For more than 30 years, artist Elizabeth Ellison has exhibited and sold widely throughout the United States, focusing on acrylic, oil, watercolor, clay and mixed media. Utilizing both traditional and oriental techniques – and frequently employing American Indian motifs – Ellison depicts the varied wildflowers, animals, human inhabitants and landscapes of the Smokies region and beyond. Her new exhibit, Spirit of Place, represents her immersion in the natural world, particularly through the incorporation of handmade plant-fiber paper into her paintings and her connection with the Southern Appalachian environment.
I recently had a chance to talk with Ellison to learn more about her passion for the arts and the natural world, and her desire to blend the two together.
1.) What led you to your career in art?
I have always had an interest in art – I started drawing ever since I could hold a pencil. My father was an architect, lawyer and civil engineer, and so he was always drawing. I think that’s what really sparked my interest. Growing up in a large household, my family used drawing and art as forms of entertainment.
Later on, my husband George and I moved to Richmond, Virginia, after he finished his undergraduate degree at UNC. While I was in Richmond, I took an art history class at Virginia Commonwealth University, and that’s where I really saw that there was more to art than “just a housewife who wanted to paint.” I also took courses at the University of South Carolina and Mississippi State, which helped me develop my skills further.
2.) Have you always focused on the natural world in your works?
Yes. While I was living in Mississippi, I did some pieces of the old buildings in town, but I always tried to incorporate the natural surroundings into them as well. Ever since I was little, I have loved being outdoors and enjoying nature. When I was playing in the woods with my siblings (there were 11 of us altogether), I would become so in awe of my surroundings. My connection with the natural world was so strong that I wanted to put those emotions onto paper, and so I did.
3.) Many of your works incorporate the use of handmade paper. Why did you choose to do this?
I love to make handmade paper. It’s one of my hobbies and I really enjoy doing it. My friend and I make it from natural fibers, iris leaves, yucca leaves and mulberry branches, and I think the incorporation of these natural elements fits perfectly into my work. Also, using handmade paper helps break up the surface and makes it more interesting.
4.) You and your husband George work on a weekly column together for the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper called The Nature Journal. How has it been working together on this piece and what have you learned from it?
George and I both share the same passion for the natural world. For George, he shares his love through teaching and writing. For me, I’m able to do this through art. We hope that our work gives people a better understanding of how wonderful this world is and inspires them to help preserve it.
The Nature Journal has been a fun piece to work on as it really has helped me increase my drawing skills. In my illustrations, I try to not just be an illustrator but I also allow myself to share what I see and how I feel about it. (Of course, there are some necessary technicalities and details that are involved to make sure that I’m not illustrating a plant or animal incorrectly.)
5.) What is the meaning behind the title of your exhibit, Spirit of Place?
The title was actually used as a title for an article that was done on me for a local magazine a few years back. The term “Spirit of Place” really encompasses everything that George and I are trying to share about the natural world and the “spirit” that we feel about the environment, specifically in these mountains. This area is so important to us, and I think that is why my paintings appeal to so many people, as they feel that same “spirit” as well.
6.) Why did you choose to exhibit at The North Carolina Arboretum?
I love the Arboretum! I think it’s a great place and really portrays my feelings toward this region. The energy that the Arboretum brings is the same “spirit” that I feel. I believe it’s the perfect venue for my show. It’s almost like a sisterhood, a real symbiotic relationship.
Spirit of Place is on display Saturday, Mary 27 – Monday, September 4, 2017, from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily, in the Baker Exhibit Center. Exhibit support is provided in part by The North Carolina Arboretum Society and Smoky Mountain Living magazine. For more information, please click here.