When you enter the ArtsPlace Gallery, Ellen Skidmore’s colorful, playful images leap off the walls and dance around you. They also tell a story.
The artist, whose work is held in private collections in the United States and Europe, is a stutterer. In her book that features the paintings, Ellen: The Little Girl Who Found Her Voice, Skidmore tells the story of how she discovered she could express herself through her painting. With the exhibit up through March 26, we asked the Central Kentucky artist a few questions.
1. Which came first in this project, the paintings or the idea for the book?
My intent initially was to compose a children’s ABC picture book by making my figures into letter-like figures and writing a funny little quip about them. Instead, my own story flowed out effortlessly all at once in one sitting. It was a very cathartic experience for me, but I strongly felt the story would help many children. I took it to Fran Taylor (West High Publishing LLC), who helped me devise a plan. The Kentucky Foundation for Women awarded me a grant which enabled me to exclusively work on the 28 paintings for the story. Then, as I was working on the paintings, I thought how cool it would be for children to go to an art exhibit and it be on their level. I wanted the art exhibit as much as the book to be for children, like they were walking right in to a big book. I’ve been painting for over 25 years and selling my work through galleries or privately but this project has been the most meaningful experience by far as an artist.
2. You write about not painting for a time. How long was that?
All through junior high and high school I stopped. I was very unfocused and unsettled. College was wonderful and helped me get back at it. After college, I was still incredibly restless. Working with horses was constantly alluring & very calming, but physically tiring which made it hard to paint so I wouldn’t. After 6 or 8 months or so of not painting, I would have a lot of pent up emotion which made me an overly sensitive, high maintenance & not a lot of fun to be around person.
3. How did the style of your painting develop?
I started painting very abstractly in college and loved it. Exploring line, shape & color expressively for the first time was incredibly freeing. My professors taught about the different kinds of plasticity. They pushed me to keep pushing until I heard myself. They helped me find my voice, like the title of the book says. I have always deeply felt that life is fleeting and that we are fragile. I think that is the reason behind the stick-like figures and their undulating surroundings.
4. How did it feel to get your story out there?
It has been an amazingly humbling and empowering experience. It has been wonderful that the book has a wider and broader reach than just my painting. As a visual artist, it has given my work another kind of voice. It has been wonderful to do something different and tell the story of my childhood struggle to hopefully inspire other children who are battling with their own issues.
5. What has been your favorite reaction to the book and paintings?
At the art exhibit/book launch this summer in Colorado, I watched and overheard the first father who came in, squatting down to his little girl’s earshot, reading the big plaque underneath the first painting, “ Once upon a time... “. Watching her little face look at the paintings while he read was so sweet and so moving.
I asked a lot of children which was their favorite painting. A lot of them liked the one when Ellen was getting bucked off the horse and landed on her head (action/drama!). A lot of them liked the last painting where she is blissfully sailing away (happy ending!). A lot of them liked a painting because they liked Ellen’s pretty dress (future fashionistas!). Kids are so honest. It’s fun seeing them realize I’m the Ellen in the book when they meet me after they’ve gone thru the exhibit. I feel like they are maybe more understanding of what it feels like to stutter. I feel like they will be more tolerant of other children who don’t talk perfectly all the time. I think that’s my favorite reaction.
Ellen Skidmore hosts an interactive family story time at ArtsPlace Gallery at 11 a.m. Saturday as part of LexArts’ Arts Showcase Weekend. Admission is free.