Artist of the month: Ellen Zaks

ArtCan are pleased to introduce you to our artist Ellen Zaks. Born in London Ellen became interested in art at about the same time she started learning ballet, wanting to express what she felt in her body when she danced.. We are delighted to share more about her practice. Enjoy!


Tell us a bit about yourself!

I grew up in London and when I was five my mother took me for lessons with an artist living in a bed-sit in Swiss Cottage. I remember painting faces and that it was winter and very cold, but the only heating was an oil-heater.

In my teens I started to learn ballet and around the same time, experimented with modeling figures in clay, not realizing that I was shaping my future concerns in art. I was all set to study language to degree level. I guess I did a lot of things back to front in my life, figuring out my path.

I married a choreographer when I was nineteen, abandoned a degree in Spanish, had two children, worked as a reporter on a local newspaper, wrote poetry and snatched what time I could to study anatomy, life drawing and sculpture at the Sir John Cass College, London. Finally I discovered my calling and moved to Brighton where I graduated in Expressive Arts, specializing in art and dance. I began to paint, saying what I wanted with glorious color instead of clay.

Abraxas, 2019


What are you working on at the moment?

My ideas morph from one practice to another. Poems appear in paintings and vice versa. A recent theme has been portals, after visiting the silver mines in Sweden. Deep underground, I saw the openings of countless black tunnels in the damp, freezing cold. Subsequently, travelling on London’s over-ground trains, the dark, rounded openings of tunnels resonated with me also of other realities. After all, we know our day-to-day experience of reality is an illusion perpetuated by the marvelous organism of our functioning mind. At quantum level there is mostly nothingness and some vibration. Plenty of space for other dimensions to exist!

The idea of doorways into other realities took me neatly out of my earlier mannequin period, which had been fun, being apparently so anti-dance and static, yet conversely saying so much about movement and the pathos of so many human lives. These paintings grew out of a visit to London when I photographed the window displays at Selfridges in Oxford Street and wrote a poem ‘We are not Simulacrum.’

‘Ours is the deepest yearning to exist.

We are not simulacrum,

But made for life,

Not to be annihilated by a stray thought…’

Mannequins also engaged my interest in repetition and systems. The last of the series ‘We are Simulacrum’ became a transitional work to my ‘Portal paintings’. I wrote:

‘A spectre is flying in daylight,

Singing of repetition

And the beauty there is in systems…’

My latest painting about other dimensions has been hijacked by an elusive figure I call Abraxas and that in its turn may provoke a new direction in my painting. ‘We questioned the painting, berated it, made love to it, prayed to it: We called it mother, called it whore and slut, called it our beloved, called it Abraxas.’ –  Herman Hesse.

Perhaps he exists in another dimension? All I can say is that the painting haunted me for a long time and gave me no peace. Having finished it I recognize that it has a strange dynamism. It feels like part of me and also something else. I stand in front of it and question it etc. I sense I am at the very beginning of my exploration of my portal theme and will see where it takes me.

We Are Not Simulacrum, 2017


What inspires your work? Are there any artists or art movements that have particularly influenced you?

I am inspired by the human body, dance, movement, my experience of dance as kinetic memory in my own body, dreams and realizations. I am motivated by the desire to find a means of expression to suggest the energies and forces that move through us but are invisible to our senses, our instrument of ‘seeing’ the world. The ideas of quantum physics combined with metaphysics…movement as the prime cause of the existence of the universe.

The sculptures of contemporary artist Kim Byoungho reverberate for me with the subtle effects I strive for in paint. I was also excited to discover the living installations of Vanessa Beecroft with their references to mannequins and the wild, loose textures of Judy Pfaff, that defy genre, belonging both to painting and 3D art. Pre-Raphaelites, Odilon Redon, Picasso’s Blue Period, Rodin’s The Age of Bronze, Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold. I frequently return to look at the art of the Ancient Egyptians and William Blake.

We are the simulacrums, 2018


Could you describe a typical day in your studio?

The ritual of preparing to paint always alters my consciousness. I tidy my studio, lay out brushes and select paints; put on a safety mask to counteract the effects of large amounts of turpentine I might feel moved to throw around! I like music and have an eclectic taste, the flamenco of Andalusia where I live, Bach and Baroque. I sit and regard my canvas for a while, then jump in, prepared for the painting to take control, so I just go with the flow, although nothing stays there without my permission! I paint at home and often take a peek into my art studio in passing, which may of course end up as hours!

Out of Darkness, 2018


What advice would you give to new artists?

Experiment with new materials, the ‘shock of the new’ removes inhibitions, reminds us how to play as a child. Be brave, take chances and above all be yourself. Learn from others but don’t imitate. Have endless patience and never make do.


You can find more about Ellen’s work here: