Framed: Questions with Elissa Gore

This is another piece I wrote for my internship with the Smithy Center for the Arts.

Framed: Questions with Elissa Gore

“Before you start peppering me with questions, can I pepper you with a couple? I like to know who I’m talking to.”

Those were the first words of Elissa Gore, 62, in her interview last week.

The practically-minded landscape artist has an Ivy league education, an extra bedroom in her New York City residence and, for several years after college, made her living as a medical illustrator.

“I pursued medical illustration as a profession that would support my habit as a painter and a way to use the skills I had,” Elissa said. “I loved the idea of being able to use my skills as a visual communicator to help people.”

Elissa shared her background in art, her thoughts on differences between illustrators and painters, and what she believes to be the most important thing for creators to know about art.

SCA: When did you decide to pursue art?

Elissa: When I was in high school. It was the thing that I enjoyed doing the most. We could take art every day, so I did. I headed in that direction. I have an Ivy league education, but every time I decided I was going to major in philosophy, the next semester I’d spend more time in art studios than anywhere else.

SCA: You’re originally from Philadelphia and now you live in New York City, but you paint landscapes. How does that work?

Elissa: I grew up in a semi-rural part of southeastern Pennsylvania. I was born in Philadelphia but I grew up in the country, and I didn’t move to New York until I was 30. I have always spent at least three months out of the year in the country. Now, I am usually in upstate New York, which is why I show in Cooperstown.

SCA: When you’re working on your landscapes, do you work from photographs or memory?

Elissa: I work from everything. I work from observation, as well as photographs, as well as from the studio. . . . During the past five years, my stuff’s been chosen for the Art in Embassies program for the U.S. State Department, so I have paintings overseas in the ambassadors’ residences. I was fortunate enough to have an art gallery in New York with the same person who’s represented me for the past 20 years. I also have been exploring smaller pieces, sometimes in the studio, sometimes outside. . . . In the past three years, I’ve started traveling more to paint directly from observation of the landscape. I’ve been attending plein air events and competitions, mainly on the East Coast within a five-hour drive of where I live.

SCA: What’s plein air?

Elissa: It’s a French term for painting outside from observation. There is a movement in landscape painting to get more people engaged in painting from life. . . . For the past 10 years, I’ve been teaching a landscape painting class at the New York Botanical Garden, where we trot around from one location to another in this 300-acre park in the Bronx. So plein air has been a continuous part of my discipline for many years.

Part of [the challenge of plein air events] is not knowing the locale. I’m going to completely novel places, where I have to hit the ground and figure out the topography and where the light might be good. It’s great. It’s kind of like a sport.

I’ve [also] been working on landscape paintings that are transitional to abstraction. Those are the paintings I’m going to be showing in Cooperstown in July in the three-person show. Those paintings are all oil paintings . . . and they’re all invented . . . from my imagination. If you spend a lot of time observing nature and observing the real world, there’s a great library of observation you can draw from.

At times, there’s a cross-over between my different ways of working. There are times when I’m working outside from observation and I’ll get the palette knife and I’ll be much more interpretive about the way I’m working.

SCA: You say that you are especially attracted to landscapes with earth, air, and water. Can you expand on that?

Elissa: Without water the plants all die, and the same thing with life. The paintings become paintings about the environment. I’m not an illustrator of a conservation message, but the concept is this is the natural world and it’s very beautiful. Let’s keep it the way it is.

There are different ways of looking at the world and organizing our perceptions. I like to say there’s a painter’s frame and there’s an illustrator’s frame, and they both use the same stuff . . . elements of design and composition and color theory—all the elements are the same. But with the illustrator’s frame there’s a concept behind the piece of artwork that tells a story. Not necessarily a narrative, but something specific that it needs to convey. So the place you enter in the image might have very specific details that make the place identifiable. In a painter’s frame, the place might be identifiable, but there isn’t a concept or story. What’s much more dominant are the formal elements of composition and design. The point of the image is to put together something that’s expressive of the emotional observations of the person making the art.

At plein air events, painters are there all working at the same time. At the end in the exhibit, I can see the ways that 30 different painters are applying paint or how they compose, the kind of images they choose. Many of the most successful plein air painters are illustrators professionally.

SCA: What’s most important for people to know about art?

Elissa: As an appreciator of art or a creator of art?

SCA: A creator.

Elissa: The most important thing for them to know is how they feel about their subject. Because the expressive content of a work of art is the driver . . . You have to have a motivation to make something and the motivation is how you feel about the subject of your artwork. No matter whether you’re sculpture or performance art, a drawing or a painting, the first thing you have to know is how you feel.

Elissa Gore‘s joint exhibit with Joanna Murphy and Jody Primoff opened on July 1 on the first floor of the Smithy Pioneer Gallery at 55 Pioneer Street.

– Meredith Sell

Pieced together: Products of Nate Katz’s obsessions

This is the final piece I wrote for my summer internship with the Smithy Center for the Arts, and probably my favorite piece from this summer.

Nate Katz, 23, leans over the table, a strip of Scotch tape stretched between his thumbs. He’s focused on a small stack of paper in front of him, an inventory of some kind with thumbnail images of movie covers in the top half and a list in 14-point font in the bottom half. He’s just updated the list, cut it to size, and now has it lined up with the thumbnails, ready to be made one by the power of Scotch.

Nate’s father, Jeff, stands at the side of the table, talking about Nate’s strip mall portraits which hang in clear glass frames on the surrounding walls. Some are long rows of stores from various Chicago-land suburbs. Others are just 8 1/2 by 11, on Nate’s standard—computer paper—featuring before-and-afters of Dunkin Donuts and Burger King renovations, with floor plans of restrooms sketched out below the colored pencil portraits.

“Is this one real, Nate?” Jeff asks, holding one of the before-and-afters. Through the clear glass of the frame, the back side of the portrait’s paper is visible. Two photos: one of a toilet, one of a sink.

“I don’t know,” Nate replies, glancing up as he tears another strip of tape. “It’s in my mind.”

Creativity—putting pen to paper or hand to keyboard—is one of Nate’s main ways of getting what’s in his mind out. At age three and a half, Nate was diagnosed with Hyperlexia, a form of autism characterized by early advanced reading abilities, excellent visual and auditory memories, but a slow learning of language. Because of this, Nate has a hard time communicating to others what’s going on inside of him.

What others tend to see of him are his obsessions: bathroom fixtures and setups (he puts together booklets titled “The Complete Fixtures of” various townships and maps out floor plans of public restrooms); in grade school, The Simpsons, until he decided no more, for reasons still unknown; and since moving to Cooperstown with his parents and younger brothers in 2003, strip malls from familiar Chicago suburbs that he misses.

These strip malls—drawn in pen, filled in with colored pencil, laminated with Scotch tape, and framed front-and-back in clear glass—currently stretch across the Smithy-Pioneer Gallery’s third floor walls. They are simple, in no way claiming to appear realistic. Yet, they are detailed. Look closely at the Dunkin Donut door handles and the KFC Colonel’s face in miniature. Each piece requires thought and precision, which Nate carefully provides.

Jeff now sets a three-dimensional open-topped cardboard house on the table. The second floor fits the first floor, the three sides of the front bay windows lining up perfectly. Nate made this. A scaled-down model of the Katz’s house in Illinois. The only thing missing is the addition made by the new owners. Nate’s seen it, but only from the outside. To do a proper model, he’d need to see it from the inside, so he could know the floor plan.

The detail on the house’s interior is better than any Lego model would allow: from door and window placement to the red, white, and blue stripes on Nate’s bedroom walls. He recently repainted his Cooperstown bedroom to match.

“There’s a true authenticity to what he’s doing,” Jeff says, as Nate presses the final piece of tape onto his inventory and leaves the room.

Jeff opens a cartoon cookbook that’s sitting on the table. Nate designed it from cover to cover and put it together, joining the pages on their left edges and making the cardboard cover. It’s themed around a cartoon character Nate likes. Nate made it because the cartooners hadn’t.

“He makes things he wishes come real,” Jeff explains, flipping through the pages.

The strip malls?

“They’re just something he loves and he wants drawn.”

Nate’s strip mall portraits are currently on display on the third floor of the Smithy-Pioneer Gallery at 55 Pioneer Street.

– Meredith Sell