Catherine Ellis has lived her whole life in art. Onto her juicy canvases and papers, she spills out her Southern Gothic family history—abstractly, since she prefers to keep its dark secrets in the dark—her days spent sympathizing with furiously breaking waves off the coast of Maine, her stubborn love of jazz and abstract expressionism. She likes calling herself an abstract expressionist because, for her, "this stuff is about expressing your uh!," she grunts, speaking from the gut in her husky, Boston-accented voice. (She says she came to Seattle 15 years ago "unda much duress.")
"People think abstract expressionism is over, but that's crazy," she says. "Things got too cerebral. But your guts, your internal life, that's not over. I don't know why everybody gave up. I don't think they were in therapy long enough. Ha!" Her voice punctures air. There's nothing falsely reassuring about it; you have the feeling it cannot lie. You could listen to this voice for hours.
Visiting Ellis's Magnolia studio is a treat. She'll tell you she's become less tumultuous, "more pacific," since moving from Boston 15 years ago—"It's like, what do I do after anger?" she says, laughing—but, thankfully, she hasn't become smooth. She paces the floor, takes a bite of pastry, keeps talking, and drags out a 15-year-old, 11-by-6-foot black-and-white painting of a crashing wave. If you didn't know it was based on (and named after) a wave, you could see it simply as a very fine explosion of painterly actions ranging from squirting and squeegeeing and knifing and blowtorching to the occasional traditional brushing, with chance and calculation nicely balanced. In name-dropping art terms, it's a Pollock drip, a Motherwell sweep, a Klein study in contrast, a Louis stain, a bumpy Kiefer, and a Warhol Rorschach all rolled into one. There are other big works, too, but they're vividly colorful. One was made after Ellis and her now-husband broke up early in their relationship; it's called No Hard Feelings. It's a volcano erupting.
Chinese calligraphy, sumi ink, crayons, street rubbings, collaging, more acrylic and oil, bits of melted glass, wax, watercolor, crow feathers picked up off the ground, four-leaf clovers ("clovahs")—that's where you go after anger. Ellis was trained traditionally, studying art at Bennington College in Vermont, which just means she knows how to break the rules. She works in two formats, large (downstairs in her studio) and small (upstairs). She likes the larger works because they boss her around and don't let her get control; the smaller ones magnify her problems so she can learn from them. She's quick and no-nonsense about admitting when she doesn't know what to do next on a painting, or when she doesn't like a certain area she's painted. When she gets it right, it's a combination of planning and happenstance. "It's the surprises that keep me going," she says. And she continuously makes room for them.
A certain small work stands out: It's in tender pastel colors, like a scene by 19th- century French domestic pastoralist Pierre Bonnard (who favored featuring his soft-skinned wife in their bathtub), but on the lower left side is a medium-sized hole with blackened edges where Ellis took a blowtorch to the paper. Black smudges in the midst of the pretty purplish field are part flowing calligraphy, part uncontrolled outburst. The conflict of the painting is not depicted; it is happening right there on the surface. The painting is abstract in that it doesn't picture anything except its own field of incident and color, yet it is literal in that everything that happens is right there in front of you. ("A friend of mine likes to say that abstractionists have the most literal minds," Ellis jokes.)
Maybe the painting contains Ellis's secrets, but it is also its own secret, whispered directly to you as you look. Most of all, it is the product of an openness and an ethic, a mind allowing whatever happens paired with hands that can't help making a lifetime's worth of paintings. As Jacob Riis once said, "When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow, it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before."