Artist Interview: Ellen McMahill

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Our March art exhibition here at WAL Public Market lauds the residents and work created right above our space. Works of WAL will showcase art made by the people of the Warehouse Artist Lofts. I asked participating WAL resident and artist Ellen McMahill about her work and what its like living at WAL:

-Please tell us a little bit about your current work and influences.
In the last year I have really been able to bring together my painting technique which I have been working on for several years, my love for drawing and my vision of life, which is that we and everything are connected by the physical particles that are the substance of life and by our own energy and thoughts. I’m always looking at other artists’ work and am influenced most by graphic art and sci-di art for its imagining of worlds that go beyond what we already know.


From Within
From Within, Ellen McMahill
-Are you a fairly recent California transplant? Has living on the west coast affected your work in any way?
I moved to California in 2006 and it has helped me tremendously to make changes in my painting. I was in LA for over a year and was exposed for the first time to numerous galleries with original art as well as being able to study originals by master painters at the Getty.  Also, compared to North Florida, where I lived most of my life, California is so much more open to new ideas and lifestyles, that it inspired me to take my painting into a completely new direction.

In The Wildwood

In The Wildwood, Ellen McMahill



-On your website it states that although you earned your art degree in the 1970’s you didn’t take yourself seriously as an artist until you began painting in the 2000’s. Do you view the fiber work you did prior more as craft? In your eyes, what is the difference between art and craft?

I always love fabric and yarn so I took a class to learn simple weaving a few years after college. (This was a time when I had almost forgotten my artist self to put my first husband through law school and was making all my own clothes to satisfy my creative self).  The class was more about craft, making a simple frame loom and weaving a pattern to make a placemat or napkin, though an abstract piece was also an option, which I realized was what I wanted to do. After the class was over I had luck and bought a 6′ tapestry loom and taught myself how to weave images like woven paintings. I remember thinking one day as I sat weaving that what I was doing would be so much easier just to paint, but a little voice inside me said, “No, not yet.” So I kept weaving. During this time I joined Florida Craftsmen, a statewide organization with a gallery in south Florida, that promoted fine craft, this is where craft and art come together. I consider craft to be handmade items that can be useful such as baskets or furniture. Fine craft, or art made with the same materials and traditions of craft, is not usually useful except as art. For example, my tapestries were made to hang on the wall and would not have held up well as rugs. Or, I knew a potter who made vases that he then covered with barbed wire as one of his pieces in a show I curated at the museum gallery at Florida State University at the time I was Area Director for Florida Craftsmen.  When I was weaving all those years I didn’t feel as serious about creating art as I do now because I was too involved in my family life and then working at various jobs to focus on it as I needed to. Also, as you suggest I might have thought it was too removed from my idea of art to be what I wanted it to be for me and my creative future, though I participated in some gallery shows.



– Do you listen to any music or podcasts while you work?
I have always preferred to listen only to my own thoughts while I work or to just let my thoughts slow as I create while the world fades away.  I find that while I paint and draw on a canvas, allowing my intuition to be present without the influence of someone else’s words as in lyrics or feelings as in music, I am at my best place to create, or rather to channel the creativity from within.
Mysterious Life 4
Mysterious Life 4, Ellen McMahill
-What is your favorite part of the process of making? Coming up with an idea, just beginning to spread paint on a blank canvas, declaring a work complete, or?
I love every part of creating a painting from the excitement of an idea to the actual painting, drawing and finishing it to gaze at the results, though I have to remind myself to not overthink what I am doing at any particular time in the process. If a painting is not going well, and sometimes that happens, I step back and look at it to see where I went wrong and inevitably it becomes obvious that I lost my way in a moment of letting my ego take control over my intuition.
-What is it like living and working at WAL? Are there any difficulties or benefits that you weren’t expecting?
Living at WAL has really helped my art to progress for a lot of reasons like having a beautiful space dedicated to making art and being around like minded people, which is more important than most people would think. It has given me a professional place to show my work to prospective buyers and is a way to let people know I’m an artist when they find out where I live. It has made me feel more professional and that has helped me to focus even more on what I need to do personally to get to where I want to go as a working artist. I realized years ago that to be the artist I want to be I would have to treat painting as a job. When you have a job you have to work at it several days a week and you have to focus all your energy and attention on it and you have to figure out ways to improve.  WAL has helped me with that so much.  WAL has also given me opportunities like this show in March and the FirstFridays, which I never would have had before. I’m really grateful to live here.  I wasn’t expecting all the noise, but I’m learning to live with it.
Perception 4Perception 4, Ellen McMahill
Thank you for your thoughtful responses, Ellen! See more of Ellen’s work on her website, and in person in our exhibition. Works of WAL will be on view March 4-March 31; join us for our opening reception Friday March 4, from 6-9 PM.