Ellen Von Wiegand Interview

by Stephanie Williamson (www.artschoolzine.wordpress.com) Twitter: @artschoolzine @art_babe

Today we are exploring the world of delicate yet painstakingly detailed lino cut printmaking with Ellen Von Wiegand. Her prints tell stories of the female experience, in a highly illustrative manner. Ellen describes herself as a shy and introverted British based artist and Art History Graduate; and in our interview she opens up to us about the rituals of linocutting, how she reconnected with her art after a post-degree hiatus and what inspires her to keep creating. 

How did you discover your talents and love of lino cutting?

I have long been attracted to the aesthetic of linocut, and I decided years ago that one day I would learn the craft. My background is in Art History and I have always drawn and painted throughout my life, though following university I ceased to create anything for several years. The absence of my own art practice during those years began to eat away at me, and I finally picked up the linocutting tools at the art store. It soon became an obsession of mine, and I think any talent that I have is more about persistence than anything else. With every block I like to experiment with a new technique for creating tone and texture - which I know may or may not work. In order to improve you have to take regular risks. 

On your website you describe yourself as shy and introverted, do you think these qualities are reflected or explored in your work?

Yes I do. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but when I think about the connection the ties all of my pieces together I suppose it is the search for the self. I realise now that for a long time I let myself be smothered by more outgoing, strong-willed personalities, and because of this I’ve had to revisit the way I view my own identity in an attempt to be more grounded in it. A lot of my compositions contain solitary figures engaged in contemplation, while the Collective Identities prints show how identity can be influenced by association to other people, cultures, an idea, or a cause. 

Questions of identity even carry over into my commission based work. So much of who we are is determined by our relationships. What I attempt to do with my custom prints is to work with people to celebrate a treasured memory that they carry with them involving the people who are most important to them. These experiences are the narratives that make up a great deal of our sense of self. 

What do you find so special about the ritual of tools and technique involved in the printing making process?

I think this has to do with nostalgia coupled with a persistent desire that I have to simplify. Although linocutting is just over a century old, woodcutting dates back many hundreds of years, and there is something about it that feels like going back to basics. Also, because the medium is restrictive in nature when compared to painting, it forces you to think differently and creatively about how to produce a variety of forms, tones, and surfaces. This is always a delightful challenge for me. I am also drawn to block printing’s origins as a practical tool and it’s humble consideration as a craft. 

How would you describe the style of your work?

I think it has evolved a bit over time, but I like to work with a combination of large areas of solid ink to create light and shadow, and smaller areas of texture to achieve the effect of different surface patterns or tonal variety. Meanwhile I attempt to create compositions that are representational, but which must be stripped down and simplified because of the limits of the medium. There is also something about creating figures in solid black ink that periodically reminds me of the silhouette characters found in ancient Greek black-figure pottery. 

What artists have inspired & influenced you to create over the years?

The foremost influence has been my father Robert Holmgren. He is a successful photographer who is constantly in search of unique compositions within his everyday environment. Growing up with him has trained my eye to seek these out for myself. For many years I was alert to this kind of gentle beauty or unusual juxtaposition without creating anything from it. 

Meanwhile my initial interest in linocut came from my exposure to the basic yet powerful carvings of the  German Expressionist artists. It was this group of artists who, during the first decade of the 20th century, were the first to use the medium when they began to substitute lino for wood in their block prints. More recently I’ve fallen in love with the linocuts of Richenda Court and Gail Brodholt. 

Tell us more about the themes you explore in your work and why you choose to explore them?

I’ve been working primarily across three series in addition to my commission based work. The first series, Stripped Bare, came about because of my enjoyment of drawing the curves of the human body. However as I created the compositions I realised that there was something reflective about each of my figures, which I chose to show in a very natural, imperfect manner, and who seemed to be lost in thought. For me this evoked my own tendency to meditate over my insecurities and fear of vulnerability. To be stripped bare is to be unguarded. 

Reflections on Transience is also highly introspective. This series is born of my tendency towards nostalgia and worry, and my effort to combat these bad habits by becoming present in the moment. I use shadow, light, and moments of subtle beauty to express a desire to redirect our attention towards the now.

Finally the series Collective Identities focuses on what it means to belong to a tribe. It came about because of my love of people watching in a city like London, where the cultural, religious, sexual, political and psychological identities coexist while remaining very much separate. I am interested in both the visual interest of these groups and the layered meanings behind their formation. The subjects I choose for these are mainly women, and are selected both from my own observation of the city streets, and from stories of women with complex cultural, religious, or value based identities have the potential to put them in jeopardy. 

I have noticed a lot of the visual narrative of your prints revolve around women, often lone women. Would you say you are exploring the female experience to an extent with your work?

For many of these I think the women in my prints are stand-ins for myself, and by extension other women who find strength in their own individuality. Meanwhile in Collective Identities I am interested in women as a subjugated group while attempting to display their innate resilience and fortitude of spirit. 

Please tell us more about your creative process? (Sketchbook to printmaking) 

Generally I begin with an idea for the subject, and then I either do image research through the internet or take my own pictures to work from. I frequently reference a variety of images and then create a unique composition selecting elements from different pictures and combining them in a pencil drawing. Once I transfer the image to the block, I then trace over the drawing in black pen and carve away all of the negative space leaving the black areas in relief like a stamp. I then roll the block with ink and print by hand by laying a sheet of paper over the top and applying pressure with a baren. It is a complex process that takes several days of solid work to complete. 

What are some of your favourite galleries and exhibitions right now where you are based? 

Since I’ve begun to make prints I generally seek out shows with great printmaking. The other day I attended the London Original Print Fair for instance, where there were some terrific linocuts on display by the Grosvenor School of printmakers and the artist Pascale Hemery among others. I also love to visit local artist studios or attend small print-studio and graphic art exhibitions around my home in South London. The Bankside Gallery next to Tate Modern is also a regular stop of mine. I often pop in after a trip to the museum to sift through their stacks of prints. 

The majority of your work is printed in black and white, can you tell us a little more about how you choose your colours to print?

I have always been interested in line and form, and I like the challenge that a simple black and white print presents to use creative mark-making rather than colour to produce the information in the scene. Other compositions are better represented in colour. Though to make a colour print is slightly more complex, as it involves carving two or more blocks and creating multiple impressions one on top of the other.  

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