Ellen Catlin, the Romantic Painter Seeking to Name the Feelings You Can’t.

Interview by Jefferson Ellison, done in Partnership w/ AVLtoday.

Ellen Catlin is a contemporary American painter, sculptor, and designer working in Asheville, North Carolina. Known for her focus on the emotions you can’t put to words, Catlin is an arbiter of truth and proponent of the full human experience. When I first discovered her work, I was struck by her talent, of course, but more striking was how she described her work.

“explore[ing] memory and experience, and how they manifest themselves in a person. an origin story is her keystone. in her own take on storytelling, she focuses on subconscious pairings, dusty recollections, and the translation of those feelings you can’t quite identify into a mark. each brushstroke and color have a distinct and representational purpose which, in the end, culminates into a story told.”

For me, it was the choice to write in third person. The emphasis on what seems to be a dream state. Being able to remove herself from her art and let it stand on its own as an emotional plea and story to be heard, is as bold as it is vulnerable. Catlin is a true romantic in search of deeper meaning and clarity. No doubt the lingering effects of growing up on a boat that surely saw many foggy mornings.

What exactly qualifies art as “fine art”?

I think the traditional definition of fine art is art that is made solely for its aesthetic purpose. I guess it’s art for art's sake. At its core it doesn’t serve any sort of function, practical, decorative, or otherwise, other than just pure expression. In my mind what constitutes a piece of art as “fine art” is the purpose and the intention behind it. As a contemporary artist working in the time of the internet it has definitely been a struggle not to be pulled into comparing my work to others and wondering if I made something a bit more “decorative” if it would sell better. That’s a rabbit hole I’ve been pulled down before and it seems that every time I get there I am even more resolute in creating what I want to make: art that is thought-provoking yet calming and a break in everyday life for the viewer. So in came my devotion to fine art: work that is meant to make the viewer feel, not just take up space on a wall.

How has being “too empathic” influenced your work? As anyone who is super empathetic will tell you: empathy effects every corner of your life whether you want it too or not. It can be enlightening and debilitating. But it’s not unique: I think as time goes on, the universe is churning out more and more empaths so that hopefully this world can undergo drastic change but that’s a line of thought for another time. I guess the influence of empathy on my work is deeply engrained in the whole process of creating it. I think a lot about how certain things will make people feel: cause and effect. So in making art I am constantly focusing the feeling that it will leave the view with.  When I was in art school I had a very strict view of art: it was either academic or not. In my mind for it to qualify as “academic" it had to be deeply thought-provoking, calculated, and scholarly. Bonus points for political. I felt that the long-thought-out large scale abstract paintings and life-sized viewing cocoons I was creating qualified. Ironically, my first real success in art came from paintings of plants and flowers: things I created to take a break for the more emotionally and mentally taxing pieces. It occurred to me later that if the pieces were mentally taxing for me to create, they were probably that way for the viewer too. So how I created art shifted pretty dramatically after that and has led to my current pieces which are all about the energy that art puts out to the viewer. I’m in a pretty experimental and scientific/spiritual place in my art right now but I think I’m on the right path and empathy led me here.

Did you go to school for art or were you self taught? Did you learn more on your own or from teachers? I went to UGA’s Lamar Dodd School of Art but had been making art my whole life prior to that. I grew up on a boat abroad and we were constantly moving so I must have filled up hundreds of sketchbooks with drawings of landscapes. I was homeschooled until high school so I usually am more of a self-teaching type of gal but I did have a couple of professors in college that had a profound effect on my life and art, namely Joseph Norman.  Seriously, check out his art. Prior to registering for one of his drawing classes in college I had never met anyone like him. He’s truly larger than life, unbelievably intimidating, whip-smart, and says what’s on his mind no matter the consequence. His classes were renowned for the sheer number of students that dropped after the first day mostly out of terror and knowing that they’d really have to work hard for him if they were to pass his class. It amazed me that someone of his stature would be teaching at my school: his work is in some of the most renowned museums in the world and art scholars and historians have lauded him as one of the most important African American lithographers of his generation. Anyways, he pushed me to become a real artist, inject raw emotion into my work, and was a guiding light throughout my time at the school. 

Tell me about the time that you knew fine art was the path you wanted to pursue? I knew from the time I was a child that I wanted to be an artist. I think it’s difficult for kids to actually make that jump to doing it as a profession because it’s not traditionally modeled as a realistic way to build a career. Because of that I started out school not studying art. Ironically, my first major was “Greek Studies” which we can all agree is also not a realistic way to build a career so I made the jump to Journalism before giving into Drawing and Painting my sophomore year. I actually did have a great uncle on my mothers side who was an illustator so I really clung to that archetype for a long time. 

What is your favorite medium to work with? I love painting in oils. There’s something so sensual and timeless about them. I work out of a home studio right now that my dog is always wandering in and out of so I’ve taken a break from them for a while because they’re quite toxic. I also love watercolors and I use those the most these days. Recently I’ve been really into my take on the “soak stain” method that Helen Frankenthaler made famous and I use heavily diluted acrylic paint on raw cotton or linen to mimic the look of watercolors. I’m starting to shift into using natural plant dyes for environmental reasons, too, so I'm super curious to see how that affects the work.

How does living in Asheville inspire your work? I’m extremely inspired by nature and my surroundings and I’d always felt a pull to this place even prior to moving here. There’s a whole line of thinking that Asheville is situated on some sort of energetic line and while I’ve never put much effort into looking into that it is undeniable that being around so many creative people and entrepreneurs is pretty damn expansive.

What advice would you give to aspiring artists? Keep going. That’s the advice that everyone hates to get, haha. For most people it takes years to get your footing, find your voice artistically, and then figure out how you want to share it with the world. Being able to turn this into a career has been a super slow burn. I’m sure for some people there is overnight success but I don’t think that’s the case for most of us. So just keep going and don’t give up. And don’t try to make what’s popular and don’t copy other peoples’ art. Make what YOU want to make and be specific — trying to appeal to a broad swath of people is a quick way to not appeal to anyone at all. And my last and most favorite piece of advice that I got from Joseph Norman: don’t be too precious with your art. You’ll never push it to where it needs to go if you’re precious with it. I made a habit of destroying pieces I liked to reinforce that I could make more and better pieces and it’s really helped me. Oh, and last but not least: it’s perfectly normal to have a day job. Artists tend to gloss over this because I think for some there is a bit of shame in it but I think not talking about it does a disservice to aspiring artists. A lot of us have other forms of income. I waited tables up until earlier this year and I also design websites. So you don’t have to quit your job and jump into art full time to be considered a “real artist."

What is the biggest lesson you learned since working for yourself? Oh man…time management? I tend to hyper-focus on things and not want to pull myself out of working but I think if you’re working for yourself you have to be pretty regimented about what your “work day” hours are and when it’s time to go on a walk or take a bath. Balance is key. Also the un-sexy admin stuff takes time so you have to schedule that in too. I’m terrible at time management so I am DEEP in this learning curve right now. 

Asheville is renowned for being a hub of creative types. How have you tried to make your art stand out from the others? Has it been difficult or fun? Oddly I’ve never compared my art to others in town. I work in a bit of a vacuum sometimes and have to remind myself to plug into the community artistically. I only started putting my work up around town in 2018. That being said it’s definitely fun to look at the art that others in town are making and wonder what they’re inspired by on a local level and to see how the things that inspire them inspire you and how your interpretation differs and shows up in your work. 

What do you want people to feel or think about when they look at your work? Calm. I just want people to feel calm and a sense of peace when they look at my work. People will always look at a piece of art and project their own memories and thoughts onto it and that is a beautiful thing so I just want to give them a place to take a break. I used to work a lot denser but as I’ve gotten older my motivations have changed. My hope is that my art gives people a break in their everyday lives and a moment to just breathe and feel a bit of peace.  On a side note I’m working on a whole new body of work right now that focuses specifically on the energy behind a piece of art and how that energy can reach the viewer. It’s super nerdy and I’ve been deep in studying the molecular structure of water and how human emotion can alter it (if you haven’t heard of Masaru Emoto, he was a fascinating Japanese scientist who studied and documented exactly that). So stay tuned, there’s some more strange art on the way!

Where would be your dream place to display your art? Why? Honestly my first thought is the Guggenheim in Venice. It’s the most insane museum with an absolutely incredible body of work displayed. It’s a truly magical place and is tied for first place as my favorite museum in the world with, of course, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. 

How has the beautiful Blue Ridge landscape influenced your work? In subtle ways for sure. I guess it comes back to the energy of this place. Just living in the proximity of nature lets me relax enough to even create art in the first place. I lived in New York City after college and then Nashville after that and I created next to no art in that environment. It was stifling for me. The moment I moved to North Carolina my creativity started to flow again. There’s got to be something in the air here. 

If you could only paint with one color for the rest of your life what would it be and why? Blue. 100%. Just looking around my studio now it’s all blue, haha. I’ve always been drawn to it probably because it’s the color of water and that’s what inspires me the most. It’s such a calming and universal color. My favorite shade is a more neutral tint like a Payne’s Grey.

Do you have any favorite local artists whose art you admire or would like to collaborate with? So many. I love Lydia See’s work. And Garnet Fisher, Clare Beumer Hill and Michael Riesch (Cardboard Couch). I just discovered Wyatt Grant's work which I'm also into. I love installation art so one of these days I hope to collaborate with Honey (Different Wrld). The list goes on...