Pablo Mariano Díaz: I want to preface this interview by saying that we are sitting in a Chinatown apartment, and that you were just looking out the window, you saw a man just standing motionless on the sidewalk, and you were fascinated.
Maggie Ellis: Yeah. I'm looking out the window, and this guy was just standing there with his hands in his pockets, staring at the ground, completely motionless for over five minutes. A man walks right behind him, with dishes or something from a restaurant. The guy doesn't move, still just there, hands in his pockets. I'm thinking about how when I was growing up, I was so desperate to see anybody. You would drive down the road and there would be these short sidewalks with no people walking on them at all. You would see where the sidewalk would stop. It was pointless to have these pieces of sidewalk scattered randomly on the side of the road, and nobody would use them. That’s part of what makes me think about these street scenes.
Díaz: Well, the reason why I prefaced this conversation this way is because you saw something, and I had a chance to follow you. For you, this is a moment. I'm looking at it and I just see a guy, and what was my first thought? He doesn't look out of place. And then I start looking at him through your eyes. After I saw it the way you internalized it, it really is quite strange.
Ellis: He might even still be there. Anyway, I grew up desperate to see people around, so to see sidewalks that don't end, a network of them that never stops, and to see them littered with people is...I'm gravitating towards it. To my childhood self it’s like a dream come true, even though it can also be horrible.
Díaz: What is a dream come true?
Ellis: The people, all the people everywhere.
Díaz: In New York?
Ellis: Well, yeah. To be able to just see so many people around. When I was a kid, for a while, I only had one friend next door. If her parent’s car was in the driveway, it was a huge deal to me, just to have a chance to hang out with somebody outside. It was isolating.
Díaz: This is the reason why you came to New York.
Díaz: When you arrived at Hunter for grad school, you were making paintings about the South. You were pretty fresh, we were all under the pressures of the MFA program, and we had to come up with some anchor or a theory that worked. You were working with that. It was also connected to something that you actually want to do, which is to look at people.
Ellis: Yeah, I remember wanting to bring figures into these abstract landscapes that I was making during my first semester.
Díaz: Now, you have been making drawings and paintings about life in New York where you're still looking at people. So, I guess my question is, how did you come to bring New York into the subject of your drawings?
Ellis: Out of desperation to draw initially. I feel like my roots are in drawing. Before, I was working from my photographs of the South, and I ran out of everything I wanted to depict from my other life in Georgia. I almost felt as though I was broke or something. I had no ideas. I just wanted to be free to look, to have no commitment to a particular subject. So I went on a walk in my neighborhood, I'm seeing these people in these dark coats in the fog, walking along. I see all the usual suspects, the same crazy tall guy, an old man with a trench coat, hat and polished dress shoes. And then a lady with a stroller. I just felt like well, there's something about these figures. They are kind of funny. I thought, "Well, I have to draw something. I have to extract something out of the walk." I was desperate to go outside and look. I just picked up all these different characters. The first one came out really fast and dirty. I realized I could remember something from a commute and interpret it through drawing, then go back out and get more references from the street.
Díaz: You’re talking about learning to draw again.
Díaz: Because before you were working with photographs or long term memory.
Ellis: Yeah. I was mostly using photographs. Now, it’s like learning to draw in a completely different way.
Díaz: You go out for a walk and then you come back home with some material. You’ve been very present in this work. Physically present because you go on a walk and then come back and the image is still fresh in your mind and you begin processing what you’ve just seen. I remember you talking about having to come back home and try to make notes, then you make sketches on loose paper. Under your thumbnails, there is all this writing, all of these notations. So, it's almost like a comic book of notations.
Ellis: Yeah. I cast a wide net.
Díaz: What are the notes you write to yourself?
Ellis: Here's a recent list: pizza party with waspy moms, dead pigeon to-go plate, back against glass, lady with the two doormen, ankle twist...They’re just quick notes. It's to jog my memory. I can usually work from that.
Díaz: It helps you remember.
Díaz: Your process is like a game to you, it's like you really get into trying to capture what you remember between drawing and writing. How do you know when you're staying true to what you saw in your drawing?
Ellis: Well, when I'm outside, I'm collecting scenes. It feels like rapid fire, grabbing visual pieces of information: facial expressions and characteristics of people. Using that to tell a story, or using that to explain what their personality could be like. I know I hit the nail on the head if there is this weird, satirical element to it. Then again, I'm only someone who made this, only someone who saw this, and then re-imagined it again. Like the drawing that we were looking at, the lady with the tiny fingers, the tiny hand.
Ellis: And that little hand, that gesture is really strange to me because I feel the only way that could come out is through a few filters of having witnessed it, and then forgotten it, and then remembered it again later. This girl’s personality, in my imagination, comes through in her little hand. It’s weird. And that's what I've noticed. But then the longer I keep doing this, people appear in my drawings that I've never seen before, I don't remember them. I just put together eyes, nose, forehead, dress...whatever they're wearing. Now I’m just looking all the time. It almost feels as though sometimes it's living inside of me, but then that sounds ridiculous.
Díaz: No, it doesn't. You have a whole internal catalog.
Ellis: Yeah. That's what I meant.
Díaz: I think you have it. And I think that most people don't have it. And it's something that is so natural and private to you. That it's like an encyclopedia of New York down to sidewalks and, I don't know, dress patterns and sidewalk textures. You categorize all this stuff in your drawings, but I couldn't know that from looking at the drawings. I just know that your drawings do get character out of people, out of their clothes, out of their shoes. I can tell that these elements are intensified. Everything is actually being considered.
Díaz: In a way, your drawing is very awake. Even if it's almost like a bad dream of New York. At every moment, I'm thinking about the guy dragging his feet with the flowers upside down.
Ellis: Something I’ve realized is I don't have to make any of this up. If I just pay attention, this place is so fucking crazy, anything could happen. When I first moved here, it was in the most extreme, exciting environment I'd ever been in. Being embedded in millions of people. That watercolor (Tulip Picker) was when COVID had just begun. It was around April when all the tulips blossom in the tree pits. And I saw this guy around 73rd Street and he had plucked a handful of these tulips out of the bed with one hand and he was smoking with the other. So there was this whole narrative going on I didn't understand. Then it's a pandemic and you're worried about the virus, you're avoiding people, then strangers are even more strange. It’s the unknown. The desolate city streets at the beginning of the pandemic also amplified everything. I’d think to myself "Make more drawings, make more." It was rare to see a lot of people on the street. If I saw somebody it felt like a sign that there was still life out there.
Díaz: Well, the thing is you started making work about New York before COVID started. You had this rich mine that was full of lips and noses, and COVID took that away from you with the masks, which leads me to this question: how do you feel about drawing masks?
Ellis: Well, I felt like so much of this reference material was eliminated. I care so much about the facial expressions of people, and now half of everyone’s faces are gone. But, to answer your question, I got around the mask thing.
Díaz: How did you get around it?
Ellis: It was outdoor dining. It’s the only situation where you're going to see people that you don't know with no mask sitting around eating, drinking, doing whatever. And that was where I found my observations...I almost feel like I'm reporting to myself. These drawings function like a diary to myself in 2020. Because suddenly these circus tents are erected across the street from my apartment. And people are sitting there every day, separated in these little tents. It’s so bizarre.
Díaz: How do you approach drawing from observation?
Ellis: Well, I feel like I have a delayed reaction. I'm not doing a traditional drawing from observation. Actually, I knew somebody at Hunter during my first semester, he was setting up to do plein air in the subway stations and on the side of the Holland Tunnel, outside of our building in Tribeca. I thought that was one of the most hilarious things, because it just seemed like such a precarious set up and it could all go horribly wrong. I definitely have a delayed reaction. My observation is in one moment, and then the act of drawing, this other observation happens either the next day or even way later. Possibly months later.
Díaz: The whole reason for doing this is to draw.
Ellis: Yes. Exactly. I have to draw.
Díaz: How do you transpose these memories into formal thoughts, into the aesthetic process of your drawing?
Ellis: Well, I have to do things over and over again. I like to start with lists so that I feel like I'm not forgetting something. I make a bunch of different thumbnails. I draw them later, but through making a surplus of these drawings, the better understanding I can gain from what I'm even doing. I have cast such a wide net that I'm not so sure how these things fit together yet.
Díaz: What about in a new drawing? What are you looking for in a single drawing?
Ellis: Well, there's a situation that lends itself to be reconstructed or exaggerated in a drawing.
Díaz: It's a story and it's also a drawing at the same time. How do you negotiate that?
Ellis: I feel like everything starts with what I'm observing in the moment, and I see a situation and somehow it sticks.
Díaz: Does it also stick like composition?
Ellis: Yes, it sticks compositionally. That's what I was trying to figure out. When I go to the blank paper, I'm dumping out that memory of the situation onto the paper, and I just fall into these compositions. Then I'm thinking about texture, clothing, facial expressions and other ways to tell the story. Like, I need this guy's head to be really huge and nasty. I need his denim jeans to be really disheveled, or I need this mom's puffy coat to just have that Patagonia look.
Pablo Mariano Díaz (b. 1983, Camagüey, Cuba) is a mixed media painter living in New York. He received a BFA from The Cooper Union School of Art in 2006 and a MFA from Hunter College in 2018. In 2016, he received the Kossak Travel Grant to study fresco painting in Pompeii and the Convent of San Marco. Díaz teaches drawing and mixed media at The Cooper Union (New York). Currently he is a resident of the Hercules Art Studio Program.
Maggie Ellis (b. 1991, Loganville, Georgia) is a Bronx-based artist. She received her BFA from Savannah College of Art and Design in 2014 and her MFA from Hunter College in 2017. In 2016, she received a Kossak Travel Grant where she spent two months camping and plein air painting on the Withlacooche River in North Florida. In 2017, she attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. She was recently featured in an article, “My Studio in the Bronx” in New York Magazine.