The Purposeful Mayonnaise

June 9, 2023: Interview with visual artist Seth Ellison

Seth Ellison 

was born in Beckley, West Virginia in 1984. His childhood was spent compulsively drawing Disney cartoons in preparation for his future career as an animator. 

Seth graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2009 with a BFA and then from the University of the Arts in 2012 with a MFA. He currently lives outside of Philadelphia with his wife and two children.

Website:   Instagram: @sethellison101

Tell us a bit about yourself... Where are you from?

I grew up in a small town in southern West Virginia, right on the border of Virginia and Kentucky. It was surrounded by farmland and was made up of a couple of hundred people, mostly low to middle-class blue-collar workers who were socially conservative. It was a place that was very repressed and oppressive, but also beautifully picturesque, which was always a strange contradiction to me.    

What is your earliest memory of creating art?

I became interested in art from the time I could hold a pencil. One of my earliest memories of creating art was doing a finger painting of a fish at daycare when I was three years old. I remember the daycare teacher running to catch my mother to tell her how well I did on it, which admittedly affected me because I craved that validation from then on. As I got older, I became literally obsessed with becoming a Disney animator and spent most of my time sketching cartoon ducks and mice. Disney, in a way, taught me how to draw, and those bones are still buried underneath my work today.  

When did you decide to pursue a career as a fine artist?

When I was about 18, I went with my family to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was having a massive retrospective of the British master J.M.W. Turner. The way Turner’s Rorschach-like objects shifted between representation to abstraction to material astounded me. That chance encounter changed my life forever.      

What themes and ideas are you exploring in your art practice?

Uncovering personal symbols are a very important aspect of my work, though I ultimately aim to tap into something universal to surpass my original intentions. Many of the symbols explore my experiences during the most vivid formative years of my life — when I “came online,” so to speak. My work also relates to my upbringing in the rural South, in which I interweave my own personal narrative within its sociological mythology. Beyond that, I don’t really like to explain away the meaning of my work and lead viewers to conclusions. The job of the artist is to continue to deepen the mystery.  

How do you come up with ideas for your work?

I essentially come up with compositions in one of two ways. The first is by employing the surrealist technique of automatic drawing — only with cheap paint and scraps of canvas. The second approach involves diving in without a plan — and praying that my flow state kicks in. Either is intended to “catch” reoccurring elements and to elude my own intellect to tap into my subconscious, which is far more spontaneous and inventive than my rational mind. 

What does it mean to you to be an artist in today’s world?

Working as an artist today is the same as 1,000 years ago. In my opinion, just being creative is a form of art, which is a subversive reaction to one’s environment — meaning everyone is an artist. If you mean a “professional artist,” it’s the same.  You just “react” much more often, and usually with more anguish when things don’t go as planned because of how seriously you tend to take yourself. 

What artist(s) do you admire? 

For anyone who has ever asked me, I’ve always responded by saying that I strongly identify with Philip Guston. Maybe it has something to do with my childhood affinity for Disney or his meandering artistic journey that feels so much like my own and the paths I’ve yet to take. Is it Guston’s relentless searching within the confines of a sheet of linen? Perhaps all of the above. I think it was that time he stepped into his exhibition and proclaimed, “This is a life lived.” That’s what painting is to me and what I aspire my own work to be. 

In an ideal world where money or time is not a constraint, what is your dream project?

My dream project is to fully unearth myself — or in other words, fully explore the limits of my subconscious mind. To accomplish this, I would just keep doing what I’m doing now. However, if there were no constraints on time, materials, or limits in working space, I could essentially move through my evolution as an artist much faster. 

Tell us about the future...

I have several shows going on right now, and a solo of new work slated for this Fall in New York City. You can follow me on Instagram to keep up with my misadventures (@sethellison101). Other than that, what can I say? All I can do is keep plugging away and hope someone out there gets a jolt.  

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