One In A Million... a million people live, work and play in upstate New York's Catskills region. These are their life stories... in their own words.
Series produced by Kent Garrett
Photo editing and website design by Ed Kirstein
Ellen Wong :
Don't Paint If You Don't Have To!
Ellen Wong Transcript:
When you drive into Roxbury, New York at 6:00 on Monday evenings, you’ll most likely hear Ellen Wong doing her Farm Hour show on WIOX radio. If not, take a right on Bridge Street and go up the road towards the Shepherd Hills Golf Course, and on the right you’ll probably find Ellen painting in her studio.
This is her story, Ellen Wong in her own words:
But I remember going to Ellenville, believe it or not, which is in the Catskills. I don’t remember much about it, but my grandparents used to rent a bungalow for the summer, and I think, you know, we would go up for a week. You know, there were funny experiences there. But, you know, that’s probably kind of my Catskill experience and hearing about it.
My uncle was a musician, a pianist, and he played in the summers at the Nevele. I don’t think I ever went, but I remember that’s how he met my aunt. She was there, and they met. He’s interesting because he was Tony Bennett’s teacher. He was his art teacher. He was his music teacher at Art and Design, and he said, I think you should leave the art and go into music.
Two friends had bought places in Andes. In fact, one of them ran the Slow Down for a while. They had come up here, and I came to visit. From various sources they said, if you love Vermont, you’re going to love Delaware County and, you know, Andes, Roxbury, Bovina. It’s just gorgeous. I remember walking in the reservoir. Probably you’re not supposed to. Strike that from the record. But it was very dry, and it was just like being on the moon. I just found it very beautiful, and so I decided to look for a place. Other friends, very dear friends of mine, had bought a one-room schoolhouse in Andes.
Q – Were you painting then?
I mean, I was an art major. You know, I was a studio arts major in college, although my mother made me, you know, take education courses so that I could make a living.
Q – Just in case, huh?
Yeah, she was from that generation. I mean, you know, maybe if she hadn’t my life would’ve been different, but yes, I was painting. I had a great painting teacher. I had Philip Pearlstein. He was a wonderful teacher at Brooklyn College. Brooklyn College at that time was extraordinary. But I was very young. I graduated at 19, and I remember all my art teachers tried to—my boyfriend used to pick me up—and they would dissuade me. You can’t have a boyfriend and, you know, be a painter. Meanwhile, they were hitting on every girl student. They were the worst.
Q – So how did the Catskills affect your painting?
Oh. Well, it totally—no, it totally, because what I was going to say was that when I used to travel I would always, you know, take my paints. But when I studied, it was, you know, you were an abstract painter, and Pearlstein was against the tide. He was a figurative painter. I had a wonderful painter, Bob Henry, not Robert Henri but Bob Henry. He was a young guy, and he was terrific. He was a great painter and also figurative.
Anyway, so I studied art, but what I really loved was not what you did in school. I mean, in a way it was just—I mean, I loved the opportunity to spend every day, all day in the studios painting, but, you know, I was still like very, I don’t know, you know, I was interested in my social life. I got married very young. You know, I was crazy.
But every time I would go travel, and we did that a lot, I would always draw or paint, and I would bring watercolors because it was much more accessible. I found that it was the way to experience a place. You know, I would just get up at 6:00 in the morning in Paris and sit and look out my window and just draw the streets below or, you know, in Yugoslavia or Ibiza. Wherever I went in the world I was always painting, and this was when I was very, very young.
When I came up here I think I was just so—I mean, I painted a little in Vermont, but my kids were really, really young and, you know, Steve was in the city during the week. He would come up on weekends. So I have a little sketchbook of many sketches that I did then in Vermont, and I think I was encouraged by then. It had nothing to do with my art education. It wasn’t trendy and it wasn’t, you know, current, but it was what moved me.
I think just there’s been a consistency in my whole life of being moved by a place, by where I was, and predominantly by nature. I don’t know. My life can be very frenetic, but when I paint in nature it’s almost like meditation. It’s something that I get, just the experience of painting. I think that’s something that I’ve really found here, and obviously as my kids grew up and got older I had more time.
Q – I mean, when you say you found it here, what do you mean? I mean, just the animals, the people, or what?
Well, I mean, I think it’s a supportive art community. I mean, I never had a show. I never tried to have a show. You know, I didn’t think of myself necessarily as a painter, but I painted. [laughing] You know, I was always drawn to that expression in a way, but I think when I came here, I find it a very beautiful place and it really nurtures something in me that just—you know, it’s not like I want to copy it in a way, but I want to be in it.
I think there’s a way of experiencing, you know, whether it’s, I don’t know, the light in the early morning when I wake up or just when almost all the light is gone. There’s a way of experiencing that that’s different than just kind of soaking it in. Somehow or other if I can steady myself and quiet myself and sit down, then I really become one with that in a very different way than, you know, just in life and just appreciating it. You know, I find that I can’t stop. It’s what, eight or nine. I think we started in the spring, and then we worked on the house.
You know, but thinking about it, it’s like, you know, 23 years probably. I find myself still moved by the same things and maybe even more so. You know, they mean a lot to me, and now they resonate with a working landscape. So it becomes small town life in a way, you know, seeing the firehouse Wednesday night, you know, lit up, this incredible light emanating and the engines and knowing that the people are in there kind of preparing for emergencies, or Roadrunner, you know, passing by and the light is on, it’s 8:00, and knowing that Norman is still, you know, fixing cars. I don’t know. It makes me want to paint that. I’ve forsaken a little bit the vistas and the grandeur. I mean, I think I was originally taken in by the Hudson River kind of school.
Q – So what are you doing now then? What kind of work?
Well, I mean, you know, it’s hard. I’m not a person who likes to limit myself. You could see by my palette and all my paints in there. You know, I love to draw. I’m interested in oil and the chemistry of paint and the process. When I paint in oils like my last show, which was last summer at the Roxbury Arts Group, that was like the most thematic, tied together show that I’ve ever had. I don’t know. It helped me to work in a certain way, and that was personal gets local. I realized that the world of farming, local farms, and people I had met, that all of that was coming—
Q – I mean, what was that show about for people who didn’t see it? I mean, tell me.
Sure. For people who didn’t see it, I think it was about this kind of really burgeoning awareness of community. I mean, it’s beyond the landscape in a way, and the landscape is most moving. It’s the interaction between people and the landscapes, so it’s the farmers who are growing food. You know, I want to celebrate that work, and I want it to kind of thrive. It seems like, I don’t know, I found myself wanting to paint that. I mean, I didn’t want to go out and maybe paint tomatoes, but, you know, the land, the land as it’s being worked in a sense. I mean, it’s the same, you know. I don’t know that it’s much different, you know, the Roadrunner shop or automotive repair. In a way it’s sort of life. I mean, I think if you believe in a local community, then it’s everything local.
So I mean, I think it was being touched by that expression and wanting to, I don’t know, wanting to see how it could take shape in painting. I mean, I ended up it was all oil painting and you know, sort of I don’t know. I had read this piece, this thing by Anselm Kiefer. You know, he said if art is just about beauty, then it has no content. I mean, it struck me because it’s something I think about, you know. I feel like I can make beautiful paintings, but is that what I want to do? I mean, that doesn’t move me, and yet I do want my paintings to be beautiful.
Q – But I mean, so it’s a combination of things, of beauty plus something else?
Yeah, I think there needs to be a content, you know, like something that you’re going for in a way, a subject matter that’s beyond that, you know, that communicates something. I mean, I think your art is reflective of where you’re at, and I think where I am at is in a place where I want to see everything endure in a sense that it’s so vital.
Q – Tell me about your, it’s a son, right, grandson, or is it granddaughter?
Oh, yes. I have a grandson.
Q – Now, how has that affected you and your art?
I mean, it’s taking up a lot of time, but I mean it’s made me—it’s funny, I was thinking about a series of paintings that are connected. I couldn’t believe how dark nursery rhymes really are.
Q – Really?
Well, I’ve been saying some of them to him. So I was thinking about, you know, maybe a series with a different kind of content, and that’s been circulating in my mind. But I’ve been watching him a lot, and I find I’m exhausted. I get home and collapse. So I have all this sort of art in me that’s bursting at the seams, and this is—
Q – Does he sort of inspire it, or does he sort of—?
Well, I mean he—
Q – How old is he?
He’s eight months old. I mean he inspires awe and wonder, and he brings me back to the time when I was raising mine. But I mean, I think it’s in a way the newness of his experience of life helps me to see it new and, you know, it’s an exploration together that I do feel. I mean, I haven’t painted it because it’s not something that you paint, but I feel like it’s definitely in the mix.
Q – It’s there. I mean, yeah.
Oh, yeah. No, just now, you know, putting my paints on a palette, like that’s the most frightening moment. You know, it takes me a long time to prepare a palette, probably almost two hours, and then it’s like oh my god, now I have to paint. There’s no excuse. You know, it’s a struggle, but I think he inspires me in a sense. It’s a sort of reawakening of wonder. But I have to say when I’m here I’m often in a state of awe and wonder.
Q – Now, how does the farm show fit into all this? I mean, that’s sort of—
Well, I know. It takes a lot of time from it, the farm show, and I took a writing class with Ev. I don’t know. I’m crazy. I think it’s all about, you know, a life and kind of what it means. You know, I guess I started doing the farm show out of an art project, which was a grant that I got to celebrate the dairy farmers. Getting to know them I painted their portraits and that was fun, but, truthfully, hearing their stories was the most powerful, their voices.
Then, you know, when I presented it to Joe, I said, ooh, I have something you could play on the radio. He turns around and says, well, you should do a farm show. I said, are you crazy? Like how, city me, born in Brooklyn and, you know, that’s so arrogant. Then I spoke to my farmers and they said, well, we don’t have time. You know, an advocate is a great thing to have. Joe said, well, if you don’t do it. Then I found out that Madeleine wanted to. So I’ve loved it. I’ve met extraordinary people.
Q – Last question.
Yes, I’m sorry.
Q – What do you want to be doing 20, 30 years from now?
Oh, well, I’d be happy to be alive. [laughing]
Q – When I come back for my second interview, what are you going to be doing?
Well, I’d be happy to be healthy, still biking and walking. Wow, you know, probably going to some graduation for Myles, my grandson, and maybe having more grandchildren and painting. Hopefully, being able to be here, you know. I think life is fragile, but I want to—
Q – I mean, I guess one doesn’t retire from painting, or does one?
No, I mean, I guess if it didn’t make any sense, you know. You know, I think, what is it, Rilke says, don’t write if you don’t have to. You know, and maybe don’t paint if you don’t have to. You know, I have friends that just wake up in the morning, what am I going to do today? Sometimes I get annoyed at myself. You know, wherever I go I have to think, how am I going to bring these paints?