For Ellen Nieves, painting is a pilgrimage through memory and imagination. When she’s painting, her paintbrush becomes a walking stick. “It’s always an adventure,” she says, “a hike into the internal, timeless zone.” A work of art is sometimes a search for answers, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Nieves recalls producing her earliest drawings during a period of early childhood when “why?” dominated most conversations.
Nieves explains that the cover piece, Inside, began “as my projects usually do—with questions.” She continues, “I wanted to remember the innocence of my relationship to nature. I wanted to find the animating presence inside my young self that connected me to a tree, or water, or creatures. It wasn’t just an exercise in memory, I wanted to examine how my relationship to nature had changed.”
Having moved from Detroit to Florida and then to New York City (just in time to chafe under the restrictive limitations of minimalism in the late ‘60s), Nieves finds that “nothing about painting has ever been routine.” At her Olive studio, she paints during the day and sometimes into the night, spending as much time painting as she does looking at nature or examining her work. For many years, Nieves’s paintings comprised numinous images of mountains, oceans, and glowing skyscapes. Two years ago, she began introducing figures into her work. These sometimes surreal and symbolic additions define a new focus for her viewers without sacrificing the element of continuity in her artistic intentions. Nieves’s unpeopled landscapes and her figure pieces express the same amplified, spiritual relationship to nature. The differences in style between Nieves’s paintings are like the differences between dialects whose words vary in pronunciation but not in meaning. “People tend to want you to do the same style or subject forever,” she says, “I choose to exercise the prerogative of allowing my work to evolve and change. When I reach a crossroad, I need to move forward to reveal deeper dreams as well as frailties.”
Nieves shies from imposing interpretations on her own work, asserting instead that she is “interested in the different stories they tell to different people.” In this way, the fantastic experiences filtered through her memory become our own, roused and colored by her artistry. One especially awe-inspiring aspect of her art—one that does not come across in reproductions—is her affinity for working large; Inside is roughly five-feet square.
Ellen Nieves’s paintings will be on display at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum, 28 Tinker Street, Woodstock, from October 4 through November 2. An opening reception will be held on October 4, from 4 to 6pm. (845) 679-2940; www.woodstockart.org; www.ellennieves.com.