Divining Direction: Ellen Wiener in the Studio

May 18, 2015 by


“How do you get lost in something that is so obviously pen and ink?” Ellen Wiener asks, unrolling a long, landscape drawing, densely populated with hatch-lined flora. Gesturing at trees that become paisley patterns, the Workspace resident describes the forest as a liminal space, a tangled thicket from which the wanderer emerges transformed.

“Western myth often begins at the edge of the forest. They walked into the forest… and then you know something transformative is going to happen: you turn into a donkey or sleep for a hundred years. That’s the when and that’s the where,” Ellen says. “But first, you must get lost.”

Ellen’s practice explores tools of navigation and self-orientation found in medieval literature and iconography. Through historical research, she explores ways of “divining direction” in allegorical painting, printmaking, and books. Works like Longhand Forest (2014) and Ivory Lithics (2010) recall elaborate tableaux that are dense with symbolism and embedded in detailed landscapes that unfold to room-sized lengths.


During her four-week residency, Ellen works simultaneously on two printed iterations of garden imagery: one drawing explores the wands of a tarot deck, while a series of large-scale prints uses the textiles of prayer rugs.

Ellen reveals the entire ten-foot illustration, each section of the paper depicting elaborate, surreal scenes that reference specific cards. It is the next step in her long-term collaboration with renowned poet LB Thompson. Their work explores the characters, archetypes, and symbolism of the tarot deck—a system of playing cards which date back to the fifteenth century—by recontextualizing their historical and cultural meanings in contemporary life.

“People come to the cards when they have a question they don’t have the answer to,” she says, explaining how each card signifies a particular meaning through its intuitive visual vocabulary.

Ellen and LB address their next suit—the clubs, also known as the wands—through the garden, using botanical imagery to explore the suit’s coded narratives. “The clubs are not a weapon, but a clover,” Ellen says. “The whole suit of wands is about inspiration and a green sense of vivid life.” For example, the Ten of Wands, which symbolizes the overburdened individual, is interpreted by the pair as an ecosystem overrun by invasive plants.

Working side-by-side, their ongoing conversations develop rich layers of metaphor and symbolism, what Ellen calls “sharing a palette of ideas.” As LB composes poems for each card, Ellen interprets their visual lexicon through drawings. At WSW, she experiments with various plate types to reproduce her garden scenes. Eight photopolymer plates now print the entire scroll in black ink on cream-colored paper; their plate tone creating a hazy atmosphere for the panorama.

12-20150508-ellen-wiener-06810-20150508-ellen-wiener-063On the other side of her studio, Ellen has pinned large, vibrant textiles to the walls. In addition to the suit of wands, she works with a series of seven large-scale woodcuts and etchings that layer ornate botanical patterns inspired by prayer rugs.

“They share a vocabulary,” Ellen explains, gesturing between the two very different set of prints. “Prayer rugs are all based on gardens. A rolled up rug is portable and orients you five times a day to remember who you’re supposed to be, taking you out of your busy world.” Referencing the Garden of Eden, these rugs create a “metaphysical garden” to orient individuals along the spiritual journey.

Ellen layers woodcuts to build depth, adding rich blocks of colorful floral textiles onto her prints. Just as the border of the carpet defines the space into which individuals step, so do her prints. In their centers are “empty, open space,” framed by a doorway of overlapping patterns and architectural ruins that visually imitate entering the garden’s meditative space.


For Ellen, process becomes a kind of wayfinding through iconography and materials, sensing direction in the many paths her materials may lead her. Amidst these various forms and processes, Ellen finds herself completely immersed—or rather lost—within the garden imagery.

“A poet might re-write a poem thirty times. I find that I have to live with and make the imagery in different ways in order to understand it,” Ellen explains. “I have to see what it feels like—not just to look at it, but to draw it.”

Ellen Wiener is a painter and printmaker based in Long Island, NY. She has been awarded residencies with The MacDowell Colony and Ragdale Foundation, among others, and has taught at SUNY Stony Brook, Princeton University, and Sweet Briar College. Her work recently exhibited with PS1 MoMA, Center for Book Arts, and the National Academy Museum. View more of Ellen’s work on her website, www.ellenwiener.com.