WATCH: Artist unfolds pandemic isolation of elderly people in her works

Local artist Ellen Holtzblatt talks about her recent artworks series Song of Songs: Portraits of the Artist's Mother (Menghan Xiao/Medill)
Local artist Ellen Holtzblatt talks about her recent artworks series Song of Songs: Portraits of the Artist's Mother (Menghan Xiao/Medill)

By Menghan Xiao
Medill Reports

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, senior citizens have experienced increasing isolation due to the social distancing policy. Local artist Ellen Holtzblatt has also witnessed the isolation and loneliness on her 98-year-old mother. Holtzblatt recent artwork series “Song of Songs: Portraits of the Artist’s Mother” speak to this social issue among the elderly.

Holtzblatt is a visual artist who creates paintings, artist books and woodcut prints. Her works has been exhibited internationally and nationally at venues including the Jerusalem Biennale, the Museum of Biblical Art, Spertus Institute, the Rockford Art Museum, Chicago Artists Coalition, the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, Inselgalerie in Berlin, Yeshiva University Museum, and the Center for Book Arts. Recent one-person exhibits include Josef Glimer Gallery, Fermilab Gallery, and the Robert F. DeCaprio Art Gallery.

Video Transcript

MY NAME IS ELLEN HOLTZBLATT. I AM A PAINTER.

I’M VERY PERSONAL IN MY WORK. EVERYTHING THAT I DO HAS MEANING TO ME. I HAVE BEEN WORKING ON A SERIES ABOUT MY MOTHER.

SHE IS 98 AND A HALF YEARS OLD. EVERYONE SHE KNEW OR HAS BEEN CLOSE TO, MOST OF HER SIBLINGS HAD DIED, HER BEST FRIENDS HAD DIED, HER HUSBAND, MY FATHER, AND SHE WAS REALLY ALONE. SO SHE WAS REALLY WITHDRAWING HERSELF AND GOING THROUGH A LOT OF DEPRESSION. I HAVE BEEN DOING THESE PAINTINGS OF MY MOTHER THAT ARE REALLY MUCH MORE LANDSCAPE-BASED, SO THERE’S A SENSE OF HER BEING VULNERABLE IN THE LANDSCAPE. AND ONE THING I STARTED TO REALIZE IS THAT SHE NEEDS MORE SPACE AROUND HER BECAUSE TO REALLY FEEL VULNERABLE IN THE LANDSCAPE, THE LANDSCAPE HAS TO BE LARGER THAN HER. IT HAS TO TAKE OVER HER.

THE PAINTINGS THAT ARE ABOUT HER ARE PARTLY ABOUT HER, AND PARTLY ABOUT THE CONDITION OF HUMANITY THAT CONTINUES TO AGE, TO BE ISOLATED, TO BE ALONE. AND THE PANDEMIC JUST KIND OF FORCED ALL THOSE ISSUES TO ME INTO THE FOREFRONT, AND MY MOTHER BECAME A SYMBOL OF THAT FOR ME.

SO THERE IS A PHOTOGRAPH OF HER WHERE SHE WAS ACTUALLY HOLDING MY DOG IN HER LAP AND MY DOG HAD FALLEN ASLEEP IN HER ARMS. AND THE LOOK ON HER FACE WAS JUST SO RAW AND OPEN. THERE’S SOMETHING I WAS ORIGINALLY THINKING OF IN THAT PHOTOGRAPH – I WOULD HAVE HER HOLDING SOMETHING, I DIDN’T KNOW EXACTLY WHAT. AT ONE POINT I THOUGHT SHE WOULD BE HOLDING ME, AND I WOULD PUT MYSELF IN THERE. BUT I ENDED UP DOING A PAINTING OF HER ALONE, BUT WITH HER ARMS IN THAT POSITION, KIND OF LIKE SHE IS HOLDING SOMETHING, BUT THERE IS NOTHING REALLY THERE, AND HER BODY IS STARTING TO BECOME ONE WITH THE LANDSCAPE.

I WANT TO GIVE MY MOTHER THAT, THAT SENSE THAT THIS IS ABOUT CONNECTING TO SOMETHING PHYSICAL, AND THAT YOU CAN STILL BE A PHYSICAL BEING WHO NEEDS LOVE AND NEEDS TO BE TOUCHED NO MATTER WHAT AGE YOU ARE.

Menghan Xiao is a Video and Broadcast graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter @Menghan_Xiao_

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