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  11 December 2017  |  Vol: 4 facebooktwitterrss  
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The Big M-T
Ellen Ornitz

Rolling forth and receding. Breathing in fully and breathing out softly. Ellen Ornitz’s mixed media wall sculptures delve into the archaeological temperament of life’s cycles. Of finding and discovery. Unearthing and treasuring. Both sculptural and painterly, Ornitz’s work speaks to our organic nature.

Her pieces haunt. They linger. Fronds and fingers. Bones and sticks. These are the detritus of who we are and what we leave behind. There is a peacefulness in her work, but it is the kind of peace that settles on your shoulders when you come to terms with endings. As if finding a note in an old coat pocket, these pieces speak with intimacy.

In her most recent three-dimensional collages she explores the dance of water and plants, more specifically green algae as it moves in the current of Baker Creek near Manhattan, Mont. She speaks to us on an intimate level, her experiences probing into decay and regeneration. In some of her pieces she includes casts of hands and bones, as well as watery dreamlike images of drifting stillness, taking over our hearts like a root.

“I found the algae on my morning walks. They follow the movement of the water but it’s more complex than you think,” she says, her hands dancing in the air. “They go up and down and sideways. It’s poetic, although I know it’s considered a weed.”

Ornitz press-molds porcelain into molds of indigenous plants then carves, fires and stains the pieces with oil paint.

“When I brought the algae plaster into the studio it suddenly became so still,” Ornitz says. “So I created movement to it by adding molds of sticks in the background.”

She also cut holes in the porcelain algae figure to give the piece a more spatial feel. Then the algae sculptures were contextually composed and placed in an ethereal painting of the water, creating a diorama.

“I always loved those dioramas that you see in museums,” she says. “They always felt so real to me as a kid.”
Ornitz’s work evolved through landscape painting and then wood carving. But when she was in graduate school someone handed her a piece of clay. Six hours later she was still working on it.

“I still love painting, so my work incorporates both ceramic sculpture and painting,” she says. “Two-dimensional and three-dimensional.”

What has always, over her forty-year career, set her work apart are the colors she gets on her porcelain. Her secret is to use oil paint after the porcelain is out of the kiln, rather than glazing it beforehand.

“Glazing wasn’t doing it for me,” she says. “I was working next to an oil painter and I got that feeling of envy. I wanted to work with oils; there’s so much more flexibility. And I found out that the Cone 6 porcelain clay absorbs it just right.”

Artist Willem Volkersz, who has known Ornitz from the inception of her career, sees her new work as very evocative.

“But it’s also very personal,” he says. “Personal in that it reflects her values and her interests, her love for nature and the natural processes as well as the environment we live in. I find it personal that she makes these molds of the elements on Baker Creek where she lives as well as from her own hands and her friends’ bodies. She’s also invented a unique format.”

Aside from her own art, Ornitz is one of the stanchions of the Bozeman Contemporary Art scene. She’s curated over 300 exhibits in Bozeman, as well as many traveling exhibits. She’s been an Artist in the Schools and originated a school outreach program introducing young students to contemporary art.

“Her role in the community is extensive,” Volkersz says. “She’s made a real impact by bringing contemporary art into the community. First with Beall Park [where she was director of the Arts Center], and then at the Emerson [where she was director/curator]. With her eye and wisdom she’s been able to bring fabulous art to this community.”

Ornitz says her biggest joy from curating was connecting visitors and students with the artists, especially the Montana Women in Art show.

“That was the most satisfying thing,” she says. “I loved how artists and non-artists could connect with the work they saw.”

Although she’s no longer at the Emerson curating shows, she’s got her finger in the pot as a board member of the Holter Art Museum and is hoping to collaborate on a traveling show.  -TBM

Author's note:  Ornitz’s new collection “Studies” will open at Oh Susannah’s Jewelry on December 13th during the Emerson’s Art Walk from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.  Insiders report that the installation is amazing.

Michele Corriel, a frequent contributor to the Magpie, has the broad range of her work well represented at

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