Garden of the Grotesques
The Whimsical, Horrific World of Ellen Wetmore
On Route 113 toward Ellen Wetmore’s home and studio in Groton, trees arch over the roadway, ivy climbs rock walls and time seems to roll back. “Living among the cows,” as the artist puts it, offers space for her two boys to run, as well as a quiet retreat to produce art.
Wetmore is an associate professor of art and design at UMass Lowell, in addition to being an internationally recognized contemporary artist who creates videos, sculptures, drawings and interactive art. Her work is exhibited regularly, whether on the 80-foot-tall marquee in front of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center or at events such as Bulgaria’s Videoholica or the Sandwell Arts Festival in England.
On this day, the perky artist comes to the door wearing a coral-colored blouse with a Rudolph-like deer pattern. The sweet, nostalgic top with Peter Pan collar contrasts sharply with her fish skeleton necklace. This tension between comfort and discomfort is found in much of Wetmore’s work.
Her 2014 video “Grotesques” presents a decorative collage of red and purple bougainvillea, insects, a frog, baroque-framed beach images, and a woman struggling with yoga poses. Once the video begins, all the objects move. The frog’s throat throbs as if croaking. A man’s head [Wetmore’s husband, artist Jeff Warmouth] pops out of the sand. A figure lowers her Grecian robe, and an eye in a sand sculpture blinks.
It’s a complex video that took Wetmore more than a year to create. “This particular image describes many things: the least recognizable might be Rapunzel’s wandering in the wastelands with her children in search of her missing prince,” she writes on her website. “There is also a Venus Anadyomene shot on the coast in Haifa, an inappropriate dèjeuner sur l’herbe, coupling bugs, Magritte nesting dolls, a semi-naked Victory, and very clumsy yoga.” Images are pieced together, she writes, “like a cut paper collage in which all the bits of paper contain moving images.”
The term grotesque originated around 1500, when Romans first discovered parts of Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden House) in a “grotto.” The fantastic frescoes of demons and figures, some part-human/part-animal, amazed them. They named them “grotesques.” However, grotesque can also refer to a quilt-like arrangement of images. Both definitions are relevant to Wetmore’s video.
The artist’s studio is located on the second floor of her home. It’s a large room with a vaulted ceiling, wide drawing tables and shelves overflowing with art books. Her marbled drawings are inspired in part by the Domus Aurea frescoes, but also by Hieronymus Bosch’s quirky and demonic figures, and the four-color Bic pen linework Raúl Gonzalez III used in making his graphic novels “Lowriders in Space” and “Lowriders to the Center of the Earth.”
Each of Wetmore’s drawings begins with paper that’s been marbled using a Turkish stone method. Then, she studies the swirling patterns on the page. “The rules are that I must draw the first thing I see,” she says. It might be one-eyed, saucer-headed figures; floating eyes; breasts; or Wonder Boy — whatever strikes her at that moment.
Magically, a surreal narrative comes together, as in the drawing “#40 Skull Screw, Stop at the Sign of the Hung Wolf.” Among the whorls and ink flows, Wetmore envisions a despot’s subterranean world with his own sun, blue sky, desert and herd of camels. It’s a world hermetically sealed off by a gigantic screw.
Wetmore is also working on a short film that re-creates Dante’s “Inferno.” In her version, she’ll send the main character to a different kind of hell: present-day America. Based on project proposals for this work, she has received grants from the Mass Cultural Council and the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation.
Wetmore’s life isn’t only about creating art. Another accomplishment was the recent completion of her first Art-to-Work Incubator. In partnership with Lowell’s Community Teamwork and Assets for Artists, Wetmore led a six-month entrepreneurial program for artists and craftspeople in the Merrimack Valley. The objective was to teach them how small businesses operate and help them develop products they can market. Participants learned money-saving techniques, developed a business plan, built products, researched retail markets and conducted market testing. A new session will begin in November. Interested participants can apply online at AssetsForArtists.org.
Certainly, Wetmore is an artist bursting with ideas and ready to meet new challenges. When asked about this, she laughs, then says, “I think I’m one of those people who needs a fidget spinner.”