesow for helping me break out of that tragic path I was on. The tragedy of safety and predictability. The tragedy of being relegated to the genre of ‘decorative art’.

When I started painting full time in 2002 I finally had the time and luxury to experiment and make mistakes. Matt and I would often paint together and he definitely pushed me to loosen up. Much of his influence shows up quite obviously in some of my paintings from those early years. I continue to joke to this day that his advice for me on every painting (if I dared ask) was to “circle the lips in red”, “add teeth” and/or “add a bunny”. It was good advice, all of it. But I had to find a way to take those suggestions and make them my own. He also taught and encouraged me to find my voice … to pull from inside myself. Usually (if not always) my most successful forays into painting emotionally were alcohol fueled. I’ve since learned (and it’s an ongoing process) to take chances and say what’s on my mind and buried deep in my heart without needing as much prodding (or liquor). But don’t get me wrong, drinking and painting make for unexpected and arresting results sometimes.

I didn’t set out to create ‘unsettling’ art in the earlier years of my painting career. But once I “won” my studio in a housing lottery my financial worries were allayed and I was much more free to create work that some have deemed ‘unsellable’. “Who’s’ going to buy that” is a phrase I’ve heard uttered and have said myself. Once I started to speak my mind on canvas, I couldn’t stop myself. I became kind of known for it. I have had my work pulled from at least 3 shows over the years for being too controversial. An exhibit I had for “Blasphemy Day” made it all the way to national news and led to a few veiled death threats and PLENTY of hate mail

I’m in a place now that the vast majority of my work is either vegan themed or history based. I feel great about both avenues and I think those two themes will hold to being the consistent genres of my work for the upcoming years. It took a lot of experimenting and exploring in the past 14 or so years …. a few subjects and styles have ‘stuck’ but this is the first time I feel 100% invested in and satisfied with the work I’m creating. With the ever growing base of people who are collecting my work and the increasing offers for show and other opportunities, I can pretty confidently say that I’m on the right track – at least for now.

Can you tell me a little about your Tribute to Michael Jackson Exhibit?

I’m part of a group exhibit hosted by the 19 karen Gallery in Australia which is called “Tribute the Michael Jackson’s Best Film Clips”
more about the show. Read more about it here (includes press release, etc)

I have 2 paintings in show.
The Blues (inspired by Smooth Criminal video)
My painting, “Blues”, is inspired by Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” video. I was a big Jackson fan when I was growing up in the 1980’s in Connecticut. By the time I set off to college though, I didn’t keep up with his music as much anymore. As a result of watching all the videos for this exhibit, I’ve rediscovered my love of Jackson’s music and the brilliance of his videos. I had never seen the Smooth Criminal video prior to my preparation for this exhibit. Upon first viewing though I knew it would be the one I painted from for this exhibit. Imagery from the early/mid 1900’s has long been a source of inspiration in my paintings. I have a vast collection of classic black & white files that I watch as I paint and many a Hollywood starlet have been models in my paintings. So Jackson’s blue hued mokey 1930’s nightclub scene in “Smooth Criminal” easily fueled my creative juices. In my painting, “Blues”, I’ve subtly placed a Jackson-like figure in the center of the composition surrounded by a menagerie of men and women who are all immersed in their own worlds, soaking up the music and the moment. The prominent women in the foreground is enjoying her surroundings but she does so with a tiny bit of self consciousness – with her eyes open to survey the crowd in an effort to do her best to fit in.

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Courtesy Image  Dana Ellyn

Images In Order

Cover Image: You Are What You Eat

No Hunting (Bambi)

Ceci n’est pas du Bacon(This is not Bacon)

An American In Paris

Deli

Jane Is Vegetarian

Dust Bowl Revisited

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