Featured Artist: Ellen Wong

Ellen Wong (2)
© Ellen Wong

The recipient of many grants and fellowships, including the New York State Council on the Arts Decentralization Grant Program, as well as a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Ellen Wong is an accomplished painter and educator whose works have been exhibited both in New York City and the Catskills, going back to the 1970s. Wong studied in the Art Department at Brooklyn College with Philip Pearlstein, known for reviving realist figurative painting in the 1960s. Pearlstein’s departure from Abstract Expressionism back then made him a renegade in the art world. It’s that kind of artistic sensibility and daring attitude that Wong learned from Pearlstein.

Wong herself was initially trained as an abstract painter, but in time she discovered that what she really wanted to do in life was landscape painting: “I noticed that every time I went somewhere I always brought with me my watercolors, and I always sketched where I was; somehow that’s how I got to understand, absorb or take in a new environment – I felt very sensitive to place,” she says. “And it was a good way for me to get to know a place. And I discovered that I had this desire to work outside, to work from life, and to work in watercolors, and that became in a way my primary medium,” she added.

Wong paints mostly outdoors, in the field, but she’s done some studio work as well. For instance, “Local Gets Personal,” a series of bluish-purple Jersey cows on Catskills’ farmland, shown at the Roxbury Arts Group two years ago, was done mostly in the studio: “When I’m outside I take in so much, and for that show I wanted a highly culled sensibility of these places, and so I did do a lot of work in the studio.”

On the other hand, her current show at Longyear Gallery in Margaretville “The Road Show,” on view till October 20, was done entirely in plein air. “The Road Show” includes twenty-five oil paintings, watercolors and drawings depicting Catskill Mountains’ scenery in various seasons, although green panoramas predominate. Most of the paintings were done over the past two years, but the show also includes a few older winter and fall pieces. The biggest painting in the show is a 24” x 36” oil on canvass called “Grazing on the Far Meadow on Rt.30 across from Lucci and Randy’s”. Lots of roads: “Autumn in Margaretville” (oil on linen), “Not Just Any Road, Hardscrabble Road” (oil on panel), “Driving Along Red Rock Road Find Farm” (oil on linen), and Wong’s favorite spot in Roxbury – “Foggy Morning, Briggs Road Along the East Branch” (watercolor). The creamery also has a special place in Wong’s collection. Included in this show are “Stormy Weather at the Creamery” (watercolor on paper), and “Rounding the Curve at the Creamery” (graphite on paper).

Artist Ellen Wong
© Ellen Wong

“Frederic Church, a student of the Hudson River School of Painting, was like a Paganini on a violin, he could do these amazing things. When I had a research grant, and saw some of his oil sketches – the view of the Catskill Mountains from Olana, those works to me are infinitely exciting, and one of the things we must do as landscape painters is to retain that excitement,” articulates Wong.

Wong started painting in oils, and admits that she never painted with acrylic, but loves the immediacy of watercolors and drawing. “What I paint dictates what medium I use. When light is a critical element, I just like watercolors because of their quickness of capturing that light. When solidity or form is important, I feel that oil really lands itself for that,” she explains. And, she continues: “I think these are the things that I struggle with, how to labor over a painting, and not having it looked like it was labored, because you don’t want to see someone’s labor, you just want to see that moment in a way.”

Wong has painted the Catskill Mountains’ scenery for the past twenty-five years, but has never gotten tired of it. “The challenge of working from life is a challenge that never ends, and that propels me in a way, and I look for different things. When I first came to the Catskills, I was most impressed by the extraordinary vistas, in the tradition of the Hudson River School of Painting, but nowadays what draws me in is mostly any road – driving on any road, and observing how the light and shadows fall on that road. Over time I think I moved from the majestic view of the Catskill Mountains to the more banal aspects of living here. And some of my paintings document things that are no longer here, like some of the buildings that I depict in my earlier paintings.”

Asked how she wants people to react to her paintings, Wong says that she wants them to be moved, but “I don’t want the work to be sentimental, and I don’t want it to look like a photograph either, although I work from life.” “I also like when people experience familiarity and recognition in the places that I depict,” she adds.

When asked how she deals with the ever changing environment when working on a specific piece, Wong says: “Sometimes the painting changes, and it’s ironic, because I’m looking to capture a particular place in a particular moment in time, but if you think about capturing a moment, there are hours and hours of work to get that moment. In a way, the painting captures the nature of the changing weather.”

The artist’s journal further edifies the process of creating new artworks: “To paint landscape is to be a poet, changing forms, states, colors, sitting by the waterfall in the morning, in the delicate shadow of a little seedling on a rock, the details, the subtle nuances of shadows, trying to deal with rushing waterfall, … how to paint, how to draw, it becomes a technical challenge, and it takes me away from the experience of nature,” Ellen Wong, landscape painter.

© 2014 Simona David