National Museum of Women in the Arts

Washington, DC



Ellen Lanyon: Transformations, Selected Works from 1971-1999


For nearly three decades, Ellen Lanyon has created fantastical and realistic images that raise intriguing questions about the mysteries of nature and the effects of humankind on our habitat. Fifty paintings, drawings, and prints will be included in Ellen Lanyon: Transformations, Selected Works from 1971-1999, on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts from December 23, 1999 to May 7, 2000. (left: Transformations, 1975, drawing, 20 x 30 inches)

One of Lanyon's chief concerns is to show that all living creatures are linked, their fates intertwined with technological change. Since making a trip to Florida's Everglades in the mid-1970s, she has produced works advocating ecological balance. Drawing her imagery from nature and an extensive collection of everyday objects, Lanyon assembles birds and fish in their environments alongside taxidermy specimens and junk shop items, rendering them with exquisite detail. Her surreal combinations reveal correspondences between nature and manmade objects and often contain many layers of meaning. (right: Dominoes and Dragons, 1999, acrylic on canvas, 44 x 52 inches)

"My initial concept is to translate the magical process of the metamorphosis that occurs once life begins. In doing so, I hope to create a visual text that can extend beyond my own interpretation and invite audience participation in the transformations and unfoldings," says Lanyon. "Thus, I attempt to present a two-dimensional theatrical, one that will offer a symbolic narrative to be deciphered by the viewer." (right: Mzarek Pond, 1975, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 46 inches)

The titles of her works offer clues to their metaphoric content. In Endangered (1982), Lanyon warns against allowing precious things to fade into memory. Pictured across the long, scroll-like canvas are several seemingly disparate images: a delicate Chinese vase; a bird attempting to fly off of the paper on which it is drawn; a postcard of a railroad depot; and a fish jumping out of polluted water. In Tamiami (1977), she pairs familiar curios with scenes from nature to evoke thoughts about their relationship to one another. Set against a landscape, two cockatoos hover above porcelain parrots that seem to gaze up longingly at their feathered counterparts. Though her works are cautionary, they are not void of humor. Her visual pun Hermit Crab (1976) provides clever commentary on present-day suburbia, as the familiar crustacean is pictured with a split-level house on its back in place of a standard shell.

Born in 1926, Lanyon began working at age 15 in the drafting department of the Chicago company Beardsley and Piper, reproducing designs for mechanical parts. In 1948 she earned a B.F.A. from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and an M.F.A. in 1950 from The University of Iowa. She has had solo exhibitions in Chicago, New York, and Boston, and has been included in numerous group shows in the U.S. and abroad. She is director emeritus of the Oxbow Summer Workshop, a member of the editorial board of the Journal of the College Art Association, and an associate professor of arts at The Cooper Union, New York. (left: Leap for Life, 1984, acrylic on canvas, 44 x 48 inches)

Ellen Lanyon: Transformations, Selected Works from 1971-1999 has been organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts and is accompanied by a softcover catalogue, available in the museum shop or by mail order (call 1.800.222.7270). Support for the exhibition is provided by The Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundation, The Richard Florsheim Art Fund, and other sponsors.


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TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

Ellen Lanyon: Transformations. This 15-minute video shows Ellen Lanyon working in her New York studio, discussing the transformation of nature and culture in her work, sources of imagery, her training as an artist, and her interest in environmental issues. In the video, Lanyon discusses forces that have informed her art: her early childhood in Chicago; her education and work as a draftsman; travels to the Everglades, which heightened her concerns for environmental issues; children's literature; her neighbor Mr. Miller who introduced concepts of magic; and her collection of bric-a-brac acquired from family and flea markets. Art historian and exhibition curator Debra Bricker Balken provides contextual information about Lanyon's contribution to the arts. (text courtesy National Museum of Women in the Art

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