Sketches, Orchards & Dark Ponds
Catalog Essay by Ed Krantz, October 2010
This exhibition explores the relationships and perceptual differences that distinguish Eleanor Spiess-Ferris’s drawings from her finished paintings and gouaches. Sketches can serve as singular entities, studies for larger works, or personal notations of something seen or remembered. Spiess-Ferris uses all three modes to develop and build her vocabulary of forms and symbols. Her purpose is to capture the spiritual bond revealed during her childhood. By exploring her psyche, Spiess-Ferris is able to express feminine perspectives and universal archetypes. The paintings and gouaches are a culmination of that finished product which is never finished but part of the struggle — the journey artists must endure to understand who they are and where they exist at specific moments in time.
The idea of transformation inherent in Symbolist art is altered in the work of Spiess-Ferris. While her figures, often women, are linked to an earthly world of roots, trees, leaves, and birds, they are also subconsciously distant. This detachment is a means for therm to discover their revealed selves and to create an opening to that authentic unconscious portion that dwells unheard and unseen, covered by women’s historically apportioned roles and society’s masks and conventions.
Her symbolic world originated amidst the development of her youth. Through experience, Spiess-Ferris became aware of the cycles of life and death, the dramatic conflicts and contradictions that describe survival, and the contrasting harmonic relationships relevant to the development of our conscious and subconscious selves. These associations are related to paradigmatic moments and events, relative to our cosmic unconsciousness.
Eleanor Spiess-Ferris’s childhood unfolded as a mythological drama. Episodes of her youth are colored by confrontations with death and subtle observations. These complex, multi-layered conceptions are expressions of her journey. The significance of these climactic moments are epitomized by her discovery of the iconographic roles of women — Mother Earth as the nurturing force of birth and growth, Lilith, who represents independence and will, and the innocent, yet curious Eve, among other feminine archetypes — which giver the artist rich themes and anthropological elements to re-contextualize.
Spiess-Ferris frequently played alone in a nearby cherry orchard. At the center of the orchard was a colossal cherry tree. In this Eden-like garden, Spiess-Ferris observed the cycles of life and appreciated nuances of the journey and the drama of nature’s lyrical songs of hope and destiny. Here transformation was a reality as pupa became caterpillars which evolved into butterflies, spiders captured their prey in complex deceptive webs, and tiny buds bloomed into beautifully scented flowers. Such observation allowed the artist to develop the foundation of her contextual and conceptual vision. her otherworldly reality is further embraced by the particulars of her birthplace: New Mexico, a land notorious for its sensational sunsets. The fire int he sky form each sunset carried its own spectacular presence upon the dying of each day. These visions take on symbolic meaning, building through childhood to become manifest in her work as an adult. These events were a means for developing individuation and acquiring that ultimate knowledge of herself and her place in the world.
These archetypes are evident in the sketch, “Two Women and Julie.” While the drawing implies three different women, the visual dynamics, psychological profiles and focal distribution of forms denotes that two more personalities are part of Julie’s character. The interaction of interlocking forms, the sweeping position of various body parts and the distinct expressions representative of specific female prototypes are suggested by Julie’s contemplative consideration of these sides of herself. The drawing functions like a sketch, yet emerges as a finished work. The finished exquisiteness and expression of Julie’s face and breasts stabilizes the poignancy of her internal gaze. Other elements of the drawing are in a state of constant flux, directing your eye across the plane to related forms along the obscure background. The viewer reassigns the concept of stability to various forms based on the imaginative way we attend to the aspects of visual incompleteness. This phenomenon of adjusting alternating states of feminine character is like the rush of wind as vague, nuanced wisps presenting the other original selves latch onto Julie, yet do not distract us from the incomplete completeness of this ever-changing drawing. The work requires nothing while stating everything in its clever, grounded and reflexive state.
In “Sketch #2,” the head is depicted as the bulb of a tree, a silent siren communicating through colors, posture and the unknown language of birds. She is the essence of earth turned upside down, as the sky’s sanguine complexion coats the air. Spiess-Ferris evokes the squelching heat of summer and the death of fall as a distraught lyrical woman springs from the earth, an icon of catatonic immobility. Tough she evokes older growth and weathered experience, her place and state are uncertain, giving the appearance of neurotic doubt. Not committed to one location or state, the head is confused, unsure of what it wants or where it should be. The wall of dust in the background moves like a sandstorm behind her, piercing everything around it with stinging pain. “Island 2” presents a finished painting of “Sketch #2.” This must not be viewed as a translation to a larger scale, but seen as a separate entity, with its own character, perceptions, and planes of activity. We anticipate a sketch’s possibilities, take wonder in the imagination engaged by it incompleteness and contemplate its airy mysteries. Paintings need to be understood through their symbolic codes, by their realms of painted information and the technical continuity of their forms, along with the totality of their created existence. “Island 2” floats in dreamy anticipation, basking in a watery otherworld, full of quiet wonder and bright promises of joy. Bodiless, the head is perched atop bent, leafy stalks which hold it above the water, on top of the struggles of the world.
The poise of the flower-topped woman in “Winter to Spring” suggests living statuary with the visual twist of her calves and a demure look in the eyes. She is the coy breath of a flower opening under certain conditions — a fickle personage that requires pursuit, seduction and control. She represents a classic exemplar while balancing the world on top of her head and still managing a coquettish posture. She defines the seductive, polarized frozen coat of winter while implying a sensual thaw of spring.
Spiess-Ferris’s symbols are born from personal experience and an acknowledgment of ancient, primal rituals. Several works reference the Victorian tradition of saving tears in small glass vials, representing the remembrance and romantic bond between faraway lovers. This convention should additionally be understood as it relates to complex Jungian rituals and symbolic associative states. Those deep waters that Carl Jung associates with the unconsciousness are related to Spiess-Ferris’s imagery of dark ponds, created or enlarged by the tears of those who are faced with unresolvable dilemmas. Deep within the dark pools are reflective mirrors we must confront in order to see ourselves, to reveal who we are beyond the eerie water’s light, magnifying and exposing our fears and the weaknesses that initiation the masks that keep society at bay. If we can see ourselves for what we truly are, if we can accept ourselves without question and doubt, we can acknowledge the cosmic consciousness that unites us all. In “Tears,” the Victorian ritual of tear-saving may serve as a substitute for the arbitrary love of God. It may refer to that spirit that brings u salvation in understanding and acceptance when being courted by drops of emotion, the reality of the painful loss when we are closest to our Maker, burning with ultimate joy and dripping with profound sadness. This condition corresponds to the undifferentiated flow of acceptance, which elevates good and bad to unequivocated states. The line between them is so fine that we cannot always separate. This circumstance is obviously conditional. Such an accomplished subconscious delves into the authentic flow of nature and humanity and is capable of acting with ultimate confidence, reason, impulse and intuition.
The feminine fantasy in reality, myths of the integration of the ripeness of women and their connection to growth and of Mother Earth constitute a convergence of cosmic feminine consciousness as a primal seduction. This image relates to the vessel or conduit of the earth’s spirit, emanating morphological change. Aspects of birth, our origins, and how these related to the surrealist approach toward resolving our psychic dilemmas have a significant effect on our relations to our planet and selves. How all these aspects converge through the idea of the nurturing spirit of woman are a reflection of the comprehensive nature of Spiess-Ferris’s underlying approach to a personal and universal archetype of acceptance.
However, Spiess-Ferris’s work does not appear as a promulgation of the power of birth and woman’s godlike importance whose egocentric purpose is to serve as the perpetuators of humanity. Paintings, drawings and gouaches present an air of observational wealth and symbolic earthy occurrences. Her figures have their roots in rich, loose soil, allowing them to move, transform and conform to their evolutionary spirit and surreal selves. They embrace those areas of the world, and that primal intuitive brain they have ignored for so long. She addresses equal sides of heaven and earth.
Mircea Eliade, a well-known anthropologist states in the preface of his book, The Myth of the Eternal Return,
The essential theme of my investigation bears on the image himself formed by man of the archaic societies and on the place that he assumes in the cosmos. The chief difference between the man of the archaic and traditional societies and the man of modern societies with their strong imprint of Judeo-Christianity lies in the fact that the former feels himself indissolubly connected with the cosmos and cosmic rhythms, where as the latter insists that he is connected only with history.
This difference places contemporary society outside the cosmic influences — those earthly, hereditary connections and subconscious intuitions and impulses. Our ability to connect heaven and earth beyond our confused egos to the soul of our psychic and physical selves is minimal. Though Spiess-Ferris’s paintings and gouaches suggest a more literal reference to the process of observation and existence, many of the sketches intimate a more subconscious inner feeling, a direct spiritual link to the physical impulse underlying the natural, earthly impulse and flow connected to the pond.
Elanor Spiess-Ferris’s life is saturated with illuminated moments. She strives to maintain a spiritual interconnectedness, enhancing experience to a sublime state. Her skill and savvy in such matters is born from self-knowledge and a history of observational obsession that began as a child and matured with age.
– Ed Krantz
Elgin Community College