Every Tuesday afternoon we’re featuring the work of an artist in our community to support them in cultivating a new audience, to give voice to their oft-unknown studio practice, and to build a diverse roster which participants in the contemporary arts & faith conversation might reference.
This profile was composed by Amy Neftzger, whose bio can be found by clicking her name above.
Pat Bellan-Gillan is the Dorothy L. Stubnitz Professor of Art at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. She received her M.F.A. in printmaking but also holds a B.S. in Art education as well as a B.F. A. in printmaking. She’s done numerous solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States, as well as overseas in places such as Italy and Japan. Her passion for her students and her craft are both obvious, and, despite the view that some individuals hold about the value of art in our culture being on the decline, Pat is very optimistic about the future of art and the role it can take in shaping society. She cites the growth of community art initiatives, such as the types of projects engaged in by the Conflict Kitchen in Pittsburgh, as examples for her optimism.
Her artistic efforts are filled with rich imagery and symbolism cradled in a bed of realism. Each piece is like a fragment of a story that carries yet another story or message within itself. Her compositions evoke strong impressions though engaging the viewer with elements of the bizarre married into pieces of reality. This work naturally draws the viewer into interpretation, often causing a person to imagine the rest of the story that took place before or after the scene on display. This is not passive art. The images are a beautiful combination of realism and fairy tale and might even be considered the visual equivalent of the literary genre magical realism. It’s whimsical, yet political. It’s realistic, yet fantastic. It’s difficult to classify, other than to say that it’s engaging.
Bellan-Gillen, on the concepts for her work
Years ago I watched a documentary about evolutionary theory and Christian Science. A paleontologist was asked if he would be upset if his children were taught bible stories as Christian Science. His answer surprised and moved me…“Yes, because these are beautiful stories and when they are taught as fact, as science, they lose their power.”Although I had been working with stories and symbols for a while, I began to look at a broader range of stories, from classics to comic books and revisiting Joseph Campbell. I started using imagery from tales from different time periods—fragments of stories that overlapped, that told the same tale in a different time, in a different culture or a different medium. I completed a number of drawings and paintings with the partial title of “Beautiful Stories.”
Two examples are:
Beautiful Stories/Rocky J. Squirrel as Ratatoskr, (2010)
Ratatoskr is a squirrel in a Nordic myth whose job is to run up and down a tree to annoy the giants (or snakes) at the top and bottom of the tree and keep them from going to war. In my favorite cartoon, it is the job of Rocky J. Squirrel and Bullwinkel J. Moose to thwart the cold war villains, Boris Badenov and Natasha Nogoodnik (Natasha Fatale).
Beautiful Stories/Alice as Lot’s Wife, (2011)
Both Alice in Wonderland and the biblical story of Lot’s Wife refer to obedience. Our interpretation of Lot’s Wife always disturbed me. She looked back in love—why was she turned to salt? Salt is vital. Was that not a reward? There is some thought that Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland as a reaction to the easy black and white morality of children’s literature in Victorian England.
My current work is less specific. I don’t start with a set narrative. The foliage that serves as a setting for action was inspired by etchings of Carl Wilhelm Kolbe and his contemporaries as well as fairy art and Disney animation. The oversized foliage is drawn to evoke thoughts of “Never Never Land,” “the cabbage patch,” Thumbelina, and other fairy tales. The bunnies and animals are used to enhance the feeling of fantasy. It is my hope that the television set has as many different interpretations as there are viewers. In my mind, it can be read many ways such as nostalgia, the vehicle for disseminating our contemporary stories, the vehicle for witnessing news and politics.
Symbols that work for her
I often describe my work as a mixture of imagery that is found through study and research with imagery that is felt and intuitive. Certain symbols are chosen for their specific meaning or association: the monkey, evolution; the stag, Christ. Some are chosen because they have many assigned and conflicting associated meanings, ven within one cultural or religious group. I often use the image of the grinning Jack o’Lantern because it is a symbol that is associated with a pagan celebration, Halloween that in turn is associated with a Christian holiday, All Saints Day. Like the snowman, the carved pumpkin is an example of our need to make things in our image. The bear, (Bouquet 2) has dozens of meanings, from Mother Earth, to Mother Russia to the UCLA Bruins. It represents tranquility, power, peace, fierceness and duality. It can be good or bad. I like this quote Arturo Scwharz wrote in an essay about Mimmo Paladino:
“The poetic quality of the work depends on the fact that its creator is motivated by forces and drives of which he is unaware. A great artist is an unwitting alchemist. He explores the memory of an archetypal world without realizing it. The motifs of archetypal symbolism emerge in his work independently of his will. It is not the artist who creates the symbol, quite the contrary, it is the symbol that imposes itself on the artist …
Imagery such as the vintage 1960’s television, the sawfish, the bunnies and the snowman imposed themselves on me.
Some symbols are recurring, but this is not necessarily intentional. Although looking over my history of work, I realize that I do work in series, but I never set out to do so—I actually loathe the thought of planning a series. I guess work begets work because ideas for other pieces flow from working. While I am working on one piece ideas appear for others.
After years of studying cultural, dream, mythological and religious symbols, I am beginning to believe that the most important signs are the images that appear and keep pressing on one’s mind with no explanation—unexpected but oddly recognizable visions that flash across the brain when words and phrases like doubt, reality TV, turn to salt or separation of church and state are heard, or the nascent compositions that appear while revisiting the pages of vintage Mad Magazine or hearing the memorable Da-Da-DaDa-DaDa theme song from the Rocky and Bullwinkel Show. Honoring these puzzling visages maps the direction that I have begun to follow. This new body of work combines ideas and imagery generated through study and research with ideas and imagery that are felt, intuitive and enigmatic.
The lines between realism and fantasy
My work is intended to blur the lines between fantasy and realism, as well as create some tension between the two. I am inserting part of the statement that I wrote for my upcoming show, Necessary Fictions here:
Joan Didion titles a collection of essays, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, and in The Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel writes, “God made Man because He loves stories.” In his book, The Story Telling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall draws on neuroscience, psychology and evolutionary biology to explain how storytelling has evolved to ensure our survival and how stories make us human.
Images from our collective stories—our necessary fictions—lurk in my brain. Personal narrative mixes with fairytales. Historical events intertwine with the imagined, and the veil of nostalgia blurs the border between fact and fiction. Archetypal imagery dances in the temporal lobe with cartoon characters and recent news flashes picked from the Internet join the sagas of black and white television. The work in this exhibition uses these bits and pieces of visual history, the “the true and the false” of memory to suggest a narrative and remix our stories. These disorderly notions are exploited and employed in an attempt to engage the viewer’s associative responses and to jar the forgotten memories and stories that lay quietly below the surface.
Also, because I do draw and paint with realistic modeling and form, I think the use of a monochrome or limited color scheme takes the image a step away from pure realism. The use of the “not quite real”palette accepts overlay and a variety of rendering styles in one composition more readily than a full realistic color rendering. Because I am trying to reference the feeling of fairytales and fantasy in the current work, I use the monochrome to reflect old time illustrations, etchings and lithographs (I also have a strong background in printmaking, particularly lithography).
Stories as a source of inspiration
A few of my favorite stories are Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio and the Wizard of Oz. I love Alice and the related works and poems because the words are wonderful and the imagery that can be conjured up is so rich. Through the fantasy, Lewis Carroll is able to tell a tale appealing (maybe a bit scary) to a child and also take a stab at Victorian culture.
Pinocchio is a great adventure, the hero’s quest, a morality play and a creation story rolled into one…and what an iconic image Carlo Collodi gave us. The Wizard of Oz is also a great adventure, the hero’s quest and a religious story. I also like that the hero is a girl.
You can see more of Pat’s work on her website.