The art of collage has been working its way into the fine art world’s consciousness for almost a century now, but there still remains a few more miles to go before the medium will be truly accepted as an equal with the well-known forms of painting. Elizabeth St. Hilaire Nelson is a contemporary artist who is helping to bridge that gap through her innovative combinations of traditional painting techniques with glued on papers to create what she calls, aptly enough, “Paper Paintings.”
Nelson comes from a background in advertising design and is co-owner of a graphic design firm in addition to her fine art work. She currently resides in Florida, by way of New England, with a stint at Syracuse University to get her B.F.A. Although she had been doing art all of her life, Elizabeth did not enter the world of collage until 2005, when her first paper painting, Looking In on Jane, won best of show at the Orlando Visual Artists League. Since then, she has been exhibiting regularly and traveling to teach workshops that explore her innovative style. Earlier this year she published a book titled “Collage: An Overview to the Creative Process,” firmly establishing herself as a fixture in the collage world and helping to make the deeper concepts of the medium more accessible to the general public.
Nelson’s Paper Paintings are figurative in nature, meaning they have a recognizable subject and portray something that actually exists in the world. She is most well known for portraits of animals: cows and other farm animals, birds (especially peacocks) and dogs being common themes. These artworks use the traditional compositional structures of portraiture to convey the personality and uniqueness of the subject, allowing the viewer to really connect with them. Other subjects include flowers, fruit and other plant life, musical instruments, plus the occasional still life and contemporary genre scenes.
The appearance of these paintings is much like the modern use of acrylic paints in a Pop Art context: bright, saturated colors alternately clashing and harmonizing with each other in a flattened pictorial space with bold, thick brushstrokes that convey aliveness and motion. Indeed, these artworks begin their lives as standard acrylic paintings, as Elizabeth uses her skills to create simple underpaintings of the scenes before working them over in her own special way.
The originality of the work becomes apparent the closer one gets. As the visual field focuses on details, the viewer realizes that many of what appeared initially to be strokes of paint applied with a brush are in fact cut and torn strips of paper glued to the surface of the support.
Elizabeth draws her collage materials from a variety of sources: decorative papers, both colored and printed with designs, magazines, newspapers and other printed type pages, personal memorabilia (that first piece, Lookin In on Jane, was inspired by a box of old documents given to her by her father), and anything else that crosses her path that might look visually appealing. These found objects exist within the artwork primarily for their compositional possibilities, and the exact nature of the paper, or anything written on it, may or may not have any relevance to the subject of the painting.
Whereas in the original collages of Picasso and Braques a piece of oilcloth printed with a chair caning pattern would stand in for a painted chair, or an actual page from a newspaper would be used instead of painting the newspaper, Nelson seems to be more interested in how the visual aspect of things that we see every day can be turned on their heads and used to create something totally different than their actual form. Thus, snippets from a magazine article become the foliage of a tree in the background and photos of people and places can become the spots on the side of a cow. The resulting effect simultaneously establishes the time and place where the paintings were created, while also tearing apart the images familiar to that time and place and using them to create something more fundamental.
Elizabeth St. Hilaire Nelson will be here at The ART School at BINDERS for her Paper Paintings workshop July 16th-18th.