“Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt”– Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
It is as if Immanuel Kant is aptly describing the emotive and aesthetically captivating works of Ellen McDermott.
Based in Ireland, Ellen is a conceptual photographer who originally embarked on a career as an oil painter, and with progression used photography to assist with painting thus furthering her love for photography. It was then that the infusion of her talent as a painter unfolded. Her pieces are both beautiful and emotive. They also encapsulate and reminisce on events that may have colored her life and her unique interpretation of it and how sacred the perception of life is. Her submergence of color and imagery is hypnotic, encapsulating unique portrayals of life. Her pieces are interpretative as using nature itself as a canvas to explore the human sentiment. Other pieces may be depictions of life and the stage we are at in our society and how it hinders our progression in this relatively young nation.
I posed some questions to Ellen to delve further into the mind and personality of this exceptional artist and woman.
What does art or photography and its significance mean to you?
I am and always have been an artist. It’s how I define myself, it’s what I would do even if I didn’t get paid for doing it. My artwork brings me to the here and now. The hours pass like minutes and before I know it its 4AM! I have a completed work of art and surprised look on my face when I notice what time it is! Being creative is not something I have to try hard at and I find myself very much driven by seeing what I can do rather than by showing what I can do. I am always pushing myself to do something I think I may not be able to do by trying a new process or pushing past something I have never done before.
Can you tell me more about your specific style?
Style is something that comes with time. You don’t pick a style; it picks you and takes shape as you become more aware of yourself, your work, and your abilities.
Do you find that with your particular type of style it can push the boundaries of your imagination?
Yes, I do. I usually start with a general idea of what I want to create and I start by getting the main idea across. As I add layers and textures and start experimenting, it takes on a life of its own and kind of creates itself. The undo button is the thing I use most while editing and often times something beautiful is created when I choose the wrong paintbrush or use a wrong layer mode. The hardest part is knowing when to stop. I don’t stop until it’s visually pleasing and cohesive in color and it expresses all that I want it to say.
When photographing the model I know exactly the shot I have taken and I can work with it. My shoots don’t take long at all, as I have meticulously planned before starting. I enjoy taking the shots especially if I get to work with models who are not self conscious or afraid to lose themselves in the moment. Models that take direction well and feel natural in front of the camera are not as easy to come across as you might imagine.
I love your work- The use of imagery and color, wistful delicacy contrasting with a dark thought provoking edge that’s my interpretation! What would you like the viewer to see in your mind? What compels you to portray these images?
There is nothing more beautiful to me than the juxtaposition between beauty and darkness. Between pain and pleasure. Of not knowing one without having experienced the other. I want the viewer to use my work as a mirror to their own imagination, to create their own story of what the image portrays. I can’t make the viewer see what’s in my mind so once I’ve created it and shown it to the world, it takes on other meanings. Their meanings, thoughts, and ideas are something I will never have control over.
Your work has been described as being “Enigmatic with a romantic sensibility that uses nature to explore the story of human emotion.” Can you tell me more?
Well, nice enough as that description of my work is I find it to be a very subjective statement. For example, I once overheard a woman at one of my exhibitions tell her husband that she wanted to leave because she found my work very upsetting. Especially the one of The Girl with Fish. I was happy when I heard her say that because I moved her. I want to create things that move me and if they move others that’s great. When I first started getting disparaging emails and comments on my work I was delighted not upset. I mean, who wants to make art that doesn’t stir any emotions, art that you walk past without a second glance… that doesn’t make you wonder or feel. Having said that, I don’t create with the thought of looking for a reaction from others. It’s interesting that the words Creation and Reaction are actually spelled with the exact same letters. Just the C is in a different place! I don’t create for a reaction I react by creating.
Some people try to classify your works into art or photography. In my mind there should be no place, for that and it should be taken as just a beautiful piece of art made by your individual freedom to express it. Do you think there is a constant pressure from art critiques to categorize your work, and do you find that limiting?
I sit at home and do my work. I use professional and amateur models. I use my daughters and I ask strangers that I find appealing if they will work with me. I also use stock images, digital camera, Nikon film camera and a portable background in a bag with a white sheet for the ground. I once worked in a gallery in Soho, New York using a small Sony cybershot and most, if not all, of my work was created within a mile of my house. I am a self-taught photographer and know everything about lighting because I had to learn to use natural lighting with a lot of patience waiting for the sun to come in or out! I don’t feel limited in any way by anybody. The only person who can limit me is me! They can name me whatever they like, a photographer, an artist, but I know who I am. I am me, sitting at home doing what I do best with what I have at hand. I admit I do love when people peer closer at my work and say, “I wonder if that’s a painting or a photograph?”
There is nothing I like better than the word “wonder”. It’s a small word but if you hold the thought of it, it’s possible to create big things from it! Today I’ve been wondering if it would be possible to have a piece I’ve started to work on printed out at 6’ 7” which is the height of Tony Strickland, Ireland’s best known man on the Irish art scene, who recently posed for me. Yes, I find wonder is great for releasing one’s own constraints.
You have described your work as cathartic and healing from difficult times, in an almost autobiographical sense. How important do you think it is to unleash such emotions?
I’m not sure how important it is for other artists to unleash their emotions so I can only speak for myself and say that for me, it is very important. We live in a consuming age of television, music, food, shopping, drinking, mobile phones, and endless information. In the midst of all this, I feel the need to create in order to find balance within myself, to give out instead to take in. I tend to repress things verbally and express them visually. It work’s better for me and that’s why I do it.
Tell me more about the concept behind iHeep?
iHeep was created with a lot of blood, sweat and tears (well okay, there was no blood but there was lots of sweat and tears) in April/May 2014. I built it from scratch and launched just before Christmas.
My husband died three years ago and I was left to look after our four daughters. Necessity being the mother of invention and knowing that an education was never a bad thing, I took a course in Business Development and Marketing. I was selling my work through galleries and commissions but knew that someone had to keep driving the bus and bring in the bucks and that I needed to add value with my art to bring in a consistent amount of money. iHeep does that by allowing me to work with international clients outside of Ireland, clothing designers, jewelry designers, music bands, CD covers, book covers, headshots for websites etc.
I turn my client’s ordinary images, which they send me by email, into high-end editorial images, fine art images, or personal use portraits as gifts for friends and family. This allows me to work in my zone of genius (and I use that term figuratively) and have three streams of income; commissions, galleries, and iHeep. A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do especially when she has four little chicks in the nest to feed, clothe and educate.
When you look at various stages of your art, can you see your progression or what artistic thoughts stand out when you look back from then to now? For example, is there a contrast as to what inspires you?
I can see the progression and the thoughts behind the images. I noticed that I’ve been using more color in my work than ever before. I don’t think I need Freud to tell me what that means. There is and always will be change in my work because I am always learning and trying new things. I’m glad there is more color in my work now. I moved into a new house before Christmas and I feel a little more settled these past few months… and I think my work reflects that.
I’m not sure I would call it a contrast as to what inspires me. It has not become strikingly different over the years and yet I wouldn’t say it was homogeneous either. I’m in the middle of creating a new body of work that I hope to exhibit in summer 2015, so only time will tell! I did two exhibitions with two collections of work last year and that’s a lot of work for any artist to produce in one single year.
You posted a beautiful picture on Facebook lately of a gay couple you met, and in my mind, some of your other works may be depictions of life and the stage we are at in our society, how dated interpretations hinders us and our progression as a relatively young nation. Do you think we are at the stage similarly seen in an Irish society, where we can push boundaries on topics and highlight them with such imagery? Alternatively, for you is it just a beautiful image that will nonetheless push boundaries especially with the current media coverage?
Both actually. My eldest daughter is gay and she is the most wonderful, beautiful, kind, and considerate person I know. I’m very proud of her and the life she is building for herself. She has a wonderful group of friends and a fabulous girlfriend for three years now and I admire her very much and her ability to be who she truly is without shame or apology. They say a picture speaks a thousand words. That’s what I want mine to do.
You said yourself it was beautiful but I didn’t make that beauty. It was already there. I just put light on it. It’s a truthful picture and I think as a society we are ready to accept the truth. And what is the truth in this matter? It is simply an understanding that what confines us at a minimum is learned thought. The catholic church (I give it no capital letters) being our moral guide has lost both its way and our respect and we are wise enough now to step over its lines of demarcation and walk out of their confines towards the horizon they swore to us was flat.
I wrote it out on New Year’s Eve like I always do. My plans for 2015:
Create a new body of work to exhibit this summer!
Balance my personal artistic work with my business artwork.
Implement SEO on my business high-end editorial website and market internationally.
Share through a free Webinar on 22 February 2015 my Photoshop tips and tricks (email firstname.lastname@example.org to get on the list)
I am also holding a Workshop on 18 April 2015 for 15 people on Photo Manipulation using software that I use (or participants can use their own). It will be held in Central London near London Bridge. We will cover everything from inspiration to editing. Email email@example.com to secure a spot.
Travel with my daughter.
To be happy.