Artist of the Month: Ellen Nelson Turns Shoes, Bugs, Animals into Collage Art

Apr 3, 2014

What do platform sandals, moths, grasshoppers, and pig snouts have in common? All of them are prominently featured in the oil painting collages of Ellen Nelson, a local artist who has a flair for clutter - in a good way. 

Her process is pretty simple:

"I start with a few things in the middle - for the organ one I started with the two hearts and then I thought 'Well okay, what next? What would look good around that? How about a big intestine and then there's a space underneath here.' Spaces kind of materialize and then I put things that are the right color things that are right size - I kind of just fill it up and try to make it uniform," she says.

Born and raised in Kalamazoo, the 23 year-old is a newly-minted University of Michigan grad who is embracing her art degree to the fullest: she spends her days working in her studio on the fourth floor of the Park Trades Center.

She's also working on illustrations for an upcoming children's book project. Going the traditional post-grad route has taken a left turn, she says.

" I come here eight hours a day and just put out work. And now that I'm doing that, I realize that I don't want to do anything else," says Nelson. The summer before she headed to school in Ann Arbor, she left her mark in Kalamazoo when she was asked to paint a mural on the exterior of local business Ambati Flowers.

 "I knew that messing up was not an option," she says of the "ultimate summer job." That's kind of how I go in to things 'Ellen you're gonna DO IT,' you know?  That project alone helped me to improve my skills a lot, just getting to practice it."

Her undergrad years were peppered with outreach projects. She became involved with the Prison Creative Arts Project and taught inmates, and also helped plan elementary school art class for kids in Detroit.

In 2012, she received an international travel grant to spend a month in Italy drawing and studying. The temperature was nearly unbearable, she says, but her skill greatly benefited.

"The drawing class was when I kind of adopted this policy of if my first reaction is ugh it's going to be way too hard,' that means I have to actually do it," she says​. "Before then I was just kind of settling - 'Oh I'm just not gonna be the painter that I want to be' - and then afterwards I realized it's totally possible to really home this in," she says of developing her technique.

Nelson has also used watercolor and graphite, but is sticking to oils for her collage series, which came out of her senior thesis.

"It was meant to show how we're pretty much all the same on the inside. I figured I would kick off a new series with the best one from the old series, and continue on with the pile format 'cause I really like just going in and adding one thing underneath the first one underneath the second one and kind of just gradually filling it out," she says.

Her works are heavily saturated in deep bursts of color, yet retain a shiny pallor, complete with hard distinct detailing. By staring with one object, the piles build themselves out and before she knows it, a painting has emerged.

But she says that her work goes beyond just clumping piles of like objects together. 

"I've got a greater message that I want to get out with all of my works. It's not just esthetics. That's kind of the drive behind each painting And I guess that's another benefit to the pile method -it's just one thing at a time. I'll be like 'Oh, today I'm going to do worms - that was an exciting day.' Kind of one piece of the puzzle at a time and it's fulfilling finishing it."