that Balances the Visual with the Verbal
The question that has been put to Ellen
Frank is this: how did shea very contemporary artist living
out in the Springsbecome the master of a Renaissance-style
atelier with an eager group of apprentices whom she is instructing
in the ancient art of illumination?
It is a question prompted by her recent selection as a recipient
of a New York State Council on the Arts grant to fund an illuminated
manuscript apprentice program, and it has the effect of momentarily
silencing the fluent Ms. Frank.
Its just a brief pause. Then Ms. Frankwhose incense-steeped
home, casually exotic dress and conversational agility hint at
the California transplant she issettles on a starting point.
The story begins in the late 70s when she was teaching and
working on a doctoral degree in literature at Berkeley.
Because her lifelong love of the word has been equaled only by
her lifelong love for painting, she says she was looking for a
way to accommodate both passions in one thesis. She solved the
problem by proposing an exploration of the relationship between
literature and architecture, a topic that led to a book, Literary
Architecture: Essays Towards a Tradition. And out of that book,
which sets forth an idea about the mind based on an architectural
structure, came the intellectual underpinnings of
everything I have done since, says Ms. Frank.
The great writers have talked about it from antiquity,
she says of the notion of architecture as a symbol of the mind.
An example: Roman orators had a trick for remembering their speeches
that involved creating an imaginary architectural structure, putting
a fresco in each of its rooms, then taking a mental stroll through
the interior and allowing the frescos to trigger memories of the
points they wanted to make.
The book dropped me at the front door of painting,
says Ms. Frank, who has been mixing the visual and the verbal
Well, almost ever since. At first Ms. Frank, who says she didnt
really start painting until she was 30, thought that expressing
herself visually would thrust her into some wordless realm.
When I started to paint, she says, it was about
silence, about giving up language, even though language pulsed
through me and erupted sometimes. She thought the impulse
to paint came from some need to discover that which was
not wordedthe perceptual, the feltto understand what
was outside the ken of language.
But that assumption was based on the ideaonce prevalent,
though now less so, she saysthat painters are visual, writers
verbal and the divide never falls. The image of the dumb, inarticulate
painter was ingrained, says Ms. Frank, and though she must have
known she was no dumb, inarticulate painter, she also felt that
literary credentials such as she possessed might be a problem.
I hid my past in some ways, says Ms. Frank. Very
few dealers were interested in that.
Then, on a visit to the Museum of Modern Art, Ms. Frank was liberated
by something the sculptor Joseph Beuys had to say about inspiration.
He spoke of batteries, she recalls, and suggested
that each artists imagination is fired by something akin
to one, something that gives it a charge.
I started to think about what charges me, recalls
Ms. Frank, and realized that language has charged me as
well as image. So I started to go back and incorporate language
into the work and to look at the earliest written pages in history,
the original illuminated manuscripts. (From her studio,
she retrieves a favorite example, a copy of a book of Persian
paintings from 1330 in which riddles posed in the most artful
script are answered in playful images, and rhymes are completed
in similar visual fashion.)
So, with her battery firing away, Ms. Frank embarked full throttle
on a study program of her own design. She deepened her research,
spent hours in museums and libraries, poring over illuminated
manuscripts from all different countries. She familiarized
herself with their shared and distinct characteristics and, along
the way, she mastered the skills that she is now passing along
to her apprentice illuminators.
When she felt she was ready, she created a series of 13 illuminations,
which were exhibited first in New York and then at the Renee Fotouhi
Gallery in East Hampton. There someone saw the show and
invited me to work on the story of Hanukkah, says Ms. Frank.
I had never heard of Hebrew illuminations, she says.
They are totally amazing.
She spent days at the Jewish division of the New York Public Library,
which has an extraordinary collection of Hebrew illuminated manuscripts
and where the director set aside an entire room for her use.
The Jews did illuminations wherever they lived, notes
Ms. Frank, Egypt, Cairo, Germany, Morocco. And though
their illuminations were obviously influenced by the countries
in which they were living, there were also two characteristics
that were constants in all of their work. Jewish illuminators
invariably shaped text into images (animals, castles, and the
like), a technique known as carmina figurata; and they favored
the use of diminutive script, or micrography.
Though she had never heard of either, says Ms. Frank, I
found I had done this in my own paintings without knowing it.
And, indeed, there is a large canvas in her living roomone
that dates back several yearsin which she has expressed
herself in words as well as in paint, in tiny shaped text.
In addition to the Hanukkah story, which has never before been
illuminated, Ms Frank was approached to work on the King Arthur
story. Everywhere she went, the work she was doing seemed to evoke
a lot of excitement and it occurred to her that establishing an
atelier where others could learn what she knows and become participants
in creating illuminated manuscripts would be a wonderful way to
spread the excitement around.
In fact, she says she has vivid memories of her own enthusiastic
response, when at the age of 20, she attended the famous Tamarind
Lithography Workshop, an atelier that was founded in Los Angeles
and is credited with reviving the fine art of lithography.
I never forgot it, she says. The potential to do for
illumination what Tamarind did for lithography seemed obvious
and so she applied for the grant, got it, issued an open call
for apprentices, and was off to a flying start.
On this particular day in late January, she is between sessions,
she says, on the verge off issuing another call for apprentices.
Ideally, three to five people work in three-week clusters for
an 18-week period, some working as many as five days a week, others
as few as three days a week, four hours a day. The rotation is
designed to introduce as many individuals as possible to
illumination skills and atelier structure, according to
Artistic ability is not a requirement, she says, though apprentices
do have to have manual dexterity. They dont necessarily
have to have any artistic experience, she stresses. I
She says that one of the most gratifying aspects of the project
is the opportunity it gives her to reintroduce the kind of ego-free
environment for the creation of art that was the hallmark of the
original ateliers on which hers is modeled.
The guilds and the ateliers were cooperatives, she
says. To be sure, the hand of the master was evident and responsible
for the over-arching design of an illuminated manuscript.
But the craftsperson was the most important person in the atelier,
and, as a group, they produced something much greater than
the sum of its parts.
What she expects the Springs atelier to produce as its initial
project is Hanukkah Illuminated: A Book of Days, a manuscript
Ms. Frank has designed to be faithful in essential ways to ancient
patterns and practices, dazzling in its use of gold and rich colors,
full of verbal and visual puns, flights of fancy and beautiful
The thing thats so mind-boggling, says Ms. Frank,
is that there are no limits for the imagination. Imagistically
there are no rules.