Eleanor Conover

Studio visit – April, 2023 

Eleanor Conover was born and raised in New England; that landscape is deeply embedded in her visual vocabulary. Her paintings offer loose depictions of spaces and color, found rocks, and shaped, craggy canvases. Conover is a graduate of Harvard University and Tyler School of Art and taught at University of Tennessee as visiting faculty shortly after completing her MFA. She recently joined the Art & Art History Department at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. where we spoke about managing life and a studio practice in the college town.

Where is your current studio and how long have you been there?

My current studio is in Carlisle, Pennsylvania which is in South Central Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg. It’s on the campus of Dickinson College. I’ve been here for almost two years now. Before this studio,  I was teaching at the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville. And the studio there was also part of the university.

So you’re no stranger to having a studio on campus?

Yes, I’ve been fortunate. Well, I think there are pros and cons. But I’m trying to take it as a positive rather than a negative, though I do have to work hard to maintain my own personal space, and that does take up mental energy!

How do you structure your time with the studio and teaching at this point in your life?

I think it ebbs and flows a little bit based on the demands of the teaching semester. Right now, we’re in a crazy crunch time, so the studio days have been fewer, but I try to be pretty regimented and carve out at least three hours to be in the studio if I’m going to be painting, usually more. I live within walking distance to the studio. On the weekends, I often walk or ride my bike over here, and settle in for the day. 

Do you find there’s any benefit to being in the physical space of your studio even when you’re not in studio mode?

That’s a good question. I like being in here–the light is amazing, especially in the mornings. And the architecture seems to have an interesting relationship to the structure of my paintings. Sometimes if I have to do a specific work-related task or something, maybe I won’t come in here, because I just get restless if I’m here and I can’t actually paint. 

At what point did your paintings start to become shaped and more sculptural and what prompted this shift outside of the traditional painting geometry?

When I left grad school, I was making these large rectangular paintings outside at particular locations, usually in a rock quarry, somewhere where there was a relationship to landscape and industry. I would stain the canvas with acrylic paint first, and then I would roll it up and then take it out into a place and make a kind of armature of a drawing with various painting and drawing materials. I don’t think I really knew enough about painting yet, so I was just making these drawing matrices on top of this acrylic core. They were all unstretched, and then I would stretch them later and work on that a little bit in the studio, but usually not that much. 

When I moved to Knoxville, I found out that it was historically called the Marble City and it used to be a big marble quarrying space. I was going from quarry to quarry!  And so I continued to make that work for a little bit outside, in those really intense kinds of natural spaces that make you feel small.

But I didn’t know how to find growth in that process for myself. And I had a lot of growing up to do just in terms of learning about painting. After a while, I was like, man, I really just wish I could make paintings in the studio. I have set up this complicated situation for myself and I just really wanted to learn how to make paintings in a controlled environment where I could work slower. And I think I had a lot of professors in grad school who were very much like, “Painting is a fiction.” I heard that a lot. And I was like, that’s amazing. I want to learn what that means. And so I started making all different kinds of paintings. There was and still is a lot of failure involved, but it was very exciting. I studied history and literature in undergrad, so ideas about fiction and metaphor were very accessible, and it was actually a very approachable and meaningful shift, intellectually. 

Actually, I would say this whole process of coming into the shaped paintings is a strange meandering road a little bit. When I got to Tennessee, I’d never lived in the South before, and the color of the Earth is this incredible bright orange. And so I really wanted to incorporate that in the work. I had been thinking about site specificity and Robert Smithson. And I was like, “Oh. Maybe I can figure out how to dye the canvas naturally.” And so I learned to dye the canvas with dirt in my little driveway, and then I started sewing pieces of canvas together, and it was like clunky collage. It helped me understand color better.

So I was also learning about abstraction. And they weren’t always regular sewn shapes. I started to make drawings of stretcher bars that were not rectangular. I saw the first Dorothea Rockburne painting I’d ever seen in person at the High Museum in Atlanta. I was just opening up. I had a lot of generative conversations with people I taught with in Tennessee– I was learning so much about painting from them. I became interested in the Support-Surfaces artists. And of course, the first shaped canvases I made were like seven feet tall. I started to make them vaguely rectangular and then I just started making them a lot more irregular, and smaller, so that they were more workable. And this was right at the beginning of the pandemic. So, late 2019, early 2020. I went into the wood shop and built a lot of frames and then they shut it down. 

50 x 33 inches, oil, acrylic, graphite, bleach, and dye on linen with beveled pine, 2022

Last summer, I was at the Golden Foundation Residency and it was in August. So it was right before the teaching semester started, and I thought, “Oh. I’ll build five supports and bring them with me. That will be plenty to last me a month there.” And I got there and, you know, it’s all free paint to use. I blew through those paintings. I was just like, “I can’t stop painting. This is amazing.” So, I ran out of shaped stretchers. The residency had some large rectangular supports that they lent me, and it was very productive. And so now I’m thinking about this dialectical space between the rectangle and the shaped canvas and I think–I hope– that they can coexist. 

Place and geography seem to be an important element in your work. Are there any places or locations that are important to you or your work?

I grew up in New England, just north and west of Hartford, Connecticut. I spent every summer with my grandmother in Maine. And so I think visually, it has always been about the coast of Maine for me. It’s also where I started to learn about painting. In terms of connecting with the long history of painters in Maine, I would say Marsden Hartley is my number one.

It’s a very physical landscape up there, and I think his paintings are like that– super physical. Just that rocky geological coastline that makes you feel oddly close to the ice age. I also did a residency last summer on an island about an hour south of the Canadian border. The island had a huge granite skirt that encircled the whole perimeter. Again, I feel like the paintings, they end up being these big fragments. They’re less directly about landscape, but they I think engage in the idea of surface and topography, windows and views, and maybe even bodies, broadly speaking. 

I guess the other thing about other artists is…. maybe this is a little surprising but, a year ago I went out to New Mexico for the first time, and I went to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. It was a total gift to see so many of her paintings in one place. And she did that series of the pelvis paintings where the pelvis is this organic structure that helps frame or interrupt the landscape where you have to look through and around it. I really connected with those, as well as with the desert out there. It had a strange relationship to the ocean, maybe that idea that you can see weather coming from a distance.

When did you first start taking your paintings outside to a location, how did that happen?

This goes back to the idea of place, but I think when I was a bit younger, in my 20s in college and a little bit after, I was so obsessed with the particularity of place. I think now, even, it is still a kind of deep and profound longing for that coastal Maine region. I just thought nothing is okay to paint or live in except for this place. I had this mental block. I was so stubborn! And in grad school, I had a very strange experience where I was in Philly and then I went to Rome and then Rome really opened things up for me. And then I got back to Philly and I think the conversation about the work, which was based in landscape, always got stuck on source material and the photograph. So I just decided to surrender to that and to say, “Okay.” Everyone was like, “Just go outside and paint.” And I was like, “Okay. I will.” And it turns out it was very good for me. 

Learning can be very awkward sometimes. I also think that I have some kind of internal struggle with the whole idea of plein air painting, so I think that taking a giant canvas outside and rolling it out on the ground and rubbing it against rocks and…it productively unsettled it all for me. I was very physical and it was a different experience, and it ends up being accidentally sort of performative also. But no one was really there when I was ever doing it. It was maybe more ritualistic. 

Now, I have hopefully calmed my demons. I do make smaller observational paintings outside from time to time. It’s good to paint natural light. I think it helps me with color. 

Can you talk about the inclusion of rocks and stones and physical objects in your recent work?

When I was doing all this onsite work, sometimes I would bring big pieces of rocks back with me and rub the outline into the canvas if I felt like I needed to shift the composition or something. So I ended up having all these rocks in my studio in grad school, and everyone was like, “Are you going to put your rocks in your thesis show?” And I was like, “No. That’s so corny. No.” Ha!

Then, a few years later, I went with a sculpture class at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to a working quarry in the area. And part of the trip was, I think the sculpture class was learning how to carve marble, but I just tagged along as a curious person. 

I really like the quarried stone because– it was not only a quarry, but it’s also a processing facility. So this marble leaves the earth, it enters the built environment quickly, it gets polished, it gets cut, and then the fragments I use are pulled from the stuff that gets thrown back outside. I like the fact that there are hard edges to it and that it recalls the built environment. 

I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the scraps of stone. I started to paint one side of the rock with bleach, like bleach a print of the rock into the painting. Or I sort of cut the canvas away and glue the stones onto the stretcher bar and make the stretcher bar visible. And now, yes, I’m affixing them directly to the canvas. 

Also when I was in Tennessee, I became very interested in nearby Black Mountain College, the history of the school, and I took a little deep dive into it and I started thinking about the Josef Albers material studies and, as soon as you put rock next to paint, you think about “Okay. Well a lot of this paint came from rock–natural pigments.”

But it’s also, it changes the read when you have an element other than paint, just optically, your eye sort of recalibrates to each material. Color changes so much on different surfaces. I will also say, in Tennessee, I felt I was learning to teach and learning to paint at the same time, and I learned a lot from my students about strange material juxtapositions that helped my studio work a lot. And I would still like to learn to carve marble. 

What role does drawing or immediate mark making play in your work?

I think drawing is so essential now, but I don’t really remember growing up drawing. I was very resistant to drawing in school because I just wanted to go straight to painting. Maybe I misunderstood what drawing can be. As I learn how painting space can function, it’s very hard to describe, but maybe part of it can be made with the way drawing and painting meet in terms of mark making and line. I think for me, immediate mark making is wrapped up in that long history of trying to make an illusion while also holding on to the awareness of surface and the physicality of the paint. 

My partner lives on the West Coast right now. When I’m out there visiting I have taken to drawing all those rocky (and eroding) cliffs with a grease pencil in a sketchbook. I also make paintings on small pieces of paper in my studio. And I think maybe it also satisfies that need when you have a full-time job, too, if you don’t have a lot of hours to get your head into the bigger paintings,  just sit down and wrap your head around eight by ten inches of space. I can do it at night and it’s a different brain space.

Untitled (painting teaching painting), acrylic, graphite, and collage on plotting paper, 9 x 14 in., 2022

In what ways do color, light and transparency operate in your work?

I think with the shaped canvases, I had this total joy in building these interesting wooden structures, but then I cover them with stretched canvas. And it was a disappointment because it closes up that linear element. So then for a while I was bleaching… I would stretch the canvas and then I would bleach the lines back in and then I would make a rubbing of the stretcher bars. And then after a while I was like, “Well, maybe I want some of the support to be visible and to sort of acknowledge the support more literally.” And so then I started just using non-conventional fabric that’s… It’s linen actually, but it’s a really thin kind of gauzy weave. And then that’s how you can start to see through it. 

I’m a little bit of an impulsive person. I start by dying a lot of canvas and then sometimes take out half of the canvas and let the other half get a little darker, and so on. So I create the stretcher bars as a compositional problem, the dyeing creates a color problem. When I think about it, it’s a bit of a process of creating a lot of problems for myself to sort out. I think the color just naturally builds. I have been really interested in these earth tone hues and neutrals and then how these sort of slightly higher key colors interact or slightly mix with those. I also think the stone actually helps. You can see there’s marble all over the floor in here, and sometimes if a painting isn’t working, if I were to hold up a stone to the surface of a painting, it would almost ground the whole thing and it helps me calibrate the color a little bit. The marble is, I guess, a collaborator. 

Do you have anything coming up that you want to promote? Are you in any shows, or are there any shows you have seen recently or any books or media you have been thinking about?

I was in a group show with some wonderful painters at Abattoir in Cleveland, Ohio, that came down recently.  It’s been a busy semester, but I’ve managed to still paint a lot, and I’ve also equally been in my teaching brain. I was just re-reading the Clarice Lispector book Near to the Wild Heart because I briefly used it to talk about abstraction in language when I was writing an intro for my senior thesis students’ show…it was the first book she ever wrote and she published it when she was 23. So I was thinking about it with my students, who are also all about that age. It’s a very direct and emotive kind of book. 

I’m constantly moving between the modes of fiction and nonfiction. Earlier this year, I taught a few chapters of a book titled Reciprocal Landscapes written by landscape architect Jane Hutton about the relationship between raw materials– where they come from, and where they end up– which is also tangentially related to my studio work. It’s about landscape, labor, and industry, and it led to some interesting conversations with my senior students about the origins of the materials they use, and also just about reciprocity in a broader sense. 

The best show I saw recently was the Miyoko Ito show at Matthew Marks. I felt like my lungs expanded when I walked into that space and saw the work.

Eleanor Conover in her Carlisle, PA studio, 2023
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