MAKERS: Eileen Dorsey
“I don’t see myself as a landscape artist,” admits Eileen Dorsey… I can’t help but chuckle as I look around her space in 78th Street Studios, the walls covered with colorful landscapes. She corrects herself – “I know I paint landscapes, but I see them as something more.” I agree.
Dorsey is known for her oil landscapes – usually she depicts deep, lush forests, painted with intensely vibrant colors and a heavy impasto (paint applied so thickly it stands off of the surface of the painting). I’ve always wondered about the locations of these landscapes – these acid-colored forests. Are they real places? Or does she work from her imagination? Well, I got my answer.
Dorsey uses source material – but there’s a bit of magic involved. Photographs from several locations are spread on a table, then Dorsey “builds” her view using these puzzle pieces. Seaming them together, choosing one tree over another, moving and scaling until she finds a composition that works. Quick sketches reinforce her idea, and she swiftly moves on to the canvas.
And while this source material is used as a road map of sorts, Dorsey never lets herself get tied down to a strict plan. Her process is much more fluid and spontaneous, as she explains: “In my experience, having less of a plan makes for more successful paintings. This way, I can let the painting speak to me (not literally, I don’t hear voices) and push me into the direction I need to go, rather than telling it how to be. Don’t get me wrong, I do process and think about what I am making thoroughly, I just don’t have a manual that I am following.” Spontaneity allows Dorsey to paint from her gut, resulting in “impressions of familiar places or feelings”, not realistic landscapes.
The most obvious way that Dorsey accomplishes this is through a strong and unusual use of color. Her work has always reminded me of the landscapes made by the “Fauves” (French for “Wild Beasts”) – an early twentieth century avant-garde group of painters. Artists like Andre Derain and Henri Matisse were experimenting with color in a very radical way for the time – instead of using color in a normal descriptive manner, they used color to communicate their emotional state. And their colors screamed with raw intensity – sickeningly bright yellows and oranges, hot reds and greens – straight out of the tube (a relatively new invention), and all applied in shocking and unnatural ways.
Derain famously claimed to use “color as a means of expressing my emotion and not as a transcription of nature.” – he didn’t care if his choices were true to life. Like Derain, Dorsey uses color to express feeling, and in unusual ways – quickly laying down the scene to capture her feelings at that moment: “I want to get whatever feeling I am having on the canvas as fast as I can, before I lose it.”
Dorsey’s tool of choice is her trusty palette knife, which not only allows for the swift application of paint, but helps keep her studio more “green”: “I started using a palette knife not just because I loved the immediacy and texture of the mark it produced, but also because it allowed me to skip the turpentine. Instead of painstakingly cleaning my brushes with toxic fumes, I can easily clean my blade with a swipe of a cloth. This way I am exposing myself to less toxins.”
In addition, Dorsey experiments with technique – case in point her “oil reductions” (above). She starts by painting up a scene with thick, heavy layers of paint – then she lays a blank canvas across the wet painting, lifting up a new composition from the original – like a stamp. As you can see above, what results is two eerily similar paintings, one a “negative” of sorts, and the other a “positive”.
The texture of these paintings reveals the energy with which Dorsey lays down her pigment. With quick and assured movements, she builds up the paint into heavy peaks and smooth valleys – on close inspection, your eye happily takes in the turbulent surface of the canvas. I can imagine her attacking a new painting, blasting the Queens of the Stone Age through her studio speakers (one of her favorites).
She describes her painting style as “aggressive” – but I wouldn’t think of it as having a negative connotation. I think she means aggressive more like confident, self-assured, or bold. She explains:
“I have always been fascinated with confident mark making and any art or artist that can put a stroke onto the surface with a purpose. I am naturally drawn to works where the paint is raised off the surface and you can see the force with which the mark was made by the thickness and thinness of the paint at either end.”
And Dorsey’s paint really is thick – as you can see in the detail below.
This painting depicts an actual place – “Fields of Yellowstone” is the title(above). It’s an older work (2011), but I think it illustrates how Dorsey arrived at her current mystical forests. Here is a fairly realistic depiction of a field in Yellowstone National Park, with areas of white snow and a blue sky that almost makes me feel the crispness of the cold. I can tell its a special place, and one that she has seen for herself. Dorsey loves the outdoors, and I think it’s evident in her paintings:
“I have connected to forests since I was a little girl and used to spend my summers exploring the ones near my home. I have always felt a sense of wonder when I had the trees surrounding me, like I have stepped into a whole new world with its own sounds, temperature and creatures. In a way, I always thought the trees were the guardians of the forest and with that thought I have respected them.”
Dorsey is of course not the first artist to find magic in the woods – artists have perennially ventured out of urban centers to the countryside, in search of well, something: the Barbizon painters in the Fontainebleau Forest, Cezanne in the hills of Aix-en-Provence, Albert Bierstadt in the White Mountains, and Anselm Adams in Yosemite for example.
I know what Dorsey is talking about when she describes that almost supernatural feeling you have when engulfed by trees deep in a forest – the temperature drops and a strange silence falls around you. The rest of the world seems so far away – it’s almost like you’re on another planet. Trying to capture that feeling on a canvas is tremendously difficult, but Dorsey’s current work definitely takes me there – and the fantastical colors she uses are what best convey this inexplicable experience. As she points out, “The colors I use have become more vibrant over the years and I think help communicate that sense of other-worldliness. At least that’s what I think the paintings are saying to me but who knows, they do their own thing.”
You can visit Eileen Dorsey’s studio in 78th Street Studios (Suite 105) during Third Fridays. She will also be hosting Chicago post-graffiti expressionist, Ish Muhammad, this fall for a residency that ends with a closing reception on Friday, September 15 from 5 – 9pm during Third Friday. Read more about Dorsey and her studio in the most recent issue of the CAN Journal.