‘Phantasmagorical’ might be a mouthful to say, but luckily Ellen Jewett’s sculptures are easier on the eyes.
Ellen Jewett’s ‘Creatures from El’ sculptures posses the coveted quality artists strive for; her work reminds you of other artists’ work, but other artists’ work do not remind you of hers. Over the past seven years, Jewett has refined her style and developed an aesthetic, based on subdued colours and ethereal postures, characteristic of her collections. Her sculptures blur the line between realism, based on her sculpting precision and fantasy, which comes from her otherworldly arrangements.
Fantasy animal art has been known to go viral, with images of sculptures by Washington-based Beth Cavener Stichter and Japan-born Sayaka Ganz’s found material constructions coming to mind. But Jewett’s non-toxic polymers and cold porcelains convey a narrative intrinsic to their design and create something unmatchable.
‘A juxtaposition between fragility and burden… Labour and serenity.’ This is the idea behind Ellen Jewett’s ‘Tall Tigress with Lanterns’ sculpture, which- unlike most of Jewett’s creatures- stands on all of its legs. ‘The tiger is often seen as robust and ferocious’, she tells me, ‘but I wanted to make it feminine and delicate.’ With lightly painted stripes that complement its small frame, the tiger elicits pride from its tall neck and grace from its arched poise.
But the spotlight is on the darkly ornate carrier perched on the tiger’s back, supporting a collection of hanging red lanterns which accent the piece. Using a handmade metal armature, Jewett builds the carrier by twisting her materials into shapes. Its structure imitates a motif that is neither Persian nor lace-inspired- but somehow seems natural- as if the carrier is made of intricately woven branches. The artist considers this early one-off mixed media piece to be one of her favourite creations which helped her to ‘feel out what [she] really wanted’ in her career.
By glazing oil and acrylic paints, Jewett intensifies colours without losing her gloomy tone. ‘Pearled Pheasant’ boasts a palette ranging from cool blues and greens that emanate from slate grey pigments, which contrast against bursts of dusted pinks and burnt yellows. Its swerved body anchors the middle of this 13x4x19″ piece, with its wings extended and its tail feathers hovering the ground for support. The carefully terraced layers of clay achieve the effect of precisely moulded wings, which allow Jewett to shift through her colour palette fluidly.
In other pieces, Jewett says symbiotic relationships that portray ‘a subtle mutual dependence’, are an ongoing theme in her work, from the kaleidoscopic ‘Roosters’, to light blue and grey top and tailed ‘Twin Rats’. Jewett explains:
‘the pairings also have a subconscious element that is not at all random; each pairing of animal and animal, or plant and animal have a clear ecological connection to a common habitat or common history’.
Growing up in the tech-industrial Canadian town of Markham, as a child Jewett started sculpting plasticine dragons. Now, her clay-based dragons’ ornately designed wings and delicately constructed postures have the qualities akin to the magical animations of a fantasy film saga. But Jewett isn’t that big on fantasy. She says: ‘I wouldn’t consider the genre itself a source of inspiration to me… A lot of popular fantasy draws from mythology, folklore and the concept of wilderness… so there is definitely a relationship’.
She tells me her attraction to dragons is based on their limitless design possibilities: ‘They can have almost any blend of animal anatomy whilst still being ‘dragons’. They can also mean or represent almost anything; good, evil, benevolence, luck – they are really so open-ended.’ As for the fantasy film connection, the sculptor admits: ‘I’ve been asked since I was a child if I was interested in working in film. I have no particular objection to it, but it has never been a specific ambition.’
Her creative process stems from more than the living world around her; often drawing from emotions, colour schemes and textures that compel her to create. But most of all, Jewett gets her ideas by toying with her materials and ‘making whatever wants to be made’- an enigmatic practice which she says is ‘the result of full immersion in a process’. Jewett’s biggest challenge however, is finding the motivation to keep going as a freelancer and enduring the ‘mental gymnastics’ it requires. She tells me:
‘When you sculpt (or dance or play an instrument) for so many hours everyday, it is no longer something you need to conceptualise as an end product; it becomes your medium for conceptualising the rest of life.’
The intricate details and environmental consciousness of ‘Creatures from El’ seems to make perfect sense, coming from a sculptor who studied Biological Anthropology and Fine Art. But this was never her intention upon enrolling. She tells me: ‘I started selling sculptures in high school, so in some ways the freelance career predates my undergraduate training.’ After landing her first commission for a sculpted dog portrait, her next piece was a dragon.
‘I made [the dragon] to fit the exact dimensions of my high school’s kiln. It was very delicate, to the point that teachers asked me to consider not firing it for fear it would blow up. It fired just fine. I still have it.’
Her fearlessness -and not so subtle disregard for fire safety- aided in helping her to seamlessly transition from a graduate to a pro- a milestone that Jewett considers to be one of her most rewarding memories. After four heavily commissioned years of sculpting in her Ontario studio to meet the increasing demands for her ‘creatures’ via her online Etsy store, the artist has sold her work to people all over the world.
Now, she hopes to revert to more self-directed work in the future. As she explores new inspirations, there is hope for more fire-breathing dragons in Jewett’s upcoming 2014 collections.
Ellen Jewett is a 28-year-old freelance artist who lives and works in Ontario, Canada. She has a BA in Biological Anthropology and Fine Art from McMaster University and takes commissions internationally via her online Etsy store.
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