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Ellen Rounseville

Narrative Painting

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art by somerville artistEllenRounseville titledLa Torre Rosada
La Torre Rosada Oil on panel 36 in x 24 in, 91.4 cm x 61 cm
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Artist's Statement

I have always told stories in my paintings even when stories were not what paintings were supposed to tell. Stories link us together, across our cultures, our pasts, our futures. They are the way I understand the world and how I fit into it.  They allow me to reveal part of who I am, and yet they allow me to remain partially hidden in the costumes and affect my roles require.

 My paintings narrate not only events in which human and animal actors play, but they also describe the set in which the stories take place. To me, stories explain how we all fit together with each other and with our environment. They describe the relationships and patterns, the crisscrossings, of our emotions, of our bodies, of rocks exposed in a cliff, of tree branches reaching to the sun, of the way a knight’s suit of armor fits together--ring of mail to ring of mail. Because I am fascinated by these patterns, it is important to me to specify what I understand about them.  It is patterns and connections that I see in and sometimes borrow from the tempera-coated, wooden panels  of medieval painters. They dazzle me with their colors and beckon me to come among them--to follow the path to the harbor, to climb the cliffs in the background, to wonder at the leaves linked by fragile stems. Often, I take some tiny piece of another story teller’s tale, perhaps a small drawing of a tower or a suit of armor on the back of a playing card or a scene from Shakespeare. I add my own characters, build my own set, and let the action unfold as it must.

 For two years I have also been working on a separate project that tells stories in a different way. At first these paintings were meant to be installed as one piece with additional pieces added as I finish them. Now I show them according to audience and space, but one day I still hope to hang them all together. The project began very simply. My Paraguayan friend, Guille, saw my work and asked me if I would paint his portrait. I responded that that’s not really what I do, but I said I would try if he could make it interesting for me, perhaps by choosing a painting of a person from history he might like to be, at least in paint. Guille chose a painting of Edward VI (1537–1553), King of England and Ireland. That a Paraguayan should ask to be made into a king of England presented a very clear irony, and the fact that it was not my choice but completely his own is essential. Since Guille’s request, I have had more than five new volunteers to be part of this project, and their choices of source paintings and characters intrigue and excite me. I continue to tell stories, but now the stories belong more to the people I am painting than to me. They are active participants rather than simply models unknowingly elected by me to be included in my paintings.

 The portrait project has evolved into an antidote to my often complicated narrative paintings: alternating between the two kinds of work suits not only my varying time constraints but also my creative and intellectual energies. The portraits are simple and require a different, more tranquil kind of  attention than do the narratives. They also teach me new ways of observing and new methods of applying paint. Even though it was never a part of the original plan, I realize this project is setting me down in front of an easel in a classical art training school. Making modern versions of the old masters has become my new teaching tool and has expanded my vocabulary. I’ve never really had any interest in painting flowers, but as a result of my friend Andrea’s choice to be Flora by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, one of the reed boats in my new narrative piece may soon be filled with them. Perhaps soon I’ll discover how or if these two paths of my work cross. Perhaps they will continue to diverge. Perhaps they will join in one. Meanwhile, I’ll keep painting both kinds stories.

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