‘I want to unlock a memory in the viewer, a feeling of nostalgia, of a wild, natural setting, maybe from a dream or a physical location.’ This month, we explore the practice of artist Ellen Mae Williams. Through natural ingredients, Ellen creates vibrant, poetic abstract pieces that take the viewer on a journey through colourful, countryside landscapes.
What’s a typical day like in the studio?
A typical day usually involves coffee and admin for the first hour and a bit of catching-up with my studio mate, before putting my headphones on and switching to creative mode. At the moment, I’m starting a new collection of work for an exhibition in May, so this involves prepping linen (scouring and mordanting the fabric so the natural dyes adhere to the fibre). It’s quite physical work, carrying heavy buckets of water and constant mixing. At the same time, I make new natural dye inks. Although I follow recipes I’ve made previously, trial and error comes into it – you never know the exact colour you’ll produce. But that to me is part of the beauty and excitement of natural dyes. Once the linen has been prepped, inks made and colour palette decided, I can then start the painting process. Sometimes I stop for a lunchtime walk around the block and coffee with some friends from the studio, then it’s back to the ink mixing, painting and hammering wooden frames together for work to be stretched over. I always come away from the studio with stained hands from the dyes, that’s how I know I’ve done a good day’s work.
The landscape and natural world inspire your art. Could you describe what you aim to convey to the viewer in your works?
I want to convey a feeling of a place, the overall atmosphere, to capture the light, colours and season. I want to unlock a memory in the viewer, a feeling of nostalgia, for a wild, natural setting, maybe from a dream or a physical location. My works are an abstract interpretation of the natural world, describing the essence of nature, the small ingredients that make up a scene; the textures, marks, shapes and composition all coming together to express a unique atmosphere. I hope that the viewer connects with my work in some way, conjuring up memories and emotions.
What first drew you to natural dyes and using them to create works of art?
I started experimenting with natural dyes when I was frustrated with the colours of synthetic dyes during my textile studies at university. I also watched the documentary film, The True Cost, learning about the destructive effects the textile industry – specifically synthetic dyes – had on the environment, and after further research I completely changed my way of working. This initially led me to avocado skins and stones, and the beautiful dusty pink/peach shade that you can achieve from this food waste, by simply boiling for 30 minutes. To me, this was a revelation.
As I started exploring the world of natural dyeing more deeply, I learnt about the variety of unique colours you can obtain from sustainable sources, like plants or food waste. This is what led me to the Textiles Masters course at the Royal College of Art in London and further experimenting with natural dye inks, moving from naturally-dyed textile homeware to painting with natural dye inks. The natural world is intrinsically linked to my practice, the source of my inspiration; so creating work that does not harm the environment – but celebrates it – is incredibly important to me and the key philosophy to my practice.
In autumn 2022, you visited Greece and took part in an artist residency at The Skopelos Foundation on the island of Skopelos. Could you tell us about your time there and how this influenced your work?
The time spent on this residency was extremely informative to my practice. I came away with a different mindset – it was the start of a shift in my work and practice. It was a magical experience because of the magical location. The island is stunning, known as the emerald isle, as it’s filled with pine forests – very different to the typical arid Greek island landscape. There was a huge variety of abundant plants to make dyes and inks from, even in October when I visited. Pomegranate trees were ripe with fruit, wild rosemary, sage and mint covered the roadside, pine cones dropped from ancient trees and wild grapes hung from vines. The collection of work I made was the first using natural inks. To me, they were a snapshot of Skopelos in October 2022, a visual diary of my time there. I came back to London bubbling with ideas and a new-found sense of purpose, for creating work that connected to the landscape, and moreover, connected to the viewer.
Who are you inspired by and why?
So many artists! I’ll narrow my list down to three. First, the subtle watercolour studies of JMW Turner which almost look unfinished but have such wonderful energy and use of colour. Next, the Abstract Expressionists, Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell, becauseeach creates such powerful works through scale, colour, mark and composition. And lastly, Alice Neave, whose solo show at Blue Shop Gallery in London in 2023 was a stand-out of the year, if not of all time. Like Frankenthaler, Neave has a supreme sense of colour, her works beautifully bring to life the landscapes she has experienced. I hope to achieve through my works what each of these artists bring to me through theirs.
What was the last exhibition you visited?
Yoko Matsumoto at the White Cube, Masons Yard, London – on until March 9, so still time to visit! Sometimes I walk into an exhibition and have this physical, emotional reaction, a feeling of joy, contentment and excitement that takes my breath away – this was exactly what happened when I visited this show last week. I walked round smiling to myself and left feeling lighter and calmer. The paintings have a brooding energy and, although abstract, summon an unknown elemental world where sky, wind, earth and water collide. Matsumoto describes them as showing “a nature beyond our senses” and I completely see that within each one.
Photo credits Marco Bahler, Sophie Davidson and Ellen Mae Williams