Fresh Paint
Sunday, March 05, 2006
Eleanor Spiess-Ferris at College of Lake County
"The Magpie Chronicles," work by Eleanor Spiess-Ferris at the College of Lake County (Illinois), is a major show by a much-overlooked artist, one who has probably taught half the artists in Northern Illinois (me included), and is long, long due for recognition.

I must admit, I'm less fond of her oils than of her works on paper, in particular her brilliant gouaches. For example:

Late Fall -- Acceptance of Winter

If anyone out there can paint a better flower or bird in this difficult medium, let them show me. I defy them.

The Floater

All of the work in this show is from the last five years, a time following the death of her husband in which the artist has gone through significant changes in her life.

She has always used dense symbolism in her work and can rarely be cajoled into explaining it. We were lucky on Friday to hear her talk about her work in the way an artist can who best communicates with a flow of words, just as she does with a flow of images.

Tongues are pierced, eyes stare, hands shrink away, legs blossom, faces flatten, and birds and flowers fill the air, accompanied by stories of the bird-keeper, the woman who keeps the migrating birds for the winter, then lets them loose in the spring, but sometimes they are hurt during the voyage.

She told of the fox-tail that is wrapped around the neck of one of her women, an image that came from a Bruegel painting of cripples. Not just the sick were pinned with tails. Travelling actors were pinned with them too, apparently, since they spread disease -- but also news and education, something not appreciated in a totalitarian world.

Most of the time, however, she refused to explain her work, sometimes getting into sharp exchanges with the audience. "I am the middle," she declared. "You have to do what comes before and what comes after."

Then we broke for the reception (no booze, I'm afraid). "Everything I just said is a lie," she said, as we moved down the stairs.

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