Ellen Orseck is a Houston artist who tells narratives with her work, where “the subjects are selected to evoke different responses to life, to illuminate, or to call to mind human emotions.” Orseck speaks highly of her experience in Houston and how this art hub has benefitted her work.
Although originally from Baltimore, Orseck has spent time all over the United States. She studied painting as an undergraduate at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore before receiving a Master’s Degree in Museum Education from George Washington University and a Master’s Degree in Painting from New York University. Her first husband worked for American Airlines, sparking the beginning of her journey to Houston. They moved from Manhattan to Oklahoma to Dallas before finally settling in Houston in 1987. During this time period, Orseck worked for museums as a curator and had not yet begun her career as a professional painter.
Orseck describes the process of being an artist as akin to the process of being human. A key aspect to the development of a child is his or her exposure to the outside world. The same goes for an artist. Opportunities for artists to get their work viewed in public and learn from feedback are important for the growth of the person. Houston provides ample resources assisting the artists. The city is home to many alternative spaces, allowing artists to show their work early, without the hassle of receiving gallery representation. Spaces such as cafés, restaurants, venue halls, etc. help upcoming artists “get their foot in the door” and see what the market is like. Houston is also home to a wide selection of over fifty galleries. This is one of the biggest numbers of galleries in a metro city. Organizations such as Lawndale Art and Visual Arts Alliance also provide wonderful opportunities for artists who have never been seen to show their work and gain publicity.
Besides helping artists gain exposure, Houston also helps a creator develop inspiration. Orseck discussed how when she is in need of inspiration, she must look both within and around herself. Houston has so many museums and spaces where people can go to absorb ideas and creations, such as the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Houston Ballet, and the multiple theaters (ranging from free performances at Miller Outdoor to the acclaimed Alley Theatre productions). Orseck feels that artists need to be exposed to everything and Houston does a wonderful job providing new opportunities for learning.
Houston also hosts its own esteemed universities, such as Rice University, University of Houston, and University of St. Thomas. The art programs of these schools allow for students to attain their art “pedigree.” While there are “outside artists,” or artists who have no formal education and are naturally creative, the traditionally established artists are noted for their edification. These schools bring in guest lectures and exhibits, furthering the exposure and education of the viewers.
A final and unique part of Houston that is hard to find in other art hubs is the sense of camaraderie found among artists. Orseck has found the artists she has interacted with in Houston to be generous and consistently supportive of each other’s work. The art world is always a competition, but she has found this type of competiveness not ‘a clawing in the back’ type of energy. When someone receives an award, everyone is happy. When an application for a contest or opportunity for recognition arises, it is shared among the community. Whether this is a side effect of the accepted stereotype of Texan friendliness or just a good mixture of supportive people, Orseck feels surrounded by encouragement in her Houston community.
Although Orseck loves Houston, she stresses the importance of travel and experiencing different cultures for inspiration. She travels with her husband, an art collector, allowing her to gain stimulation from many things. She would like to live closer to water, since water has been a major inspiration to her work. She would also like to go back to school, preferably Yale, and continue her studies, but her mother also lives in Houston and she would like to remain near her.
Orseck’s work contains multiple mediums, and when asked she could not choose a favorite. She uses watercolor, acrylic, oil, monotype ink, and has also utilized trash to make sculptures. Orseck says she never feels pride when she finishes a work, but mostly surprise at what has come out or embarrassment. Many of her paintings have other paintings underneath that she decided she did not like. Her piece, “Miles to Go Before I Sleep,” which was a Finalist in the Hunting Prize Competition, was painted over a portrait of a woman.
All of Orseck’s work is autobiographical in some way; she feels that she lives in every painting. Her “Sumo Series” began when her son gave her a mini sumo wrestler stress ball for Mother’s Day. He was trying to inspire her, but she was momentarily annoyed at the silliness of the gift. However, while eating at a restaurant, the ball accidentally fell into her matzo ball soup and the absurdity of the image inspired her.
In the world she creates, the change in the size of the wrestler adds a surreal quality, as they battle the larger and more powerful food. The series is autobiographical in how Orseck has felt she has battled food and weight her whole life. She felt she was always grappling with overeating and her body image. She found the idea of sumos reveling in their fatness amusing, making her pieces both comical and serious.
Her “Storm Series” began from her experience living in Oklahoma. She lived through many tornadoes, which began her fascination with the strength of nature. She deeply respects Mother Nature and remains in awe of its power. After moving to Houston, Orseck experienced hurricanes, particularly Hurricane Ike and Hurricane Rita, which continued her inspiration from storms. Her portrayal of the storms also relates to her experience with internal struggle.
One of Orseck’s series is titled, “Made in Texas,” and contains portraits of celebrated Texan artists in every creative field, with a majority practicing in, or originating from Houston. Orseck was curious as to how creative people in different disciplines went about their work, and whether there was continuity in the process. After meeting and spending time with each person, Orseck said she found that creativity just “hits” people; that everyone begins with chaos and then refines and shifts until something comes together. She chose each person based on their level of achievement and also the character and attributes of the face. The artists in the series include:
For more information on Ellen Orseck, visit her website: http://www.ellenorseck.com/index.html
Her studio at Winter Street Studios is open for viewing from 2 pm to 5 pm, every second Saturday of the month.