Found-Object Art, Found: "Materials on Hand: The Art of Ellen Wilt" at Stamps Gallery
Wilt originates from Pittsburgh, PA, but moved to Ann Arbor in 1949, where she has been active in the arts community since. She attended the University of Michigan, where she obtained both her BFA and MA from the Stamps School of Art & Design.
The Stamps gallery has gathered an impressive collection of Wilt’s work, highlighting her importance in the community. Collectors have loaned the gallery many of the works, allowing a rare glimpse into works that have been in private collections for decades. The gallery space itself is opened up, allowing for the inclusion of “over 50 carefully selected works from personal and private collections that highlight Wilt’s artistic contributions to Southeast Michigan.”
The pieces on display range from large and sprawling, such as the paper sculpture on the floor near the entrance, Karobel Papier Tapis (2018), a collaboration with Robin Wilt and Karen Zaher, to small and intimate. Color, shape, space, and form are important to Wilt’s work, as well as “intuitive and playful bricolage” and her “specific interest in the Michigan region and its landscape.” Many of Wilt’s works also feature a repeated cutout human figure diving, dining, or sitting on a bench. Another obvious motif in Wilt’s work that resurfaces again and again throughout the decades is the inclusion of architectural elements of bridges and tunnels, often paired with watery landscapes.
The name of the exhibition, Materials on Hand, refers to the method that Wilt has employed since her early days as an artist. The gallery states: “Since the 1970s she has incorporated collage into her practice using whatever materials she has available to her. These range from wrapping paper, aluminum foil, and tissue to balsa wood, toothpicks, and other found objects.”
In addition to the inclusion of wall text, the gallery offers a viewing station to see and hear Ellen Wilt talk about her process. In the video, Wilt holds up a kitchen utensil that most would likely view as boring and quotidian. But Wilt demonstrates that the object can be used to create a rubbing, which can be incorporated into her work. Wilt explains, “You take anything in your household,” use charcoal or pencil, and transfer the texture onto a piece of paper. She says, “This image would show up on the paper, it’s pretty exciting … it’s kind of magic, you know?”
Some works, like the mixed media piece Urban Bridge (1991, shown above), were made in collaboration with other artists. This work was made with Ted Reyda. Three mixed-media, sculptural works in collaboration with Reyda are displayed next to one another, each featuring collage elements and integration of sculpture into a box-like frame. Urban Bridge resembles a maze in a child’s toy, with a dark blue circle in the center, pieces of wood forming a relief pattern that dissipates as it reaches the edges of the frame. Two chairs are painted seated in the bottom corner, and a small wooden bridge is built on top of the frame. The bridge structure as an element outside of the painting can be seen in these collaborations and in her large structures that frame the entry to the gallery. Depending on which way you enter the gallery, you may not notice immediately that there are large bridges on display in the foyer area. There are two large bridges on either side, diving figures hanging from the ceiling and integrated into the structures.
Wilt’s cutout figures appear throughout the gallery, and in one incarnation, The Hedge Family (1992), a small bench stands on a pedestal, painted with greens and blues. The figures appear as shadows, contrasting to the larger multi-media sculpture of a family dining at a table, in which Wilt adds a lifelike element to the paint. Designations having been made for hair, skin, and clothing. Not all the works in the show reference an idealized Americana and craft; instead, some works, particularly a series of untitled ghostly figures and ink blots done in the 1980s, appear haunting and otherworldly. With such a variety of material gathered together, the artists’ life is celebrated, offering a glimpse into the oeuvre of an important figure in the Ann Arbor arts community.
Be sure to check out the DIY Poster Workshop installed near the front of the gallery. The large posters are part text, part blank space for drawing with colored pencils. A quote from Ellen Wilt is below the gallery information: “A quick and pleasing thing to do,” repeated again on the adjacent wall above three large installations.
Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.
"Materials on Hand: The Art of Ellen Wilt" is at Stamps Gallery through September 9, curated by Srimoyee Mitra with the assistance of James Barker & Jennifer Junkermeier-Khan. Visit stamps.umich.edu and ellenwilt.net for more information.