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A Seasoned Artist

Art Review


Published November 30, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

EXHIBIT:"New England in Watercolor," paintings by Nancy Ellis. Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Burlington. Through December 15.

ARTWORK"Spring Thaw" by Nancy Ellis

November vistas forebode a winter yet to come, but Nancy Ellis' graceful watercolor "Juniper Island in November" snatches beauty from the cold mist of the season. This 4-by-6-inch landscape, one of 26 paintings in her "New England in Watercolor" exhibition at Burlington's Cathedral Church of St. Paul, is smaller than most of the others. However, her depiction of the shrouded Lake Champlain island, with the undulating Adirondacks in the background, seems colorful and expansive in spite of its diminutive scale and nearly monochromatic palette.

Ellis composes lyrical yet sturdy watercolor landscapes. Her pieces are often concerned with the passage of light and time on a given scene, via a single image or series. The nature of transience is her primary interest.

"Juniper Island in November" represents one end of winter. In the other, "Spring Thaw," Ellis contrasts small forms with larger ones, such as a meandering river with craggy ice flowing. Snow-capped Camel's Hump is in the background, and thick trees with many translucent layers -- burnt sienna, green, crimson -- are in the mid-ground. The river is seen from a distance.

"Morning Light on Snow with Birches," numbers 1 and 2, have dark foregrounds and dramatic shadows radiating from the gray-and-white trees. In those pieces, the perspective is from within the snowy woods, and light is cast from behind the stand of birches. Number 2 is the darker of the pair, with a band of crimson running along the ridgeline behind the trees. Although both paintings depict the same place, Ellis has reinterpreted the scene rather than restated it.

"Tree Tops in Summer," numbers 1 and 2, are more complex, composed of three vertical images: Two are matted and framed together; the other is a separate painting. The singular piece, "Tree Tops in Summer 1," presents a bright-green, leafy treetop, with puffy, white clouds in a cerulean-blue sky. In contrast, "Tree Tops in Summer 2" is a diptych. The left panel is focused on a lone cumulus cloud, while on the right is just one tall treetop, like a lettuce stalk, running the height of the painting.

Ellis' multi-image paintings are her most original. All of the pieces combined in her triptych "Three Views of a Sunset Near Old Lyme, CT" are also framed together -- in this case, into a vertical composition. Each of the three watercolors is a horizontal view of a river and woods. Top, middle and lower are almost identical, except the pieces become progressively redder, suggesting the progress of a setting sun.

"On the Lieutenant River, CT" is perhaps the most daring of Ellis' multi-imaged works, as she combines a painting and a photograph on the same mat. The photo is a long, horizontal vista such as might have come from a disposable panoramic camera; above it, Ellis' painting describes the same general locale. Not many landscapists invite comparison between their own colors and those in a photograph, but that is precisely what happens here. The pale sky and river rendered by Ellis correspond closely with the photographic record, but the leaves of her woods do not. The painting is a late-summer scene; her Lieutenant River photograph was snapped in early autumn.

In her artist statement, Ellis claims she is "especially captivated by seasonal changes." Sound like a typical landscape watercolorist? But Ellis isn't. Creating two views of a place in differing media is an interesting approach. In comparison to her peers, she's conceptually ahead of the pack.