Elly Smallwood - Blacklisted
Ottawa-born, Toronto-based artist Elly Smallwood's paintings are lushly-painted testaments to a uniquely personal vision.
Elly Smallwood, artfile magazine, am debrincat
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Self Portrait with Notations, Oil, 70"x50", 2015.

Elly Smallwood

Ottawa-born, Toronto-based artist Elly Smallwood’s paintings are lushly-painted testaments to a uniquely personal vision.


February 27, 2017

AM DeBrincat
Elly Smallwood

Tell us about your work. What themes and/or aesthetic concerns are important to your work? How role does scale play?

There are a number of themes that recur throughout my work, such as sexuality, intense emotion, alienation, but overall I try not to overthink it. I paint whatever it is that excites and fascinates me. My art is never a visual depiction of some carefully composed concept, it’s something more visceral and intuitive than that. I’m never able to explain the concept behind a piece because it isn’t something that I can comprehend through words, it’s an exploration of something through paint, which is a language in and of itself. I want my work to reach people on a gut level.

Personally I love working as large as possible, I think large pieces have an aggressive and dominant power; they command your attention. I occasionally work small as well though, and those pieces always have a very intimate and personal feel to them.

Let’s talk about your process. How do you build a painting? How has your process changed and evolved over time?

Originally it was all much more thought out, starting with photographs usually, then a sketch or two, then I would translate that sketch onto a larger canvas. Now, I simply start right on the canvas with whatever idea is in my mind. I have a pretty short attention span, so I found that spending so long on the planning out of a piece didn’t work well for me, I would end up bored by the time I had started actually painting it. I’m also constantly trying to loosen up, make my work more spontaneous, rough and experimental, so I needed to cut out the planning out stage for that to happen. There’s a lot of failure now, but when pieces do work I like them a lot more.

Do aspects of media, pop culture, and current events influence your work or your thought-process in the studio? If so, how? What’s on your mind right now and how does this find its way into your work?

Not particularly. I mean, it’s impossible to not be influenced by the world you live in and the culture you’re a part of, but those aren’t things I’m directly trying to talk about. My work does often deal with subjects like female sexuality, LGBTQ sex, fetishes ect. and I think those are very relevant right now, but I deal with those subjects because they are a part of my life, not because they are currently issues people are talking about. I also think that when you have a platform you have an obligation to speak about the issues that matter most to you, so I do often do that, but it’s generally very separate from my art.

How do you think social media has changed the artistic landscape and the way that contemporary artists develop their careers?

I think it’s put a lot more power into the hands of artists. You really don’t need the stamp of approval from institutions or galleries now to sell work, you can reach collectors directly. I think that’s great for young artists, particularly those whose work doesn’t get a lot of gallery attention. Social media also allows artists to reach out to each other and connect and build a community, which is an amazing thing. Especially since we’re mostly awkward and introverted.

Eye Study, Charcoal, 9"x11", 2016.
Elly Smallwood — Figurative, Oil, 48"x72", 2016.
Elly Smallwood — Leda and the Swan (Study of Michelangelo), Oil, 60"x70", 2016.
Elly Smallwood — Rush (Study), Acrylic, 9"x11", 2016.

If you were hosting a dinner party in which geography, time period, and language weren’t barriers, who would you invite?

Lucian Freud, Leonardo da Vinci, Artemisia Gentileschi, Haruki Murakami, Marlene Dumas and Kara Walker. Be a bit of a weird party.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

Bike to the studio in the morning, work on sketches or reference photos or emails for a few hours as a way to procrastinate, then paint for the rest of the day. It varies though, right now my schedule is all over the place and I’m painting at night.

In addition to painting, you also tattoo…can you tell us about that?

I’m not a huge fan of having someone else draw on me, so I started tattooing myself and now I do my friends as well. It’s an interesting way to draw, so little room for revision and mistakes. I usually do stick and pokes, where you dip a needle into ink and hand poke it into the skin, so it’s also a very slow process. It’s a very intimate act.

Ask yourself a question that feels intensely relevant to your art right now and answer it.

What direction do you want to push yourself in? I want my work to grow a lot looser and more experimental. I love making something and knowing I’ve never made anything like it before, even if it’s shit. I’d always rather be pushing myself than sticking with what’s safe and remaining stagnant. I’d like to see how abstract and strange my work can grow while still staying connected to the figure and the face.

Elly Smallwood is an artist working in Toronto and exhibiting internationally. Originally from Ottawa, she moved to Toronto to pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts at OCAD University. She has been working full time as an artist for the last five years. Shows from the last few years include Winter Collective, Massey Lyuben Gallery, New York; The Beauty I Hide, Hermann & Audrey, Toronto; You + Me, Navillus Gallery, Toronto; Embodiment, Artscape Youngplace, Toronto; and Delta, Project Gallery, Toronto.

Elly Smallwood — Seeds (A collaboration with Mike Rachlis), Oil, 24"x36", 2016.
Elly Smallwood — Thick, Oil, 8.5"x11", 2015.
Elly Smallwood —Untitled (Portrait of my Father), Oil, 48"x60", 2016.
Elly Smallwood — In the Forest, Oil, 20"x24", 2016.

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