Art Maker: Ellen Grobman, painter

  • Ellen Grobman works at her home studio in Leverett on paintings for her current exhibit at UMass Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ellen Grobman says a surprise encounter a few years ago with writer Philip Roth helped clarify her thoughts about her painting. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Painter Ellen Grobman works at her home studio in Leverett in preparation for her current exhbit at UMass Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • “Cochi” by Ellen Grobman. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • “Hey, Shrimpy” by Ellen Grobman STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Published: 3/7/2019 4:06:56 PM

Leverett painter Ellen Grobman, who has just opened an exhibit, “There, Not There,” at Hampden Gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says her new work aims “to bring something into being, disrupt it, and then flirt with its destruction.” It’s part of what first drew her to painting — the idea of creating another world with her paintbrushes.

As she explains, “Ultimately, if the painting is successful, there is a somewhat shifting balance between order and chaos. Part of me wants to stop at the beginning, avoid the inevitable nasty mess, but I quickly lose interest if I haven’t really worked through what seems like an organic life cycle. If I knew what the painting would look like at the beginning, I would have no desire to paint it.”

Hampshire Life: Talk about the work you're currently doing. What does it involve, and what are you trying to achieve?

Ellen Grobman: The paintings in the UMass show all start with patterns that come from a variety of sources: textiles, design, really anything that interests me. I’ll draw them out, and as I start painting and establish order, I then work to destroy it. I think it’s through this uncomfortable process that I eventually find the meaning in the piece.

HL: What do you draw inspiration from? 

EG: I’m inspired by looking at and discussing really good art. I look at a lot of artists’ work in catalogues, cards and books. I’ve been looking at a painter named John Walker for quite awhile; I love how he organizes space in quirky and interesting ways, and I’ve paid homage in a couple of new paintings by stealing his stripes.

I’m also fortunate to be part of a long-running critique group. I find going to other studios, seeing the development of a body of work, and giving and receiving honest critiques to be irreplaceable.

HL: Have you ever had a “mistake” — a project that seemed to be going south — turn into a wonderful discovery instead?

EG: About five years ago, when Philip Roth announced he was finished writing fiction, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. By coincidence, I was having some trouble with my painting, and I would go back and forth between thinking what a relief it would be to just stop painting, and how could I stop doing the thing that is the most integral part of me?

A couple weeks later, I was walking by Zabar’s in New York City and I spotted Philip Roth right in front of me: I blurted out “Oh, it’s you” to him. Instead of avoiding me like I was a crazy person, he was lovely and generous. When I told him I thought I somewhat understood his decision to stop writing fiction, he simply said that when he looks back on his work, he sees all the mistakes.

That felt like a gift, one that I now often take out when I’m having trouble painting, that even a writer as successful as Roth felt this. It was the feature, not the bug. And you choose to write or paint or make music, anyway, until at some point, maybe you don’t.

HL: Dream dinner party — who would you invite?

EG: Nadine Gordimer, Leonard Cohen, Elena Ferrante (she could come in disguise), Barry Jenkins, and the Coen brothers. I could add so many more people I’d want to feed and listen to, but I think this could be a very lively group. 

HL: What's your go-to snack while you're working?

EG: I almost never differ in what I eat for lunch or snacks while I’m working, which might sound boring. But if I’m having a hard time with a painting, it might be the most exciting part of my day. So: grilled cheese and caramelized tomatoes for lunch, and Uncle Jerry’s Extra Dark pretzels for a snack, and of course chocolate — milk not dark, thank you.

— Steve Pfarrer

Ellen Grobman’s UMass Amherst show runs through March 31. Her website is

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