Ellen Lanyon, (born 1926, Chicago, IL) received her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; and MFA from the University of Iowa, and The Courtauld Institute University of London, UK. Lanyon’s work has been the subject of eleven museum exhibitions, including the Smithsonian, and seventy-five solo exhibitions. She is the recipient of numerous commissions, grants, and awards. Having taught for forty years at universities and art schools, Lanyon is now a retired Associate Professor of The Cooper Union, New York, NY.
Pitters and peelers and clamps oh my. Or perhaps a dissector, separator, gripper? A visit to Ellen Lanyon’s current exhibition is reminiscent of an Edgar Allan Poe tale with a bit of psychological magic. Sparked by the discovery of a book by Poyet, Magic Experiments, in the late 1960’s, Lanyon found inspiration from the illustrations that doubled as magic tricks and physics demonstrations. These drawings were technical; the subject matter obscure. At this time, Lanyon abandoned the figure and took up the object as subject.
Lanyon is the first to admit she is an obsessive collector: her NYC studio is filled with vintage mechanical devices, taxidermy (her coyote is the studio watch dog), and paintings on the walls (salon style) by Chicago friends Ed Paschke, Michelle Stuart, Gladys Nilsson, Christina Ramberg, Philip Hanson, Robert Barnes, and Edward Plunkett. Joan Mitchell left a Tiffany lamp in Lanyon’s care and later abandoned it. Her collection of objects and ephemeras became characters and narratives of their own. Lanyon’s creed: Necessity=Imagination=Invention.
Lanyon always wanted to be an artist. Her grandfather came from Yorkshire to work on the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and also worked on the 1933 Century of Progress. He presented Ellen with his drawing materials at age twelve. At an early job she produced exploded view drawings of machine parts; later she received a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute.
A visit to the Everglades awoke an interest in ecology, global warmth, and the impact of man. Lanyon became preoccupied with the environment; the natural world vs. human intervention. Objects and mechanical devices remain a fascination and she juxtaposes these manmade implements with botanical or rock formation backgrounds, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions of how environment and machine coexist.
Q: You have a rich history with Chicago. What are some highlights that make you claim this city as your own?
A: I was born on the South side, (Englewood and Woodlawn) and attended public school (Wadsworth & Hyde Park). My parents moved in my sophomore year to Ravenswood and I finished my education at Roosevelt High. I took my BFA from SAIC and, except for three years spent at Iowa and abroad, I lived permanently here until 1985—age 59. I would say that qualifies me as a true Chicagoan. I’ve participated in many, many annual Chicago and Vicinity shows and consistently have been represented in Chicago galleries from 1946 to the present. I now have a small condo in Lincoln Park and spend a lot of time participating in art events here.
Q: In 1999 you were awarded a commission for Chicago’s Riverwalk Gateway Ceramic Mural Project. What was the inspiration for this?
A: The senior Mayor Daley had favorite Chicago River Bridges; Richard Daley Jr. wanted to beautify the river and its banks with artistic parkways. He had the Department of Transportation commission Skidmore, Owings and Merrill to create a galleria on the south bank of the Chicago River—under the Outer Drive Bridge—and I was commissioned to create ceramic tile murals. I decided to honor the Daleys by telling the story of the discovery and development of the river through the 18th and 19th centuries as bridge design and water traffic changed. The murals also acknowledge Burnham, the Museums, and the current reclamation of the river for recreation.
Q: What motivates you to keep making art?
A: Perpetual curiosity and discovery of subject matter.
Q: Do you have a mentor(s)?
A: Giovanni de Paolo, de Chirico, Magritte, Dorothea Tanning, Kaye Sage, Alice Neel, etc.
Q: Discuss the joys and challenges of living with an artist husband.
A: Roland Ginzel was and remains my good friend. We worked as parallel but diverse artists; we supported each other with incomes and careers, keeping separate studios and, in later years, different domiciles.
Q: How were you able to juggle studio time with raising a family?
A: Each demanded and received equal time and attention without any prescribed programming. My two children contributed enormously to feed my imagination and they supported my need for time to create. As adults, they are both very creative individuals. My son Andrew is a very successful sculptor having had many public art commissions, and my daughter Lisa is a
skilled designer, contractor, and humanitarian.
Q: How many hours per week now are devoted to artmaking? Art administration?
A: That is never the same and an impossible question to answer. Once in the studio, I work 12-15 hours in a stretch. Then, take a day a week to work with a studio/computer-smart assistant.
Q: You split your time between Chicago and New York. How has each city contributed to your career?
A: Since I have exhibited in galleries—in both NYC and Chicago since 1946—I have never even thought about it nor have I ever had a problem. I have always worked through the galleries and have been lucky enough to be supported by them without conflict. Critics in both cities have been generous and I believe in keeping as current and connected as possible.
Q: What gallery representation do you currently have?
A: Valerie Carberry Gallery and Printworks Gallery in Chicago, and, in part (group shows), with Pavel Zoubok Gallery and the Adam Baumgold Gallery, both in NYC.
Q: Do you see any trends in how art is sold today? How has that affected you?
A: Art Fairs seem to be a partial boost for some dealers but the real business is carried on in the galleries. I find that, in order to make sales in this slim economy, dealers are giving bigger discounts—20 & 30%—and that in turn affects the artist’s income which is usually 50% of any realized sale. It is not a good time.
Q: What teaching positions have been the most rewarding for you, and why?
A: All of them because I like to teach. My longest tenure was with The Cooper Union in NYC and there I had a chance to see students spend four intense years and emerge into the art world. Several have become very well-recognized professionals.
Q: What is the most important achievement or honor during your career?
A: I have received Cassandra, Florsheim and Fulbright Grants as well as two NEA Artists grants. Achievement Awards from the Women’s Caucus of the CAA and the University of Iowa. Three Honorary Degrees: The Chicago Academy of Art, Lincoln College and the School of the Art Institute. I consider them all equally important.
Q: What would you still like to achieve?
A: An autobiography based on Chicago art world history, a Guggenheim, and/or any other honor that might come my way.
Q: In the 1970’s in Chicago you founded WEB. Please describe WEB.
A: WEST-EAST-BAG (WEB) was founded by Miriam Schapiro when she was at Cal Arts with Judy Chicago and Lucy Lippard in New York City. It was an organization that encouraged consciousness raising, circulated a newsletter, held meetings, etc. I was asked to begin the Chicago chapter and did so. We had an active group here that held two conferences at Oxbow and, eventually, was the basis for both ARC and Artemisia galleries. The core of WEB eventually became the collective quarterly magazine Heresies published in NYC.
Q: What feminist organizations have you been involved in? Are still involved in?
A: WEB, Heresies, and the Women’s Caucus of the College Art Association.
Q: Did you face any discrimination early in your career? Later in your career?
A: In Chicago women were regarded equally with men artists and until I went to NYC I was not as aware of the great discrimination there. It evened out through the years, but men still dominate the gallery and exhibition scene there. Chicago still seems to be more tolerant and equally based. Many women find it possible to succeed here.
Q: Do you have any advice for emerging female artists today?
A: Work hard at whatever you do and keep politically active.
Q: Do you have any favorite Chicago women artists?
A: Gertrude Abercrombie, Julia Thecla, and all those established who are working and showing and dedicated to furthering the lot of other women in the arts.
Q: What book are you reading now?
A: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes; and NewCity and The Brooklyn Rail newspapers.
It was an honor to have the opportunity to interview Ellen Lanyon. She taught me egg tempera painting at the School of the Art Institute’s Oxbow in 1994, and continues to be my mentor and friend.