Ellen Von Wiegand discusses Art, Anxiety & Vulnerability

Hi Ellen! Would you please tell us about yourself?

Where to begin? My first memory of falling in love with art was on my first day of Kindergarten. I distinctly remember drawing a rainbow and rushing home to show my family with a great deal of pride. This quickly became the space where I felt most at home. Art is in my blood. My dad made his living as a photographer and his father was a calligrapher and professional sign painter. On my mother’s side a distant cousin was a wonderful mid-century American painter who was mentored by Piet Mondrian, whom she counted amongst her closest friends. That is to say that art has always been a primary way that I’ve understood who I am in the world. But for the longest time I didn’t allow myself to dream of being an artist. I think part of this was my fear around placing myself at the centre of attention, and another piece was that choosing to be an artist felt like leaving my fate to chance. Little did I realise how much power there is in living my life as a pure expression of myself.

In order to appease this artistic side I chose to study Art History. I dashed off to Rome, Italy for undergrad and then to London for my master’s. I went to work in a museum, then an auction house, a gallery and finally an arts and culture website. But when this last job started to fall apart and I once again found myself needing to start over, I began to feel a sense of regret and accompanying anxiety bubbling up within me. As a kind of therapy I decided to dedicate a mere 15 minutes each day to drawing or painting, and later to linocut printmaking. I wasted little time before determining that I would become a self-employed artist. A little crazy for someone who had quit making art for 4 years prior to this point.

The entire process of making art and learning to run a business has been the most expansive experience of my life. Over the last year I’ve started to see my work as a way of connecting to my own reassuring voice. I choose to feature my own body, and to gouge out strong maneuvering lines to express the smooth coil of a physique. But rather than self-portraits I see these nudes as vessels for lived experience and self reflection. I enjoy the fragility of a lone figure in relationship with the viewer and I see each as a space where one can project their own emotional reality. I love to hear what comes up for people when they look at my prints.

We know so many who struggle with anxiety and fear of putting themselves out there. What did it look like for you to start facing these fears and decide to carve your own path (no pun intended!). Do you have tips for others that may feel like this?

Well it certainly took a little nudging before I began to share my work. The first piece I let anyone see was a portrait of my brother. I sent it to him privately and he posted it to his social media. He is a comedian and has a relatively large following so I started to get a lot of great feedback. Much of the time we are so self-critical that we can’t see the beauty that others so quickly see in our work. It was tremendously helpful for me to be able to view that first piece through others’ eyes.

The next level of vulnerability is standing next to your work and receiving feedback to your face. The first time I exhibited I spent a good hour on the floor sobbing because I didn’t want to go. I seriously reverted to an infantile state. I finally forced myself out the door and had a great time at the show. That is the profound beauty of this whole process. Beyond the fear is a new level of confidence and a fresh sense of possibility. I definitely still struggle to move beyond my comfort zone but each time I do the world opens up a little more. However that doesn’t mean the fear completely goes away. Right before my last exhibition opening I cried, did yoga, meditated, did a tapping exercise, took a cold shower and then had a solo Beyonce dance party. Then I was ready to greet my guests!

Connection is important to you, even though you've told us you're shy and introverted. Talk to us about what that means to you and why it's important. How can others forge their own connections when they're feeling shy?

I’ve always preferred one on one connection over group dynamics. I’m just not interested in small talk or superficial chat. I want to get to the guts of a person. There is absolutely nothing I love more then when someone opens up to me about what they’re currently struggling with and what wonderful growth they are experiencing. It’s interesting to think about giving advice to others about forging connections when they are shy because it feels a bit like giving advice to myself. I like to try to think of questions for people that open up bigger conversations. Whenever possible I ask them to share what they learned from an experience that didn’t go the way they planned, or I get them to talk about their family. The conversation should flow naturally so I don’t bring these topics up out of context. However it creates an immediate connection and let’s both of you feel at ease more quickly.

 

Your print subscription is such a wonderful idea. How did this come about? What has surprised you about this process and executing it?

One morning I woke up and immediately thought: today I’m going to take some game changing action. I wanted to do something to connect with more people through my art. I had no idea what it would be and I didn’t necessarily set about to figure it out. But right before bed I had the idea. I started by doing a giveaway of a mini print that I created. I mailed 25 prints to followers of mine that indicated that they wished to receive one. I later decided to offer the mini prints as a monthly subscription. I loved the idea of being able to connect monthly with a group of people with whom my art resonated. Together with the print I mail a series of images of the process of the print’s making and a small text that explains my thinking around each piece. I’ve made some new friends and reconnected with old friends through the process. It’s given a new meaning to what I do.

What's next for you? Are you exploring any new mediums, different bodies of work? Big goals? We always love to hear!

For now I’m sticking with linocut. I’d love to explore other forms of printmaking in the future, but since I currently work from home lino is the most convenient. I am however interested in expanding my images both in terms of dimension and design. We’ll see what the result of that is. More broadly I suppose my biggest goal is to create a wider conversation around how we can use our vulnerabilities as a way to bond with one another. I haven’t really begun to think about what form this will take, but it is definitely in the cards!