Ellen Cornett

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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.


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