Arts Magazine: Treatment Plan

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Treatment Plan: Narrative Drawings by Gabrielle Ellertson

Born in 1937 in Germany, Gabriele Ellertson survived the ravages of war and its aftermath. Despite the hardships endured, today she speaks matter-of-factly about her family losing its home and moving from one refugee camp to another. Clearly she lives in the moment and is grounded in her art and in the physical truth of her world.

Gabriele's mother, an amateur artist, encouraged her young daughter's passion for drawing. But it was the broken German economy that dictated Gabriele's first career path. Strongly urged by her family to train for practical work, she studied science and medical technology for two years at the University of Marburg in West Germany. At age 23 she moved to South Africa and began working as a medical researcher. Her experience as an X-ray technician and her involvement with a variety of virus studies were revelatory: What you see with your eyes is often only half the story.

Several years after she had married Carroll Ellertson and borne three daughters, Gabriele began her formal art training-through a correspondence program with the University of South Africa, at Pretoria. During much of the 1970s the family lived in a Zulu village of 900 people, a place called Rorkes Drift. Ellertson and her husband taught painting, drawing, printmaking, and tapestry weaving at the community's Art and Craft Center, a combination school and studio that served 200 African artists and craftspeople. As instructor and assistant to the director of the center, Gabriele organized exhibitions of African art in both South Africa and the United States.

Toward the end of their South African stay, Ellertson studied printmaking with Karl Bethke, a University of Minnesota instructor and master printer who came to Rorkes Drift for a year. In 1979 she and her family moved, for medical reasons, to the U.S. and settled in Minnesota, her husband's native state. Here she pursued a master's of fine arts degree at the University of Minnesota, which she received in 1980.

Gabriele Ellertson credits Lynn Gray, an artist and professor in the graduate program at the University of Minnesota, with helping her recognize that drawing could be an end in itself. Historically, drawing has been considered a means to some other end; preliminary sketches and studies are realized later in a print or a painting. But since graduate school, Ellertson has actively demonstrated her belief in drawing as a primary and independent art form, one she reveres for its directness. "You put your mark down, and you know exactly what you have," she explains succinctly. The great drawers of modern history, especially Cy Twombly and his kinesthetic abstractions, inspire her. And her artistic sensibility is also connected to the very fundamental mark-making of prehistoric tradition-such as the 20,000-year-old drawings in caves like Lascaux.

Ellertson's work of the past decade has been notable for its directness of vision and difficult subject matter. Also evident is her frank appreciation for the drawn mark and the simple tools that make it. A certain kind of grace surrounds her images of illness and death, tempering their inherent darkness. The striking effect of Ellertson's work is elegance, not morbidity.

A one-woman exhibition of Ellertson's work, titled "Treatment Plan," is on view in the Institute's Minnesota Gallery from November 11, 1994, to January 15, 1995. Presented by the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, "Treatment Plan" features three distinct cycles of narrative drawing in which the artist explores several conceptual themes and pursues her intention of making the invisible visible.

For example, in her cycle of medical drawings and her use of technology to reveal bodily structure, she combines images originally seen by the artist's naked eye with those seen through the "eyes" of the X-ray machine and the CAT scanner. (The title of the exhibition is, in fact, a term associated with CAT-scan technology. It refers to a radiation strategy, as well as to the question of treating drawing as a viable art form.) Ellertson adds a third dimension to these two kinds of vision: the unseen but nonetheless palpably real response of the body to distress. The result are drawings of body surface, skeletal structure, tissue pattern, and the perceived sensation of pain or illness that illustrate the multifaceted nature of physical reality.

On a certain level these works are connected to her husband's death and her own experience with illness and recovery, But she is clear to state that they are more generally about awareness and life. "When you are healthy, you don't know your body," she says. "Stress makes a body aware of its trouble, aware of its existence." Ellertson hopes these works will encourage viewers to consider the truth of their own physical existence.

The second cycle is a collection of sparsely drawn humorous images that resulted from a month-long residency, in 1993, with a West German art association called GEDOK Studios in Luebeck. Near the end of her stay Ellertson ran out of drawing materials and was presented with two bottles of ink-one black, one yellow-with which to work. On one of her daily walks in the woods nearby- "The German woods are very dark and sculpted, and they are filled with large black slugs"-she captured a snail-like creature and took it to her room to study. Then, armed with paper, brush, yellow and black ink, and an invertebrate model, she began a series of woks that reveal the surprising beauty of this simple life-form. Ellertson playfully depicts the slug in a variety of anthropomorphic states-startled, confused, transparent. Although these drawings are unusual for their implicit humor, they are consistent with Ellertson's larger body of work in two important ways: They tell a story, and they reveal a direct appreciation for the simple materials and truths of the physical world.

In her third cycle of drawings Ellertson links the German versions of the stories of Hansel and Gretel and Rapunzel with Gothic Christian imagery to disclose intersecting themes of sacrifice and transformation. Her merging of the sacred with the prosaic (Rapunzel and the Gothic Christ are drawn to be one and the same) subverts the absolutes of religion, presenting it instead as a cultural construct. "There are no absolutes," declares Ellertson. Ever skeptical about religious conventions, she favors an existential approach to questions of morality and mortality. "This is it!" she states emphatically. "Nothing comes of putting a body in the ground but the radishes on top."

There may seem to be a pervasive darkness to Gabriele Ellertson's philosophy. But without darkness there is no light. And this singular artist is quick to point out that mere radishes represent a marvelous miracle of their own.

Cynde Randall is an artist and the program associate for the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program.

Gabriele Ellertson will lead a public tour of her exhibition on Sunday, January 8, at 3 P.M.

The Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is made possible by the Jerome Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Major support for the Institute's exhibitions is provided by The Bush Foundation and the Dayton Hudson Foundation on behalf of Dayton's and Target Stores.

Citation: Cynde Randall, "Treatment Plan: Narrative Drawings by Gabrielle Ellertson," Arts 17, no. 11 (November 1994): 6-7.