Josiah Ellner on His Paintings, Going to School, Growing up in China & More

by Rubén Palma
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Josiah Ellner (b. 1996, Milwaukee, Wisconsin) was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin but grew up in Xi’an, China. Growing up in a city of more than eight million people with scarce green spaces and little to no wildlife, Ellner always felt a disconnect from the natural world. Despite these feelings of alienation, his relationship with nature is a focal point of his practice. From his personal experiences of encountering and engaging with nature, Ellner weaves together playful narratives that capture intimate moments of this connection. Through careful abstraction, Ellner can heighten and fully portray the whimsical and awkward interactions he has with the environment around him. Currently, Ellner is attending The School of the Art Institute of Chicago to earn his Master of Fine Arts.

Hi Josiah, I’m curious. You were born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but grew up in Xi’an, China. What’s the story there?

My parents moved to Xi’an, China when I was three years old for work. My only connection to China before the move was that I am ethnically half Chinese.  I’m incredibly thankful to have been able to grow up in China and connect with that side of my heritage.

Got it. And you currently reside in Chicago, where you attend The School of the Art Institute. Why did you decide to move back to the States to study?

I think moving back to the States for a college education was always the plan that my parents had for me.  I only attended the Chinese public school for half the day up until 6th grade.  The other half of the day I was homeschooled by my Mom in an American education. Once highschool began I was homeschooled full time.  This allowed me to focus on my American education and prepare for college in the U.S.

Why do you think your parents were so adamant about you going to School in America and learning the American way of life?

It was really about the education system vs. the way of life persay. 
Just from attending the Chinese local public school system till 6th grade both me and my parents noticed that the education system in China was much more rigorous and very focused on mathmatics and science and the higher education system was one of high stress and pressure. From an early age I had already shown a distaste for math and science. So it wasn’t very fitting. My homeschool education was much more inclined to the liberal arts such as creative writing and literature and took on a much less stressful, free flowing schedule.

So, how has growing up in China influenced your art? And how is the Chinese and American culture and art scene compared to eachother? Any noticable differences?

A lot of my work draws from childhood memories or childlike inclinations like wonder and curiosity. My upbringing in Xi’an was also very influential in my experience of the natural world. Growing up in a large polluted city like Xian I didn’t have much experience being in nature. Despite this as a kid I was kind of obsessed with wildlife and the idea of being in nature.  My interest in the natural world was fulfilled through nature documentaries and obsessively drawing animals. 

Regarding an art scene I can’t speak too much to the differences because when I was younger I wasn’t really involved in any. But culturally, I would say China is very much more oriented around the collective and family.  Food is so important and gathering together around a meal is such a big part of life there. Taking care of your family is top priority. Whereas the U.S I would say is much more individualistic.  In the U.S I feel like self expression is more important and difference is much more celebrated.

What is the inspiration behind the various surreal motifs and scenes in your paintings?

I have always loved fantasy and the ability of the subconscious mind to create strange new shapes and bizarre forms. In my work I wouldn’t say I am thinking too much about surrealism but more so of abstraction and how forms can become abstracted through simple changes of color, shortening and elongation of limbs etc.  

When looking through your work, hands are a recurring thing. What do they symbolize or what’s the meaning behind them?

For me hands have the power to be just as expressive as a full figure.  A simple gesture in a hand is most of the time all I need to depict the scene in a painting.  Recently I have been interested in positioning the hands on the canvas in a way that places the viewer as the figure.  In this case hands are also able to direct us outside of the canvas and reference the unattached body. Whose body do these hands belong to?

Right. And who are the characters. What’s their story?

I don’t really consider my figures as different characters per say. But more as archetypal.  As a general representation of humanity.  Their story is my story and the stories of those that find themselves taking on the avatar of the characters that I depict.

Nature and the environment around you are essential themes in your paintings. Talk to me a little bit about why it’s important for you to express it on the canvas.

My work has always stemmed from my experiences with the natural world or the lack of it and the deep connection I feel to it. I feel like my relationship to nature and the earth is incredibly complicated.  Not just because of my upbringing but also because of the current state of the world. By painting my experiences with nature I am able to work through a lot of what I’m feeling in regards to it. My paintings are meant to capture a moment of connection that is many times fleeting in reality or goes unnoticed.  Painting also allows me to spend more time with these moments and give them supernatural meaning and importance.

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