Painter Elizabeth Pollie finds visual inspiration everywhere
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the June 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art June 2013 print issue, or get the Southwest Art June 2013 digital download now…Or better yet, just subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
For years, a certain pastoral scene would come to mind for artist Elizabeth Pollie, an almost dreamlike memory of a sweet green pasture dotted with lambs. The image in Pollie’s mind would recur periodically, lovely and serene, but she could never recollect when she had been there or where it was. Then one day as she was helping her parents pack to move, she saw it: The scene so intimately impressed in her memory since childhood, every detail alive and clear, was a painting that hung in the family home when she was a girl. An intensely visual child, Pollie had insinuated herself so completely into the painting that all boundaries between herself and the image had dissolved. “Sometimes people who like my art say they can feel it,” she reflects, “and that’s how it was with this scene for me—I felt it, I smelled it, I heard it. I think that’s the power of art.”
Other items Pollie came across in her parents’ basement also suggest the influences that set her on a particular path: sketches made by her father as a teenager, revealing his natural artistic bent, and a portrait of Elizabeth painted by her father at the family’s summer cottage in northern Michigan—the same lakeside area where, years later, the artist would meet and fall in love with her second husband, and where she now lives. When Pollie was packing her own house to make that move 12 years ago, she found one more long-forgotten item confirming what she’s always known. It’s a scrap of paper saved from first grade, on which young Elizabeth had carefully written her response to her teacher’s question about what she would be when she grew up. “I am going to be an artist,” she declared.
The journey from there to here has been circuitous and long. Yet each spiral over familiar territory—back to her lifelong love of representational art, back to art school, back to northern Michigan—has brought a deepening of experience and greater mastery of skills, as well as trust in her own, somewhat unconventional approach to art. This conviction is affirmed by Pollie’s broad collector base and the numerous awards she has received over the years, including a Silver Medal at the Oil Painters of America National Exhibition in 2011 and a Best of Show at the Salmagundi Club in New York in 2010.
Today Pollie spends her days in a large, bamboo-floored studio that once was an architect’s office in the lakeside town of Harbor Springs, MI. A wall of shelves contains objects gathered in travels and items from a lifetime of collecting special little things, some of which turn up in her still-life work: silver bowls and pitchers, shells, porcelain figurines, feathers and nests, a small white teacup from France. As a young child, the “precious things” she collected included soda bottle caps, which she carefully ranked according to how rare it was to find each kind.
Pollie’s easel on any day may hold a still life, a landscape, a portrait, a city scene from travels in Europe or Asia, or an animal image, especially enormous draft horses or a placid cow. The 55-year-old artist works in series, immersing herself in one genre for weeks or months at a time. She’s been told it would behoove her to focus on one genre and become known for that. But as she passionately declares, her personality and interests were not made to fit in a box. “This world is full of diversity,” she says. “Basically it’s a continuous wheel of Look at this! Look at this! It’s in constant motion. And when I really connect with this incredible energy and beauty—this surging force of life on this amazing planet—that’s when I’m my most visual self. I need to be able to say, that is so captivating, I really want to paint it—whatever it is.”
Growing up in Flint, MI, and summering near Harbor Springs, Pollie’s earliest sources of visual inspiration were shaped by her father’s strong interest in architectural design (although he worked as a clinical psychologist) as well as his love of art. Elizabeth’s first oil painting, at age 10, was of a neighboring house. Her father set her up at the living-room window with his rarely used easel and paints, offering thoughts about color and value he had picked up on his own. Pollie’s mother, a progressive educator ahead of her time, encouraged her daughter’s creative spirit.
Pollie drifted through school with the well-deserved nickname of Polly-Wolly-Doodle-All-the-Day, but as a teen her focus began to become clear. In high school she attended community-college art courses and set her sights on a university art degree. Her experience at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, however, left her feeling empty and alone. Hungry for academic art training, she found herself instead without real instruction in the laissez-faire atmosphere of abstract art. “For me there was no sweetness, no real kindness in that kind of art. I think about things that feel real, and abstraction and intellectualized art just don’t,” she explains. “If anything I’m very drawn to poetics, to the stuff that goes in and filters right into the center of your heart.”
In the late 1970s Pollie spent three months in Florence, Italy, studying printmaking. Some years later, following a divorce, she completed her art degree at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit (now the College for Creative Studies). For a time she taught illustration and worked in editorial illustration, a form of art which, except for the business aspect, finally felt like home. Then in 1994, a pivotal event took place that nudged her even more fully along her true artistic path—she attended her first plein-air workshop. “I learned more in five days than I ever did in prior painting classes,” she recalls.
In the following years, as she honed her representational painting skills, Pollie was also inching closer to realizing a longtime dream of living in Northern California. That dream was set aside in 2000 when she met the man who is now her husband, fell in love, and moved to Harbor Springs. Yet traces of a powerful emotional connection with Northern California—and with large, beautiful cows—emerged during a visit to the West Coast. Early one morning on a historic cattle farm near the sea, Pollie wandered among dairy cows as fog rolled off the ocean and then gave way to sun. “For me, it was a personal heaven,” she says of the experience, which resulted in THE SURENESS OF THINGS. “Cows feel so grounded. This kind of energy is so settling to me. To see her big body weighted, with green, green grass and fields and the ocean behind her—it feels so solid and tangible, so beautiful and real.”
Pollie’s deep love of animals is reflected as well in THE HORSE BEFORE THE CART. In Charleston, SC, the artist’s attention was caught by a horse standing under the vivid blue awning of a carriage house. The scene had all the elements that cry out to be painted—colors, shapes, shadows, and bouncing light. It also provided the perfect subject for an approach that is emerging more frequently in her art these days. Treating the surface using a variety of tools, she applies, layers, and scratches away paint, often revealing intense flecks of color and light. “The red pops out and pushes the rest back, so the space deepens and becomes more complex,” she observes. “Something mysteriously disappears and comes forward again.”
In Pollie’s hands, an intriguing sense of ambiguity often inhabits still-life paintings as well. The deliberate arrangement of a “little world of inanimate things feels very intimate to me, almost secretive,” she muses. “It can feel like a quiet little mystery going on.” On a larger scale, the monumental bronze lions of Trafalgar Square in London presented a particular challenge for the painter. Her work is characterized by a feeling of anchored stability, but also by a hushed sense of peace. The massive lions sit regally at a busy city crossroads flooded with tourists—hardly a quiet scene. For CROSSROADS AND KINGS Pollie settled on the image of a lone local man walking by. “He’s so used to it, he doesn’t even realize the grandeur he’s walking by,” she says. “It’s a snapshot of one moment in the city on an ordinary day.”
Pollie’s own daily life, with beach walks beside a seemingly endless lake and days spent doing what she loves, inspires many works that could share the title of a waterscape called HEAVEN CAN WAIT. “I don’t know if there’s a heaven, but I love being here now,” she affirms, smiling. “When you let go of the sadness, the elation that comes from being in this body, in this lifetime, is just stunning. I’m not looking forward to going anywhere.”
RS Hanna Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; Howard/Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, WA; Horton Hayes Fine Art, Charleston, SC; Paul Scott Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Mackinac’s Little Gallery, Mackinac Island, MI; Elizabeth Pollie Fine Art, Harbor Springs, MI.
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