Friday, November 23, 2012

Beer with a Painter: Ellen Trumbo

with Ellen Trumbo, in front of her Grand Haven Landscape
photographs of us by Tyler Loftis

Ellen Trumbo’s paintings are (like her!) full of light and painted with an absence of showmanship.  She lives in Grand Haven, a beautiful town on Lake Michigan.  She and a small group of fellow painters have created an aesthetic sanctum of creative energy in the Midwest, and I like to visit, write, collaborate, and feed off their inspiration. 

Ellen is the kind of woman who quietly runs everything in town – and by that I mean she manages five restaurants, co-directs a gallery, and fundraises for multiple cultural events per year.  She is also the friend who can play a mean game of trivia and doesn’t flinch when I get competitive at beach soccer and nearly break her toe.

Ellen’s landscapes, such as the mural installed in The Grand Restaurant, capture the sensate experience of this place: the breadth and movement of the lake and beach.  We sat in front of this piece with a couple glasses of locally made Vander Mill hard apple cider, and talked painting.  Thank you, Ellen!

JS: I feel like your work is so much about connection to place. The sense of touch – your energetic mark and brushstroke – seem a metaphor for tactility and connection to the landscape.  How does where you come from originally, and where you live now inform your painting?

ET: I would imagine there is something innate about the way a person puts down paint. I don’t know if my paintings will always look like this, but it is what they are right now.

I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but I left home when I was young and didn’t do any landscape painting out there.  The landscape is pretty different there - it’s much brighter, the sun is really intense.  The riverbeds are dried up; everything is kind of brown in the summer.  There is a lot of concrete, spread out and sprawling in the suburban towns.

Here, in Western Michigan, it is about water - that deep space of water and expansiveness, and the paintings incorporate that. I really love this place. I think it’s beautiful.  That’s why I’m here.  There are a lot of things that are beautiful about here, and a lot of it is about leaving it how it is.  It’s not super developed.  Even the places that are developed, there is still a lot that’s natural – the pine trees and the dunes. 

Ellen Trumbo, Landscape, 2011, oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches
My teenage years are when I started painting.  The earliest painters I loved were the Color Field painters. I had this good environment in high school, where my teacher set up a studio, and she would go in the back and work.  We had freedom to work as we wanted.  It was a fairly serious work environment, a pretty heavy studio practice, which now that I think about it, is the best way to start out.  We were expected to research on our own.  There aren’t too many museums or actual paintings in Oklahoma, but we researched through books, and kept a journal of what we were into.  We were expected to be self-motivated.  My teacher was pretty incredible.  She had property in the wilderness of Southern Colorado and would take her students there to make art.  Some people did paintings, some did site-specific art, but she would put us up in her house and just take us there, just because.  I went out there a couple times.  Part of it was simply about realizing you have to do it.  You have to figure out what you’re interested in and what you want to make.

JS: One thing that captivates me in your work is the force and directness. Can you tell me about this process and how you preserve that energy in the painting?

ET: Most of the marks in my paintings are made really fast.  They are fast decisions.  I think that’s probably why the paintings have that raw quality. I don’t necessarily finish paintings quickly, but I’ll make fast decisions and then stop for a while and sense what’s there.  I do step back a lot.  The composing part is one of the first things that happens in the painting.  Sometimes it changes, but that’s an aspect that is really clear to me.  Making the forms, and making them work together, that’s where I’m making fast decisions, and they’re not always right, so I make more and more, and they kind of accumulate.  Part of the painting is knowing that, if there’s a tree, the tree is where it is.  But if that is so set, then the painting isn’t alive.  So the immediacy and fast decisions are because I’m trying to keep it breathing and alive. Composition is not wishy-washy for me.  It is an area where I feel really strong and clear about what I’m doing.  I’m a drawer, a draughtsman.  Knowing how things are set up or spaced out, locating the edges of things.  The paintings don’t usually start out as drawings, but I find the edges of things.  Then it is about how to build within that.  Where I see two colors might be separated, I might draw the edge before I have the colors.  In this mural, you can see the process, where the blue water goes off as a horizontal and that green line goes down as a diagonal.  That part of the painting is left open. It is an interesting part of it, because you can see how the painting is made.  The craft isn’t hidden.  It gets tightened down, and then opened up at points.  That is the mystery of painting. 
Ellen Trumbo, Grand Haven Landscape, oil on canvas, 112 x 84 inches

JS: Can you tell me about the process of making this mural, Grand Haven Landscape, installed here at the Grand Restaurant, and how the idea came about?

ET: Actually, funnily enough, it wasn’t my idea.  It was a composition that Chris [Protas] and Mike [Coleman] designed, and was originally supposed to be a collaboration between them.  Then I took on the project, but I used their idea of a mural about this place.  They had even gathered historical photographs.  The first layer of this painting is a drawing that Chris made. It is one flat shape, that, when I first saw it, looked like a flat bird, and a cropped off corner, and a diagonal of water through the middle. The composition of two landforms, separated by this diagonal of water, was there from the very beginning.  When I saw his drawing, and started to paint it, I went to this spot where I imagined that it was, and made drawings.  It is across the river up on the hill.  So, many specific details in the painting are based on drawings done on-site and brought back to the studio.

Ellen Trumbo, Downs Lake, 2012, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches
JS: So it is really based on a synthesis of an imagined landscape, someone else’s drawing, and your drawings made on-site.

ET: Yes.  It was pretty epic.  But, I would say that in my work in general, there is usually a synthetic element.  A couple years ago, I was painting out of my head, but sometimes it would start from life or from a drawing.  Recently, I’ve mostly been doing one or two day paintings.  So I don’t take them back to the studio and work on them.  But for me, a couple of them do have that quality of adding something else in, almost like I’m in the studio.  Like the painting Down’s Lake.  I have a photograph of it in an earlier state, and it was much more direct, from life, what I was sensing there.  But in the final product, I had inserted some ideas or elements that weren’t so directly from life.  Even at art school, which was the last time I was painting purely from life, my paintings had a quality that’s not totally from life.  I’ve always been inserting or synthesizing. 

Ellen Trumbo and Mike Coleman, Scape, 2010, oil on canvas, 50 x 30 inches
JS: You live with and collaborate with close friends on artwork installed in venues around the town, and numerous public projects and events, including helping to run a gallery with an active exhibition schedule.  How do these activities and your collaborations and relationships play a part in your work?

ET:  There is motivation and energy generated from the group because we have collaborations and projects going on constantly – murals or events like ArtWalk. There is a sense of making art for something, whether it is the restaurants or these events.  There is a specific nature to that. Also, most of the feedback I get is from close friends.  I am so grateful for that.  To have people that care that much, that believe in each other to do that much work to talk about someone else’s painting is very rare.  To sit down in front of someone’s painting, to articulate what you think and feel, and get to know them and their work—it’s a lot of work.  It’s a lot easier to just say, “Oh, I like that,” or “I don’t really like that.”

JS: Can we talk about your studio environment? How many paintings do you have going at a time?  I know you have a demanding job, managing several restaurants in town.  Are you able, in the course of a busy lifestyle, to work for sustained periods of time?

ET: I do tend to work on a bunch of paintings at the same time.  And I have a lot of unfinished paintings in the studio.  But lately, the paintings that take only a day or two are an antidote. I used to labor more over paintings.  I have some that are probably six years old and are just not done yet.  And some are newer, but still not finished.  Since my time is now more limited, I’ve been working in a more concentrated way on one painting and then letting it go, which has been fun.  There was a long period when I had almost as much time as I could ever desire to work, and I didn’t finish a lot of paintings.  It just meant that I painted over and over again on the same paintings.  You can move things around in a painting and the painting changes, and it is limitless. Earlier, I was talking about structure and things being set.  But that’s not enough, so things do move.   You move things around, but not forever, because otherwise there is no end. You go too crazy on that, and you go crazy.

You have to be able to push yourself. You could make the same painting over and over again if you wanted to.  But you could also use life and life experiences and situations to help you mentally to deal with your own painting. You might need to do some things that are not in front of the canvas to develop those skills.  I’m working in management now, and you realize there are only a certain amount of hours in the day.  You learn how to not waste time, and not make decisions that are just for the heck of it.  It’s always towards something. And you make so many mistakes that you stop judging so much.  That is good, because painting and an ideal of beauty is a pretty heavy thing, if you’re unwilling to make something that’s not beautiful. 

with a painting by Mike Coleman, Adam Dahlstrom, and Derek Johnson (collaboration) in background

Dining in front of Ellen Trumbo's Grand Haven Landscape

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