Exploring her ‘Two-ness’

Ellen Price finds unity in art
By Saad Ghosn

Ellen Price in her studio. Photo by Tom Featherstone.

As the light-skinned child of a bi-racial marriage – mother white and father African-American – the subject of race always proved both non-existent and ever present in Ellen Price’s life. The first question she remembers being asked in kindergarten by other African-American children was whether she was black or white.
“I do not know,” was her answer,” later supplemented, after having queried her mother, by “I am colored, but fair … and nice”
Price, a local artist and professor of art at Miami University, Oxford, grew up in a residential neighborhood of Queens, New York, mostly inhabited by well-off, middle-class, African-American families. Raised by progressive, politically left-leaning and non-churchgoer parents, she was from an early age sheltered from the habitual societal interactions and class integration. Her home was her sanctuary, and she had a happy childhood, spending time drawing and playing with her sister, often visiting New York City, its parks and its wonderful museums with her mother, a former art teacher.
When graduating a semester early from high school, she joined open life classes at the Art Students League in New York City, where she was really taken by drawing – the challenge, concentration, professionalism and sense of achievement it imparted. She decided to become an artist and a few years later obtained a bachelor’s degree in arts from Brooklyn College, then a master of fine arts degree in printmaking at Indiana University, Bloomington.
All along, questions of race, ethnicity and identity were embedded in her mind. In her teens, obsessed with fitting in, she smoked mentholated Newport cigarettes to emulate other African-American girls of her school and befriended those who had an afro hairdo. She also unconsciously adopted a more southern accent. In college, finding herself in a mostly white world, she was quite sensitive to racist remarks she would occasionally hear, attributing them to ignorance and fear. These questions, however, did not clearly permeate her art until many years later.
In college, Price’s paintings and prints were mostly based on the figure and sketches of people in the subway, reflection of urban life. In graduate school, many of her etchings were of cows, a possible link to their maternal character. Her subsequent artwork dealt with lawn ornaments, landscapes and trees – ornaments and trees often depicted lonely and isolated, as if stating their uniqueness, their somewhat disconnected identity.
In 1993, more than a decade after the death of both her parents, Price lost her paternal uncle, the last link to her father’s family. She inherited from his estate a collection of photographs of relatives, many of whom she had never met before; all represented, however, her connection to the black side of her family.
Reflecting on these images, on what they meant to her and to her history, she decided to use them in her art and make a statement.
Instead of working with the full image and the entire portrait, Price decided to crop the face and feature only parts of it in her prints, thus alluding to both the incompleteness of information, and the often hidden and unknown side of reality.
She did a series of these prints titled, So Many Why’s. Representing only fragments of the faces of her relatives, such as isolated lips, eyes, hair, semi-profiles, they indirectly and subtly raised many questions she had been having throughout her life about herself, her origin and her family.
“Issues of identity and fragmentation have followed me everywhere,” she says. “As an individual whose African-American descent is not obvious, the space between what is revealed and what is hidden had become a familiar psychic territory. I made this indistinct zone inhabit my prints, and by using cropped elements of speech and hearing implied my incomplete knowledge of the subjects bearing my surname – as if at once I desired to know, connect and understand and at the same time acknowledged what I could never know.”
Her print, By Halves, from the same series represents the half face of one of her relatives. Smiling, it elegantly challenges the viewer to discover its other side, weighing at one edge of the image as if pulling the past to unveil itself into the present, the unknown to merge into the known. It was also Price’s dealing with the dual aspect of her own personality.
“In his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Dubois writes about the double consciousness, the ‘two-ness’ of African-Americans,” Price says. “My portrait series is my search to resolve my own ‘two-ness’, to locate my identity in history.”
Price keeps coming back to her portrait series, adding new prints as if in a permanent dialogue with her questioning of race and identity, with preconceptions of family and history. Her prints serve as a confrontation of prejudices regarding who is black.
She would like people to connect to them and think about the issues they raise. She recognizes, however, that they are only the expression of her own experience that she wants to share – not impose.
More recently, Price created prints based on war imagery: helmets, armors, military hardware. Her monotypes, Two of Each and Royale, juxtapose images of a crown with artifacts of European military history, thus highlighting the relationship between political power and war. Her etchings, Armor Study and Bassinet, examine humankind’s long history of organized warfare. Her latest monotypes depict explosions based on the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
When not doing her own art, Price teaches printmaking. In her teaching. she always tries to shake students out of their complacency – provoke thinking and discussions about issues, encourage empathy, looking at the world differently.
Price likes to quote Arthur Miller, who said: “That which is not made into art is lost.” Making art, showing it, communicating through it, is very important to her.
“Art is what makes us human beings,” she says. “It brings the sublime, the spiritual; it transcends immobility. Art has been central to my life; it helped me claim my history and assert my identity. It keeps my questioning alive, and hopefully it triggers the same in the viewer.”