Spirit World

Speaking of happiness, the paintings of Ellie Wyeth always make me happy. (At left: “Still Sleeping.”) Ms. Wyeth often includes her cute dogs in her happy paintings. Before the holidays, at the Arts Council of Princeton’s annual Sauce for the Goose sale, I fell in love with one of Ms. Wyeth’s floor cloths, also with cute dogs, kind of like Jack Russell terriers. It reminds me a bit of Fay Sciarra’s painting, “Marjie’s Dogs.” Here are her two sons, Avery and Luke, with the dogs:

Here’s what I wrote about Ms. Wyeth and her dogs in 2002: The 26 paintings by Ellie Wyeth Fox at Studio 233 in Lambertville tell a story that is simultaneously tragic and whimsical. The images evoke the fantastical worlds of children’s books, but with a poignant message. Many of the scenes are populated by two dogs – Emma, a Jack Russell terrier, and Hewitt, a mixed terrier – and a spirit. The dogs are waiting by the window, waiting along a stone wall, waiting on the bed.

“Dogs wait through the day for you to come home – that’s what dogs do,” says Ms. Fox.

The spirit takes form in a sleeveless black floral dress, a scarf, a shawl, and curtains moved in mysterious ways by the wind. The dress, the scarf and the shawl all belonged to the artist’s sister, and the breeze was inspired by one that came through a window in Ireland many years ago.

“When someone close to you dies, it’s hard to believe they’re not there with you – I’ve been waiting for a sign… that she’s in a better place,” says Ms. Fox of her sister’s unexpected death a little more than a year ago. This show is a tribute to Ms. Fox’s sister, who lost her life at 51.

“It’s a way of working through the loss,” says Ms. Fox. “But I didn’t want the paintings to be sad or morbid – she wouldn’t have wanted them to look like that. She was a funny, vibrant person.”

As a child, Ms. Fox, 48, fought with her older sister, but after they both became mothers “we started merging into the same place. We became more like each other.”

The exhibit includes landscapes from Tannersville, N.Y., in the Catskill Mountains, where Ms. Fox’s family has a summer home. She and her sister would go for long walks, and the landscapes revisit these scenes. “On the Road to East Jewett,” one of the landscapes, includes Emma and Hewitt in a field in front of a stone fence with a window in a gate, “waiting for some sort of spiritual sign,” says the artist. In “East Jewett Valley,” the Jack Russell sits on a stone wall that had been on Ms. Fox’s grandfather’s farm, another scene along the walk she used to take with her sister.

The interiors are painted in saturated colors – deep salmon, royal and turquoise blues. Ms. Fox doesn’t like to paint from photographs. The window is painted from one in her studio, but the rest of the scene is from her imagination – a yellow wallpaper with a fleur-de-lis pattern, a bed, a chair, a chest of drawers. Ms. Fox has a collection of fabric remnants that inspire her textile designs.

Many of the interiors are titled a time of the day: the dogs may have changed position, the dress and scarf may be arranged differently on the bed, the light shaft through the window changes angle.

In “Ten O’clock,” for example, we see the bed and the dress. One dog naps on the bed, the other on the floor. Long shadows are made by the light from the window. In “Eleven O’clock,” a dog waits on a chair under the window. A copy of Town Topics lies on the floor.

“Noon”: Emma looks toward the window, waiting, while Hewitt is on the bed on top of the shawl; the scarf is wrapped around a bed post, the dress is on the bed.

In another painting, the dog sleeps on top of the dress laid out on the bed. “Dogs always sleep on what you put on the bed,” says Ms. Fox. “I think it’s the smell that attracts them.”

In “Still Sleeping,” we get a closer view of the dogs, one on the bed, one on the floor, and the scarf on the bed. “Three Pears” has the dog looking out at the viewer, the dress and scarf are on the bed and three pears lean on each other in the window.

“A Presence” uses a mirror to offer a greater perspective on the room. We see the window, where the wind is stirring up the curtain, and in the mirror we see the bed with a painting of Ms. Fox’s sister’s burial ground over it.

The starry night scene of a stone wall and path in the Catskills also depicts the place where Ms. Fox’s grandparents are buried.

“When a breeze moves through a room, it blows the door open, like a presence,” says Ms. Fox.

The life of the artist is itself like a storybook. Raised in a skinny Victorian house with shutters in Katonah, N.Y., Ms. Fox is a descendant of painter Andrew Wyeth. Her father was a senior editor at Harper & Row and her mother taught art. After boarding school, Ms. Fox spent a year in Paris, then moved to New York to study art. Her goal was to be an illustrator for The New Yorker, so she worked part time while taking classes through the Art Students League, Parsons School of Design and the School of Visual Arts. Heroes included Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, George Booth and Charles Addams, but she very much sought her own individual style. Ms. Fox’s part-time jobs included designing theater fronts, posters and greeting cards, and working as a TV production assistant and in film publicity.

Logan Fox, owner of the former Micawber Books in Princeton, was a childhood sweetheart – in fact, their parents were good friends before the children were born. Logan attended Ellie’s 3-year birthday party, and they married in the mid ’70s. Mr. Fox had worked at the Strand Book Store in New York while studying American history at NYU and began looking for a college town in which to open a bookstore. The couple moved to Princeton in 1981 to open Micawber Books on Nassau Street. (They are now divorced.)


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One Response to Spirit World

  1. I love the colors and whimsy in these paintings. So glad Ms. Fox can be propeled to create wonderful works through grief.

    Love the dogs. My dogs are always dependably waiting.

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