Artists on Coping: Ellen Hackl Fagan

During the Coronavirus pandemic, Art Spiel is reaching out to artists to learn how they are coping.

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Ellen Hackl Fagan, Seeking the Sound of Cobalt Blue, Installation during Bushwick Open Studios, 2018. Photo: Charles Geiger

Ellen Hackl Fagan is an artist and the creator of ODETTA, a contemporary fine art gallery in Harlem, NYC. Fagan builds connections between color and sound using color-saturated paintings, sculpture, installations and collaborative projects that explore our potential for synaesthesia, often resulting in ad hoc performances with viewers. Balanced between randomness and intention, like jazz music, Fagan’s art reveals limitless possibilities for improvisation. Fagan also invented The Reverse Color Organ (RCO), a web app that enables viewers to playfully interact aurally with color. Fagan exhibits her work extensively, curates, writes, and creates opportunities for collaborations with artists, curators, musicians, and coders to further her projects.

AS: How are you coping?

EHF: As I pivot ODETTA gallery into a complete digital entity for the moment, I have been swamped by all the details of staying up to date across media platforms. This was inevitable this year, especially with having moved the gallery twice last year, but it adds up to a lot of hours of screen time.

I also communicate by computer with family and friends. My middle son feels like he had COVID-19, but because of my age, all of a sudden I’m told I’m the fragile one! I have a group of my grammar school friends, and we’re all turning 60 this year, and live all over the world now. We’d planned a trip to Mexico this month for our birthday reunion, but instead are meeting on Zoom. We hope to pull the trip together in the future.

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Ellen Hackl Fagan_Immersed in Blue_Installation Documentation_2019_Ely Center for Contemporary Art, New Haven, CT. Photo: Courtesy of the Artist.

AS: Has your routine changed?

EHF: In 2019, I moved the gallery twice due to escalating real estate prices and the L train’s closure, resulting in my orchestrating 25 exhibitions, including several shows of my own work, plus Spring Break Art Fair, so right now I needed some quiet time. As ODETTA gallery goes digital, I’ve been repositioning the focus of the gallery’s outreach. This includes updating the gallery inventory online as 1stdibs offers sales while we’re all sheltering in place.

I’ve also just been appointed Director of Sales for the SHIM Art Network and we’re launching thesis exhibition opportunities to accommodate graduating students online, as well as memberships into the SHIM Art Network at reduced rates.

In addition, I have a solo exhibition coming up at Five Points Gallery in Torrington, Connecticut in July. I’m hoping to finish attending solely to the business demands so I can spend a few hours each day working in the studio for this next exhibition. I’m not exactly sure if the show will remain on the calendar for the summer. Time will tell, but the latest update is that we’re still on track. A second solo exhibition in Jersey City, also slated for summer, has been put on hold indefinitely due to COVID. It’s been a much more solitary time for me, but the days seem to move quickly. I’m looking forward to seeing my sons in person soon, and friends.

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Ellen Hackl Fagan, Immersed In Blue, event documentation, 2019. Ely Center for Contemporary Art, New Haven, Connecticut, December 2019. Dancer and choreographer Alexis Robbins performs in dialogue with the paintings for an evening of performance, “Celebration of Resilience and Resistance: Divine Moment,” organized by Briana Williams.

AS: Can you describe some of your feelings about all this?

EHF: I am angry about the economic divide that is becoming more pronounced as those who can work from home are able to stay employed, but so many other friends, especially in art museum professions, have been left without a safety net. I also get angry when I see people not practicing social distancing, even now. It continues to alarm me as they interact with others, and then go back home to families that may contract the virus due to their lack of commitment to staying out of harm’s way. I am concerned about all of my family members and friends who are isolated like me. It takes an enormous optimism to keep positive and remain healthily engaged.

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Ellen Hackl Fagan, Seeking the Sound of Cobalt Blue_Pinwheels_in process, 2020, ink, pigment, acrylic, daisy wheel printers, printer wheel plastic case, fossils, paint bottles on clayboard. Detail, panel is 8 x 10 inches. Photo: Courtesy of the Artist.

AS: What matters most right now?

EHF: My family, my mother and my mother-in-law, especially as they are both alone and in their 90s. My mom says this is the most dramatic event in her life since the Great Depression, where they lost their home and had to move in with her grandmother and were crowded into a house with other disgruntled family members.

When families are forced together in stressful times, incidents of domestic violence increase. So I’m honored that my painting, “Seeking the Sound of Cobalt Blue_Pinwheels,” will be part of “Deep Blue See,” an online auction benefiting Prevent Child Abuse America. My “blue print” for prevention will also be offered for $200, with $100 from each print directly benefitting the organization. We’re hoping we can sell out this limited edition of 50 and raise $5,000 for this essential cause!

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Deep Blue See, poster image, Ground Floor Gallery and Prevent Child Abuse America, April-June 2020.

Acts of kindness I see taking place among friends, family, and perfect strangers also matter greatly. Seeing and reading about these caring moments gives me a sense of faith that we’re all going to pull through this and know better what’s most important in life, and that is love. We need to stay open to loving one another, and to tolerating our differences.

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Ellen Hackl Fagan, Seeking the Sound of Cobalt Blue_Daisy Wheel, 2020, ink, acrylic, pigment, on clayboard, 10 x 8 inches. Photo: Courtesy of the Artist.

AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?

EHF: I am eager to see how galleries transform in this period of social distancing. I’m anticipating big changes to how we all find our way to sustainability, while continuing our commitment to growing artists’ careers. I plan to continue painting in my own studio in anticipation of my solo exhibition this summer. Artists have always lived with uncertainty, but also with hope.

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Ellen Hackl Fagan, Seeking the Sound of Cobalt Blue_ Pinwheels, 2020, ink, acrylic, pigment on clayboard. 10 x 8 inches. Courtesy of Ground Floor Gallery. Photo: Courtesy of the Artist.
Catherine Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer based in New York. She wrote the introductions to Meryl Meisler’s two books, and is currently working on an oral history about recent changes in photography.