Meet a NYFA Artist: Ellen Wallenstein
Editta Sherman, b. 1912, NYC (2009)
NYFA speaks with 2008 Photography Fellow Ellen Wallenstein.
NYFA: What makes your work like no one else’s?
EW: I tend to shoot long term documentary projects that mesh into the fabric of my daily life. I make photographs and one-of-a-kind artist books which contain my photos, collages, and words. I have a very strong interest in history – I studied art history in college, taught myself photo history when I began to teach. I know that looking at all that imagery has affected my work. I see that an interest in Early Netherlandish paintings influenced my palette and subject matter once I began to shoot in color.
NYFA: What project or idea is on the edge of your horizon right now?
EW: For the last two years I’ve been making portraits of older people in their homes and studios, with an object that is precious to them. I’m photographing people over 80 who have contributed to our society in small and large ways. I feel this is going to be my life’s work.
This project grew out of a previous work, “Opus for Anne: A Still Life”, for which I was awarded my NYFA Fellowship. After my friend Anne died, I felt inspired to reach out to more people of her generation. Starting with my mother and her circle, I then asked friends, relatives & colleagues for suggestions and introductions. I’ve been led to persons I admire in the larger public world of Arts & Sciences.
I plan to produce an exhibit and a book (tentatively titled “80 Over 80: Accomplished & Admired”) in a year or so. I’m about a third of the way there; I have an ongoing list of people to contact.
NYFA: How has your practice or work changed in the last three years?
EW: Since my work is reaching a larger audience, I’d like to use that platform to inspire others. My current portrait series pays attention to our elders, especially the generation that grew up between the two World Wars. As they enter the last phase of their lives, they deserve to be respected, celebrated and remembered. I am much more focused on long-term goals and projects, and have been making more socially relevant work, compared with past personal adventures. I think the strongest art comes with practice, from a place significant to the heart but outside of the ego.
NYFA: Where did you grow up and how did it affect your work, if at all?
EW: I’m a fourth-generation Native New Yorker. I grew up in Manhattan, in Washington Heights; I visited The Cloisters very often as a child. I attended Hunter College High School which was located at 68th Street & Lexington, so as a teenager, I’d go to MoMA and the Met after school. The late 1960s was an exciting period to grow up in, as a woman and as a future artist. I was introduced to photography at that time, which I remember taking to like the proverbial duck to water. My father took a lot of snapshots, and we had an archive of old albums from both sides of my family, which jump-started my interest in photo history.
NYFA: How do you balance your work and your life?
EW: I’m a teaching artist – I make a living as an Adjunct Professor of Art, which directly affects my own work. I teach Photography and Book Arts. So I am constantly practicing what I am preaching and vice versa. I get a lot of energy from exchanging ideas; I love throwing out an assignment and seeing how different individuals solve it, or brainstorming together to come up with a better solution. Part of what I try to teach is what I need to learn – patience, and overcoming fear and procrastination.
NYFA: Do you have a dedicated workspace? If so, what is it like?
EW: I work out of a tenement in the East Village; literally untouched, like a Jacob Riis photo. It’s a magical place with great energy; the Muses visit whenever I am working there. I use the space to make books, boxes and collages, to meditate, and to prepare teaching materials for classes.
NYFA: How has The NYFA Fellowship impacted you?
EW: I have to say the biggest impact of the NYFA fellowship was to bolster my confidence in myself as an Artist. I had been grappling with issues about success, and the NYFA award came along to remind me that my work was significant. The recognition is very sweet, especially after many decades of making artwork. I have a renewed sense of pride in my accomplishments and a more optimistic outlook for the future.
For more information on Ellen Wallenstein, visit her website.