An Art for Commuters – Day 341

Artwork: Woman in Hat by Elizabeth Ennis
“Woman in Hat” by Elizabeth Ennis. Copyright © Elizabeth Ennis. Used with Permission.

Anyone who has ever spent time commuting on a public transportation system knows the feeling of “being neither here nor there” while enroute to work or home. Waiting for a subway train to arrive, surrounded by others on their way to their individual destinations, we are in transition, detached from our surroundings and from each other.

Elizabeth Ennis developed a fascination for this temporary world and created a series of paintings called, “In Transit” that brings the viewer right into this transitory environment. “Getting from one place to another, the sense of motion, of being carried along, creates a suspension of time and within that hiatus the awareness of another journey taking place inwardly into memory and reflection,” says Ennis. “A subway tunnel becomes a dark background on which the play of life and light goes on. My paintings attempt to capture the isolation of people who are momentarily neither here nor there but moving through space. Surrounded by mass transit’s impersonal structures, people inhabit their own solitary inner worlds. Though traveling together, they often seem oblivious of those around them and unaware of the odd conjunctions that sometimes take place between them.”

Ennis grew up in Queens, New York and commuted by bus and subway into Manhattan almost every day as a teenager. “I liked to hang out in the first car and stare into the darkness of the tunnels and the distant tracks on the elevated line,” she says. “There were closed down ‘ghost stations’ in the system that looked like a stage set. I can vividly recall the sounds, smells and temperature of that subway.”

The artist moved to California as a young adult and since then has often commuted to San Francisco on the Bay Area Regional Transit System. “It was built in the last thirty years and its design is much more modern that of the New York City subway system,” says the artist. “However, over the years it has become comfortably dingy.”

Artwork: Man with Orange Backpack by Elizabeth Ennis

“Man with Orange Backpack” by Elizabeth Ennis. Copyright © Elizabeth Ennis. Used with Permission.

“One day, I had my camera with me and took some photos on the train,” she continues. “I kept looking at the photos I had taken, and was especially impressed by some where the sun from the skylight above pierced the darkness of the platform.”

The process of translation from photograph to painting is in itself a kind of journey for Ennis. “When one views a photograph, the sense of a moment captured from a stream of time is paramount,” says the artist. “Paradoxically, when I paint an image from a photograph I am involved in distilling and concentrating the essence of what I have seen. Exercising the formal values of color, light and composition are ways of removing the image from the flow of time and creating an archetypal and timeless space that we inhabit psychologically and sensually. In the process of using hand and eye, and avoiding mechanical reproduction, subtle changes occur that contribute to the power of the final image that momentarily checks our ordinary awareness, arrests time and causes us to dwell in the world of the painting.”

Working on this new series coincided with the artist’s own personal need to turn inward. “I think there are rhythms to life, like the seasons,” says Ennis. “The In Transit series became a metaphor for introversion and, as it began in winter, it was also a metaphor about the winter solstice and light emerging from darkness. For me, it is about life as a journey towards a destination that remains an ungraspable mystery. As I painted, I realized that I wished to express this mystery within the context of the mundane world. The idea of making the ‘everyday’ sacred has been a consistent theme in my work and life, so I wanted this work to convey a sense of ‘liminality’ (meaning a threshold upon which one stands, neither on one side or the other) but to remain stylistically ‘realistic’ rather than edging over into the territory of surrealism.”

Artwork: A Steady Hand by Elizabeth Ennis
“A Steady Hand” by Elizabeth Ennis. Copyright © Elizabeth Ennis. Used with Permission.

Her portfolio on this series consists of over fifty paintings, which means that a large number of photographs had to be taken. How did she manage to capture these images that seemed to be shot without the subjects noticing her presence?

“I usually try to be discreet when taking photos,” says Ennis, “although when something strikes me about a person’s physicality or pose, I can be somewhat ruthless about trying to capture it. I don’t use a flash and often photograph people from behind. Nowadays almost everyone on the train is holding some kind of electronic device with a screen and I seem to blend in.”

“The social implications of setting the paintings in trains, where diverse people brush elbows, is important as it provides instances where odd conjunctions between people sometimes happen. I often have an uncanny feeling when I paint the back of a person that he or she will turn around and be someone close to me: a friend or relative. Another extremely important factor in choosing my subject is the way the person is illuminated and the quality of the light.”

Does she ever wonder about who these people are, where they live, where they’re going? Is she ever tempted to engage any of them in conversation? “The physical components of getting the right shot are more important to me than an imagined narrative,” says the artist. “I’m more interested in conveying emotion than story. Besides, I think I would rather wonder than know!”

It definitely is more fun to wonder and I found myself doing just that as I perused the series, and I’m glad that Elizabeth Ennis allows us to imagine the stories that might accompany her paintings. I’m sure that’s what keeps her viewers returning to these paintings again and again, perhaps concocting a different story with each encounter.

I think this would make a fascinating exhibition for subway waiting areas – but then I wonder if anyone would notice…….

SerenaK signature

Artwork: Reflected Sleeper by Elizabeth Ennis
“Reflected Sleeper” by Elizabeth Ennis. Copyright © Elizabeth Ennis. Used with Permission.

Artist Credits for the images included in this post:

Woman in Hat
Elizabeth Ennis, California
Oil painting

Man with Orange Backpack
Elizabeth Ennis, California
Oil painting

A Steady Hand
Elizabeth Ennis, California
Oil painting

Reflected Sleeper
Elizabeth Ennis, California
Oil painting

Elizabeth Ennis’ artwork can be viewed at: Elizabeth Ennis

The 365 Days Project

In 2012, Serena Kovalosky committed to writing an article a day for 365 days as an exploration into the lives of artists and the value of creative thinking in our society.

Experience the full evolution of the project! Click below to read the entire collection of articles.Click to view The 365 Days Project

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