Ellen Cornett

Early in February I began to notice some tingling and numbness in my fingertips. Over time it spread to my up my hands and into my forearms. After visiting my doctor, some pt and massage, it seems to be a pinched nerve that will, in time, resolve itself. 


In the meantime, though, one of the triggers for the discomfort is holding my arm in front of my chest as I do when working at my easel. Oh. That's a problem.


But when one door closes another opens... blah, blah, blah. 


I seemed to be pretty comfortable drawing at my work table. Scale is everything, and the extra soft vine charcoal I had been using at my easel feel too clumsy for tabletop drawing. In casting about for alternatives, I came on carbon pencils. Like graphite pencils, they are graded from soft to hard, but they are matte black like charcoal. And with a good sharpener, it's possible to get a very fine point on them. They are well-suited to smaller scale work, and I can get a great range of values with them.


Sometimes I get really lucky--this has been one of them. I began creating small pictures out of necessity, and find myself now in the middle of a series of drawings. There is absolutely nothing better, and since I began these smaller drawings, one has flowed into the next with such ease and joy. I feel full of ideas and have had little time for much besides drawing and teaching since early April. 


Hoping to continue the flow, and going off now to start some sketches for the third blind mouse.

In early January I received an email announcing that I had been nominated to create an alchemical vessel for the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts annual Alchemical Vessels fundraiser. Very high profile, this event has featured the work of 125 artists each year and provides an opportunity to have my work seen by a large group of collectors and critics. The theme of this year’s alchemical vessels is “What helps you heal?”


Delighted to be invited, I shot back an acceptance. And then panic set in. In previous years, the vessels were lovely, matte ceramic bowls. This year we transform a bass wood cigar box into an expression of healing. Yikes.


A commercially produced craft box, this one is roughly finished with cheap hinges and fastener. Before anything else I took the hardware off and filled the screw holes with wood putty. Now I have two open boxes. The world’s my oyster and I can do anything with them that I want. Including discarding them altogether. More yikes! There are too many choices.


I spent the next three weeks trying to figure out what to do with those box halves.


  1. A box based on one of my favorite poems, "Hope Is the Thing With Feathers" by Emily Dickinson.  I began a series of series of drawings of birds. Birds singing and silent, birds on branches, birds on the ground. If there is a bird inside right, should I put the poem inside left. How do I render the bird? I don’t want to paint, that’s not what I’m doing these days. Hmmm. Draw the bird on paper and decoupage it to the box. And then what put on the front and back of the box? Ah, maybe the box hangs on the wall—bird above, poem below. Hmmmm. Maybe the bird is inside the box, I drill a peephole on one side of the box and glue it closed so you peer through the hole to see the bird. But it’s too shallow for that to really work.
  2. No, no, the bird is wrong. I think a rooster and a chicken—some of my favorites. But again, the problem of how to render them. I could do pastel drawings, but they’d need to be covered with glass or plexi to prevent smearing. Prints of my drawings decoupaged to the box? Hmmmm.
  3. How about gluing small wooden drawing dummies into the box. Make them hold hands or interact. They fit perfectly! But I’m not into sculpture right now, and I’m not sure what it would mean anyhow. Hmmmm.
  4. I have a series of paper maché dresses on little hangers that I made several years ago. They are all the same shape and painted in oils to represent dresses from my childhood. My favorite is Mary Lou’s dress—another go-to image for me. And it fits perfectly! But it only fills one side of the box. I could discard the other. I could mount the one half of the box on another piece of wood. But what further embellishment that makes sense conceptually and supports the idea. No idea. Hmmmm.
  5. And so, after about 21 days of sketching and turning these box halves over and over, I put everything aside and sat down with a piece of paper to make a list. For me healing is wholeness—a feeling of balance and completeness. I identified four elements to that feeling though there are probably others as well. Hope, Love, Play and Creative Work. Hope is reflected in the Beatles’ song “Blackbird” about transcending the dark black night to arise and be free. I have been drawing charcoal blackbirds with raven heads and human bodies of late and decided to draw four of them on the box. I did some experiments on scrap wood and found a combination of charcoal and fixatives and lacquer that seems permanent.  And so I covered Hope with the theme of the song, Play because what is goofier than putting animal heads on people, and Creative Work drawing and solving problems. For Love, I used seam tape and buttons from my late mother’s sewing box to create the hinges and to decorate the box.


I am deeply grateful for the challenge and the opportunity to stretch my wings and learn something about myself.


The holiday tsunami is over and I have one week of classes under my belt. Time to clean up the studio. This gets done very infrequently and I hate dealing with the thick layer of dust that pastel and charcoal leave behind. As well as my penchant for not putting things away when I'm done with them. I even got around to repairing the easel. So here it is, cleaned up--sort of--for the moment. 



And now it's time to think about my next piece. I think it will have something to do with Emily Dickinson's poem "Hope is the thing with feathers".


In the spring and summer of 2014 I was a contestant in a tongue-in-cheek reality competition at the Brentwood Arts Exchange. To my surprise, after three elimination rounds, I had won it and was crowned Project America's Next Top Master Artist. The win was lovely, and came with a check and a solo show at Brentwood in September 2015. I had to supply my own tiara.


Brentwood director, Phil Davis, encouraged (insisted?) that I step outside my comfort zone of colorful, pastel paintings and do something bigger and more dangerous for the show. 


I stressed for several months over what that could/would be and how I'd execute something new and big. I began with this diptych, The Witch and the Horseshoe (below).


And then a triptych of The Juniper Tree (below). From left the panels are: My Mother, She Killed Me; My Father, He Ate Me; and My Sister, She Gathered My Bones.


Phil wanted me to do a really large piece onsite as well. My studio practice is  solitary. I work out problems alone, without scrutiny. If a piece is failing, I toss it in the recycling—everything that makes it out my studio door is finished to my satisfaction. And suppose I couldn't finish it in the three weeks allotted to show installation? The whole thing seemed fraught and doomed.


I went on vacation in July with the intention of sitting by the side of a lake and figuring out what and how I was going to create a piece of public art at the end of August. And thankfully, while I doodled in my sketchbook, I had the idea for The Bloody Battle (below). It's the scene from a Grimm's tale called The Wren and the Bear in which the four-footed forest creatures square off against the flying ones. The epiphany was to use friends and family as models for the bodies and crown them with appropriate heads. 



On Friday, August 21 we stapled a 10' sheet of drawing paper to a long wall at Brentwood. On Saturday, August 22, armed with charcoal, stumps, kneaded erasers,  iPhone tuned to old rock and roll, and a stepstool I started drawing. I worked from upper left to lower right to control the fall of the charcoal dust and to keep from smearing what I've already finished with the side of my hand.  


And as I worked the miracle happened. I began to get into the groove, meeting the challenges of the myriad textures, joyfully smearing charcoal along the paper to create a gray, watching the dust lift off the paper and float. The next two weeks were blissful. I stood there for 4-6 hours a day, and could not wait to get back the next morning. It was finished in two weeks. I think this piece has been a game-changer for me. What that means  is not yet clear, but I know that, for the moment, I am stuck with black, white and gray. No color for me, thank you. And I am thinking hard maybe trying out a studio space away from my home. 


It feels appropriate that a piece I stressed over so much and which felt like a battleground for me in some ways would be about a battle. 

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