NP: What is the Shaman Project?
EE: The Shaman project was founded in 2006, it’s an ongoing project/exhibition which celebrates the union of music, art, nature and the animal world. I´m delighted as artist and director of the Shaman Project to have had the opportunity to organize three exhibitions so far. The first was in Salamanca, Spain (2006), second in Bilbao, Spain (2006), and the third was in my home country North Wales in 2009. For both of the first shows we had to work hard to convert a warehouse space into an area as presentable as any London Gallery. The third space was given to us as part of the summer show at Oriel Plas Glyn Y Weddw Gallery. The notion of the show only lasting a week or so was a form of nomadic dialogue with the audience.
The Shaman Project has always included live performances, live music and live animals to coincide with the art exhibition. My main aim is to fuse art and music with the animal world and nature. Each artist who has exhibited in the show, has always expressed through painting, sculpture, video, installation, drawing or performance, a style and movement which I believe brings out the shaman within us.
Through organizing and exhibiting in the shaman Project it has allowed me to develop my own practice as an artist. For each show I have put on three different performances. For the first exhibition in Salamanca, I lead a live horse around the exhibition space. The performance was called ´The Shaman Horse´, We were all dressed up in the same clothes and masks from one of my paintings, and we were explaining each piece of art to the horse. There was someone on a stage reading out a script while live music was played in the background.
The second performance was titled ´Bring a Dog Day´, where I invited the public to come along with their dogs and fill the space. I was dressed up again as one of the characters from my painting. For the third exhibition in Wales I wanted to do a performance which related to the surroundings, which is why I chose the Welsh Legend `Gelert´. I had to hire a Lusitanian Stallion from a Welsh Stud. My husband dressed up as the Prince Llewelyn and rode the horse, and I was dressed as Gelert the famous greyhound dog. There were more actors dressed as hunting dogs and a stag. All the costumes and masks I made myself.
I´m trying to organize the fourth Shaman Project exhibition to be held in Sevilla in Southern Spain hopefully by the end of this year.
Noah Post: The main characters in your paintings are often animals, specifically horses and dogs. There is a dialogue happening between the animals and the human subjects. Can you tell us a little bit about how this association originated in your work?
Elinor Evans: As a child from as early as I can remember the only thing I would spend my time doing was drawing and painting horses. My favorite artist from an early age was George Stubbs, and he continues to be an important influence in my work. I´ve had a special relationship with animals (especially horses) all my life, and I try to portray this within my work. You could say my two main loves in life are art and horses.
At the age of 11 I was helping Lucy Rees to break in Welsh mountain ponies in Wales. Through her, ten years later I came to Spain in the summer of 2003 where, before starting my MA at the RCA, I met my husband who also broke in and breeds Spanish horses. Today we live in a Picadero in the Gredos National Park, in the heart of Spain. I´m constantly surrounded by horses which play an important role in my work. I´m lucky that I am able to use my own animals as characters in my paintings. My dog, Picasso, has been a faithful muse for a few years now.
My work is derived from the special relationship that I believe exists between humans and animals, by drawing attention to the fact that we are part human and part animal, I acknowledge the importance and intelligence of animals.
NP: Masks are a key element here – an important prop when you set up a painting. To some people, masks (like these) can be funny, and to others they can be horrifying. What do you look for in a mask? And is anonymity an important theme when you consider the human subjects’ role in your paintings?
EE: All the masks I use are of animals, for some people this does have an element of humour.
The significance of the animal mask in my paintings symbolizes the social mask of hypocrisy – the human condition from which animals are free. Hypocrisy is integrated into society and by wearing a mask, man hides from his reality. I hope that one day humans will be able to take the mask off.
Anonymity is not important in my paintings. I am not really trying to make my subjects anonymous – just identifying the animal nature in them.
NP: I once worked for a woodcut artist, Robert Bero. He was known for making elaborate, highly detailed prints and drawings of trees. Bob’s studio was in a former dog kennel, and he had a pet Dalmatian. Supposedly he had many Dalmatians throughout his life. He would talk to me about how this particular breed of dog was his biggest source of inspiration. Even though his artwork was always based in landscape, I could still see the connection. Seeing a Dalmatian in many of your paintings, I am reminded of the “Power of the Dalmatian”. Explain your inspiration.
EE: The Dalmatian who is always present in my paintings is Picasso, my 5 year old Dalmatian dog. To me his markings make him the most beautiful dog in the world – he has two black eyes like a pirate. It’s funny you say Robert Bero´s studio was a dog kennel, as my studio was a former horse shower!
When Picasso was a puppy a horse stood on his back leg and broke it, from this day onward he´s treated more like a son than a family dog. He´s travelled to London with us many times, and has even been present at some of my private views. I love the contrast between the color, texture and pattern of his fur when placed beside human skin. He´s also so photogenic and when placed together with a horse, a donkey or a Shetland pony, his behavior and character changes so you’re never going to be able to tell what kind of expression he´s going to give. It’s always rewarding to see the photos after having worked with him to get my imagery. I feel I could never get bored of painting him.
NP: The paintings that are interior look like you take your time to set up the scene, often with some classic pose and dramatic lighting. What is the preliminary process in your studio, before you start to paint?
EE: My process involves personally collaborating with animals and humans. We work together utilizing theatrics to look for and express our relationship and the special communication that exists between man and animal. I´m dealing with the animal’s behaviour towards humans.
I make short films to capture this central idea. I then take images from the films to help me play out my ideas and decide on final images to paint. I have already decided on my color compositions through the masks and clothes which I use. By using film this enables me to capture images with a lot of movement.
Light is one of the most important factors in my paintings. I´m lucky that, living in Spain, I can use natural light and gain the extreme contrast between shadows and brightness within the imagery. When filming indoor, I use artificial light to gain the same results.
NP: The “strong white” that cuts through your oil paintings is magnificent. It is usually the background white. That is a difficult task but it works quite beautifully, similar to making a watercolor. This doesn’t allow for much over-painting. Explain the technique.
EE: Yes my technique is similar to making a watercolour. I enjoy painting in oil in a fast and fluid manner. I mix the paint with liquid to help the paint flow easier and faster on the canvas. The white in the painting is the background that remains. This gives the paintings a fresh feeling, and enables them to breathe. I don’t tend to over-paint my paintings, as I´m always working from a photo, and having the image already planned helps me to be more spontaneous when painting.
NP: This same white also contributes to the idea of artificial light, or to a strong, almost blinding, mid-day sunlight that portrait photographers usually try to avoid. Do you have a preference when you work between natural/artificial light? And, do you usually paint during the day or at night?
EE: As I mentioned earlier, I´m very lucky to be living in Spain because the natural light can be almost more blinding than artificial light. I prefer to work with the animals outside on a summer´s afternoon because the colors are so warm, blinding and dramatic.
I used to paint in the day, but after having my daughters – Cordelia, 4, and Olivia, 1 – I now find it hard to get into the studio during the day. So I now paint at night when they’re both fast asleep.
NP: What contemporary artists are you looking at these days? All-time favorite painters? And, now that you live in Spain, are you enjoying Velasquez?
EE: Contemporry artists: Eric Fischl, Wiliam Wegman, Elisabeth Payton.
All-time favourite painters: George Stubbs, Sir Edwin Landseer, Francisco de Goya, Pablo Picasso, Eugene Delacroix, Theodore Gericault, Caravaggio.
I´ve always loved Velasquez. My favourite Spanish painter after Goya and Picasso is Sorolla, for his use of natural light.
NP: I noticed that you are from Wales. I must tell you, my mother was born and raised in Wales. I believe she is from a town called Abergele. Wales is a very interesting country that generally (at least here in the U.S.) people don’t know much about. There is a lot of Welsh pride, especially in the North, where the tricky Welsh language can still be heard. You have a series of paintings that are related to Welsh history. Which series is this, and how did these works take shape?
EE: Abergele is not far from my home town Criccieth. How interesting! There is still a very strong Welsh pride like you said. The language is now getting stronger with more and more people being able to speak it. I was taught through the medium of Welsh in primary school, this is common in most schools in the North West Wales. It was easier for me to learn Spanish having Welsh as my second language.
The series of drawings and paintings which were on show in the Shaman Project Wales in the summer of 2009 were all based on the Welsh legend ´Gelert´. It´s a story about a prince who goes off on his morning hunt and leaves his faithful hound to watch over his newborn baby. It’s a very tragic story. As the prince returns, he finds his dog covered in blood and no baby to be seen. Thinking the dog has killed the baby, the prince kills his beloved dog in anger. Then he hears the sounds of his baby cry. Lifting the covers off of the crib to find his newborn baby unharmed, he then finds a dead wolf behind the curtain. They say that through his sadness and regret for killing his dog the prince was never able to smile again. There is a town in North Wales called Beddgelert, which means ¨Gelert´s Grave¨. Gelert was the name of his dog. In this Welsh town you´ll find a tombstone where Prince Llewelyn carved his tragic story, and laid it upon the grave of his beloved dog. Some people say this was a story made up to attract tourists to the area.
I used my own performance to extract images to paint. This way the viewer who came to see the performance then recognised the theatricality caught within the paintings.
Through making my own masks and costumes for the characters in the performance, it allowed me to give my own interpretation of the story.
The images which I chose to paint were of the hunting scene and Prince Llewelyn on his mighty steed. I liked the contrary between the horse with its magical references to beauty and power, and the rider as a beast-like figure. Within the paintings, Prince Llewelyn is represented as a tiger. In the animal kingdom it is the lion who is King; therefore, I used a tiger mask to represent the Prince.
I myself was Gelert in the performance, the beloved hunting dog. My interpretation of the grey wolf hound dog is represented through my costume. To some it might be seen more as a cuddly teddy bear rather than a dog. The paintings have a strange humour underlining them, and through the use of colour the fairy tale and fanciful are evoked.