Women Dream by Elsi Vassdal Ellis

Women Dream is the foundation piece for on-going explorations that examines gender boundaries as expressed in Judeo-Christian-Muslim constructs. The writings of Fatema Mernissi strongly influenced Women Dream as I have focused on the visible and invisible frontiers or boundaries that women universally face and conflicts that arise between men and women as a result of intrusions into each other’s space—especially the consequences of women in the space of men. Personal as well as vicarious experiences have been referenced. There is also the acknowledgement that we can never escape our past, that it will always form the context of our present and future. In Women Dream, brief and somewhat uncomfortable text is presented on the walls of three nested boxes. These passages have not been attributed to any specific religion in this work. The reader must examine the concepts presented within his/her own belief system, to be denied or acknowledged, responded or reacted to intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. The collapsible boxes may be reassembled but not without some degree of difficulty, for as we all know, it is challenging to put the walls back up once they have come down, even for just a short time.

Artist Bio

Elsi Vassdal Ellis creates books in a well equipped studio outside Bellingham on 20 acres of what was once part of the Buckholtz Homestead. Born in Fallon, Nevada, in 1952, she spent her formative years in Iowa City, Iowa, before settling down in the Pacific Northwest.

Since 1983 she has produced over 95 editions and 120 unique books employing a variety of reproduction techniques and materials. Her work is permanently housed in many public collections including the National Museum of Women in the Arts, New York City Public Library, Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, Grabhorn Collection in the San Francisco Public Library, and Arts of the Book Collection in the Yale University Library.

Western Washington University has been her professional home since 1977 where she holds the rank of full professor and teaches courses in design production and (occassionally) book arts.

Artist Statement

Those formative years are quite critical in shaping who we are. We think we have forgotten many of those growing up experiences but it isn’t true. Our sometimes questionable memories of them seep into our dreams and those lucid moments just before full consciousness in the morning. Sometimes there is joy. Sometimes primal emotions remind us of those awkward and humiliating experiences.

When I was eleven, my father moved the family from Reno (Nevada) to Iowa City (Iowa), from desert sand, dry winds and tumbleweeds to miles and miles of corn fields, dairy cows and humidity. His goal was to earn a PhD in art history. The family followed. It was in Iowa City, during those formative years, that I developed my fascination for the book.

Iowa City was very different from Reno and it was surprisingly difficult for me to find my place in the Wonder Bread world of mid-America. It wasn’t so much that one experience prevented me from feeling at home or comfortable in the space, but a cluster of experiences as a new kid, puberty, anger because friends were half a nation away, fear of the unknown, and my introduction to Elsie the Cow.

Needless to say, what I remember about Iowa City was the teasing and taunting and feeling stupid and my search for an escape route. Because my father returned to school when I was six (he exited the university system when I was eighteen), I grew up surrounded by books and could read anything my heart desired, even if I did not fully comprehend the content. My father’s philosophy was that “ideas are not dangerous, only ignorance.” It was in Iowa City I focused my emotions and intellect on a vora­cious study of archaeology. At the ripe old age of twelve, I was trying to decide between specializing in Mid-Eastern or pre-Columbian studies. Five years later I was overwhelmingly disappointed by a college recruiter who impressed upon me the differences (compensation as in salary) between man’s work and woman’s work in archaeology. Much to my father’s delight I turned my attention to current issues and at seventeen made the decision to prepare myself for a career in visual communication (primarily animation). Rather than dig up artifacts from the past, I decided to create artifacts for future archaeolo­gists. (You see, my father feared I would be destined to live my life as a spinster if I pursued my archae­ology dream. Funny thing though, he never voiced this fear until many years later.)

When I began making books I saw the process as a continuation of the temptation Eve faced in the Garden of Eden, hence my pressmark. Eve’s apple had sensual qualities (beautiful, fragrant, tasty); it im­parted knowledge; it was forbidden. To make books as tempting as Eve’s apple, I use a variety of media and reproduction techniques (offset and letterpress printing, printmaking, hand painting and draw­ing, as well as the computer) and various book structures (experimental, traditional, and historical). A result of this desire to make tempting objects is that one might say my books are “all over the place.” My work has always been eclectic. It will continue to be eclectic. The books vary considerably in structure, content, and techniques employed. Some books reflect a spiritual journey through the study of myth; some reflect the compulsive study of language in its corporeal form (letters and type); some are the creation of new biographies and stories by recycling found materials with new text; others are sponta­neous products of a curiosity of form or reactions to events; some explore the intersection of religion and politics; some attempt to seduce the reader into looking deeply into the dark bottomless abyss of human behavior. Regardless of the motivating force behind the making of a book, it is the intimacy, the sensuality of the form and the materials, the control over sequencing, the telling of stories that feed my creative process.

My first books were typographic in their focus: the history of the alphabet, playful ABC specimen books featuring my lead and wood type collection. These are natural themes for the letterpress printer. As my binding skills improved (through MANY workshops and trial-and-error), the topics housed in my books also expanded. The storyteller in me resurfaced, but what stories needed to be told?

The summer of 1999 marked the introduction of the political voice in my work. To overcome a signifi­cant creative block I had encountered while working on one book, I decided to engage in a focused ex­ercise with the hope of crashing through the block. I set a limit of twenty-four hours (three eight hour days) to write text, set wood and lead type and print an edition. The Kosovo “conflict” was the hot news item in June 1999 and the June 22 paper gave me the ingredients I needed: interviews with Vojoslav Se­selj (Serb) and a Kosovar couple. The Serb text focused upon Seselj’s comment: “Serb troops did not rape Kosovo women because they are too ugly for Serb men.” The Kosovar text combined the silence and de­nial of the young wife who would not admit to having been raped by Serb police and the husband who knew she had been but had no evidence and would divorce her immediately if it was revealed. Initially, I described this new work as witnessing, a term I felt uncomfortable with because of its religious but seemingly appropriate overtones. What I have come to realize is that sometimes it is too difficult for those who have experienced and/or witnessed the horrors of human behavior to tell the stories we need to hear. What they need is the alchemist, someone who searches the ends of the earth for the necessary matter, subjects it to fire and ice and distillation, concentrating the experiences to serve as their voices and witnesses for current and future generations.

The political voice gradually emerged only to become louder and louder in my work, and to dominate it. It wasn’t too long before a new pattern emerged where books were born of books when there were many more things be said but could not be said in one book. War has haunted me. At first I was the optimist, focusing on peace as the final thought in the work. I have done my own War and Peace. As al­chemist I have mined blogs and reports, read books and articles, watched documentaries about soldiers and battlefields and air strikes, friendly fire, suicides, physically detached soldiers half a world away operating drones, the economic and psychological costs of war. There are moments I know I would be better off not focusing on such topics in my work. Mood swings, tears, a feeling of disgust, a fear of be­coming a voyeur all haunt me but I tell myself someone must stand on the street corners on soapboxes, to bear witness to the current state of the world and human action. Right or wrong, good or bad, helpful or harmful, that someone is me.

To find relief from this darkness, I have also begun mining my Nevada and Iowa years as well as my domestic arts education having grown up under the protection of a Mormon umbrella of expectations only to have discovered the liberty of losing the umbrella to the wind. Shifting between the traditional paper substrates to fabric have opened up new possibilities and revealed new stories that exploit the materials and emotions of the reader.

There are moments that I panic and fear that there will never be enough time to accomplish all the books I have planned. This fear is tempered by the joyous, serendipitous discoveries that are made along the way as spontaneous books emerge as by-products of the alchemical process of life.

Of making of many books there is no end.