ARTIST SPOTLIGHT ON ELLEN HALLIE SCHIFF

by Debbie Wells
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Ellen Hallie Schiff in her art studio in Glen Cove, Long Island

The Artist’s World

Upon entering the charming home of Ellen Hallie Schiff in Glen Cove, Long Island, you immediately know you are in an environment designed by an artist. There, she displays her own work, as well as paintings by fellow local artists and mentors, such as Christian White and Steve Lampasona. Also on view are framed pictures by artists she has met on her travels, including a printmaker in Cuba.

Behind her home is a converted garage filled with wonderful light and bright white walls. Her canvases are neatly piled everywhere in process of being organized for her next showing. Bits of materials, paints and supplies are stored throughout the space. Pinned on the walls are scraps of motivational articles and pictures. She has reference material and artist books on the ready for inspiration.

In addition to a successful career as a fine artist, Ellen Hallie Schiff has an impressive resume of solo and group exhibitions throughout New York City and Long Island over the last ten years. Schiff was a student of renowned abstract painter, Stan Brodsky for several years and completed workshops and residency at Bennington College and School of Visual Arts. Currently, she teaches Abstract Painting at the Artist’s Studio Art School, which is located in the grounds of the historic Chelsea Mansion in the Muttontown Preserve. For more information about her classes, visit www.theartistsstudio.org.

She also is active in the Long Island art community and currently serves as the Vice-President of the Art Guild of Port Washington and is on the Art Advisory Council of the Port Washington Library. Her most recent venture was a curatorial project, “The Alchemists” at the Bryant Library in Roslyn earlier this year. The exhibition showcased five artists that transformed materials into something different – a concept quite familiar to Schiff. Aside from the typical accomplishments of a professional artist, she has even had two paintings featured on the set of the acclaimed television series, “The Good Wife.”

It is easy to see that she is an introspective soul who strives to express her thoughts and ideas through art. Ellen invited me to see her latest creations as she prepares for her upcoming solo exhibition in a Philadelphia art gallery. I met Schiff a few years ago at a Long Island art exhibition and have keep track of her career ever since. I’ve watched her work evolve, but she always had a strong focus on the abstract.

However, it is her current series of mixed media that got my attention. Her process remains visceral and bold, but with an added feature of experimentation with materials, including charred wood and tempered metal. Schiff describes the dramatic personal expression in her work as being “completely me and completely unique which makes it universal.” She believes that people respond to her art because her individual thoughts connect to the collective human mind.

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Three canvases from the Ruined collection

Latest Works: The “Ruined” Series

In her studio, she showed me her newest body of work, some on display and others still in progress. She obtains the canvases from her own inventory of older projects and gives them new life. Although mostly, black, white and grey, they are anything but monochromatic. Not only are the varying tones of brown caused by burnt holes, frayed mesh, rusted metals, ashes and other materials give her art an unusual dimension of color and form. One surprising material she occasionally uses is cut-up pieces of her bras, which is a form of giving a part of herself to the art without being too literal. Schiff will keep working on the canvas – re-shape the materials to resolve the imagery – until she feels the process is complete.

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Details show the layers, textures and tonal qualities of Schiff’s work.

Before she led me to her studio space, she took time to share her inspirational source for this series. “In my mind, there is a vast abandoned industrial warehouse that was the scene of a huge fire. All the elements in these works could have come from the inside of this warehouse with painted-splattered rags, charred and paint-splattered wood, carbonized electrical wires…” She imagined scenes of workmen leaving paint buckets on the floor and wood and garbage strewn about the area. Her warehouse idea expanded to other types of materials and wasteland atmospheres. She also pictured Fire Island with collections of shells, driftwood and beach remnants lying on the dunes.

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Schiff carries one of her canvases with a hole burnt through.

Whether she is rummaging through a mess of forgotten objects or explores the options in her imagination, Schiff looks at the stuff with the eye of someone looking through time. She plays between the materials and her intentions to use them in her art. The beauty of the random and accidental and how art can signify that moment is beyond words fascinates her. Schiff contemplates these ideas and wonders: Does she let the object’s history speak for itself or does she add to it to improve the result? Her decision to add paint drippings, let wax drip or glue pieces of soot to the canvas, is all her own because she is the master. The alternative choice is to just respond to what has happened naturally, like seeing how a hole develops on a canvas when attacked with a blow torch. She concludes, “If I burn it, that’s what happens. If I add to it, it can become a richer image with different results.”

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Her collection of metal scraps are reminiscent of the findings of an archeological dig.

Her interest in primitive cultures and ancient worlds contributes to her vision. In her artist statement, Schiff discloses that “I have a love of archeology and what is under the surface – remnants of a time before and the stories they tell.” She enjoys the role of cave painter as she experiments with putting marks on surfaces as they did in prehistoric times. Schiff first began by acknowledging the importance of man’s discovery of fire. Initially, she lighted a candle to imitate a caveperson at work. She even squatted in position to mimic the experience. Fire has a quality of randomness, yet understands that she must control its flames.

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The artist first experimented with candle wax.

After doing some research, she discovered that famous artists, such as Joan Miro and Yves Klein, had also used burnt canvases and soot in their work. The fascination with fire fueled her creativity. After candles, she considered creating a fire pit, but eventually came to use a professional blow torch. Although a blow torch is a modern tool, Schiff said that she “made peace with that.” Also, she works out in her yard and always keeps a pail of water nearby for safety.

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Hanging the canvas on its spine allows viewers access to both sides.

Although the artist defines herself as a painter, this group of work is really mixed media constructions. Her method of attaching the canvas to the wall by its spine breaks the third dimension and creates a room divider effect. This position allows the viewer to see both sides of the canvas, which in essence, gives two unique images at once. Each of the two surfaces affects the other – the burnt holes on one side, for example, leaves different marks on the other side. She leaves nothing completely to chance and works to manipulate the rips, burns, stains and drippings, to suit her for an individual Side A and B. The result is two separate works with two carefully developed rhythms although they share the same stretcher bars. She later modified this idea by adding a hinge, making it easier to flip the canvas from side to side. Schiff even realized that the lighting cast shadows enhancing the unique qualities of each side.

Understanding Her Art

Her family and friends see Schiff’s work as a reflection of her psyche. Two of her sisters have their own takes: Debra Kuhn, a notable psychologist, describes “ these works are simultaneously vulnerable and solid” and Judi Schwartz, Senior IT professional at the University of Vermont, explains that Schiff “deconstructs the canvas itself underlying the process of creation, personal endeavor and human connection.” Her friend, Long Island painter Laura Swiggett-Powers lovingly responds to Schiff’s imagery as “really disturbing” as she tries to make sense of the markings and ashen colors. Famed artist Christian White also has commented,” There’s a kind of Robert Rauschenberg feeling to these. You’re becoming like me, retracing history.”

The idea of exposure first took hold when Ellen Hallie Schiff was posing as an artist model leaving her feeling exposed and in charge at the same time. “I get a similar feeling while working on my pieces. As the canvas is burned away, it reveals what’s behind. I wanted to include the idea of vulnerability and exposure in this body of work. The “construction” works exist on the intersection between narrative and internal process.

Upcoming show in Philadelphia

EH Schiff is excited about her next project in a Pennsylvania art gallery, which is planned for November 1-30, 2015 with a reception on Friday, November 6 from 6-9pm. The reception coincides with Philadelphia’s First Friday series, which is a once a month evening when all the galleries stay open late for art lovers.

When she and her husband visited their son Nathan who works at BDDW, an upscale furniture maker with offices in Central Philadelphia, New York City and Milan, they strolled through the art district in Old City. There, Schiff walked into PII Gallery (Philadelphia International Institute) and made an instant connection. They agreed to collaborate by showing her work, which led to the opportunity for her first one-woman show there. This upcoming exhibit will be her third!

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Schiff prepares for her upcoming solo exhibition at the PII Gallery.

Ten to twelve of her “Ruined” collection will be on view as the solo exhibit in the front room at the PII Gallery. Located in a centuries’ old building in historic Old City, the PII Gallery features art from around the world, focusing primarily on Eastern European and American contemporary work. Owner Margaret Berczynski works to present a consistently strong selection of local and international artists working in textile design, printmaking, painting, sculpture and photography. For more information about the PII Gallery, visit www.piigallery.com.

One of her paintings is already sold and recently won third place at the Driven To Abstraction show at the Huntington Art Council. It is one of the pieces that can be seen on both sides and will proudly hang in a private beach home on Fire Island.

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One of her pieces that will be on display at the PII Gallery.

After seeing Ellen Schiff’s work in person and now having a full understanding of her creative process, I have a sincere appreciation for who she is as an artist and the message she has works hard to communicate. Once again, I have learned that there is much behind an image on the surface of the artist’s canvas. In Schiff’s case, her art more than just chunks of burnt wood, paint and metal artfully pieced together in shades of decay and ruin. Thoughout the constructed composition also lurks the philosophy and ideas in the mind of its creator. Her exploration of fire, dimension, color mixed with antiquity and modernity play roles in her paintings as well. Schiff’s goal is to convey her spirit through the canvas and I think she accomplishes her mission magnificently.

For more information about the artist, visit her website at www.ellenhallieschiff.com

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