The Southampton Press

February 15, 2001
An Aesthetic that Balances the Visual with the Verbal
By Mary Cummings

The question that has been put to Ellen Frank is this: how did she—a very contemporary artist living out in the Springs—become 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.

It’s just a brief pause. Then Ms. Frank—whose incense-steeped home, casually exotic dress and conversational agility hint at the California transplant she is—settles 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 ever since.

Well, almost ever since. At first Ms. Frank, who says she didn’t 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 worded—the perceptual, the felt—to understand what was outside the ken of language.”

But that assumption was based on the idea—once prevalent, though now less so, she says—that 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 artist’s 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 room—one that dates back several years—in 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 Ms. Frank.

Artistic ability is not a requirement, she says, though apprentices do have to have manual dexterity. “They don’t necessarily have to have any artistic experience,” she stresses. “I train them.”

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 images.

“The thing that’s so mind-boggling,” says Ms. Frank, “is that there are no limits for the imagination. Imagistically there are no rules.”

Issue Date: Southampton Press 02/15/2001