Judith HeartSong, Artists & Makers Studios’ executive director, was in a real bind. Gallery schedules are completed at least a year in advance, yet right before press was set to go out for the August shows, an artist had to cancel.
HeartSong needed to come up with another option–fast. “Whenever you are in that situation, you need to find somebody that has a large body of work,” she said. “They [need to be] extremely professional. They [need to] know the ins and outs of exhibiting, so that you are not teaching them things as you go along. They can put a show together quickly with a title and a paragraph and a body of work.”
About eight months earlier, HeartSong had contacted Washington, D.C.-based professional artists Dana Ellyn and Matt Sesow to inquire if they wanted to do a show, but both had other commitments. “I am very persistent,” she said. “I am never afraid to get a ‘no,’ so I thought ‘Well, let me just call them and see if they are in any sort of different position’.”
An hour or so after talking to HeartSong, the couple agreed to create the monthlong show “Stronger Together: The Art of DC’s power couple Ellyn & Sesow” in two galleries at Artists & Makers 1 in Rockville.
Together since 2001 and married in 2010, each artist is showing 20-plus works. One gallery will be split evenly between the two. Some of Sesow’s pieces were part of a recent solo show, “Hair of the Dog: Remorse, Reminders, Resistance,” at Jeanine Taylor Folk Art in Sanford, Fla. All his paintings were completed within the last month and a half. About 90 percent of Ellyn’s work on view is recent. “Typically, my work is really topical,” she said. “I focus a lot on animal rights and veganism. Some of them can be strongly messaged, so a couple of the older pieces were fun–just nice, simple paintings. The newer stuff is some of my more strongly messaged vegetarian/vegan work.”
The second gallery will showcase “Defiled,” the couple’s collaborative paintings. The series came about when Sesow was looking at unsold paintings on Ellyn’s wall. He would frequently ask if he could add some of his signature teeth and lips to each portrait, Ellyn said. “It became kind of a joke for a long enough time that I eventually relinquished a painting and I said “Here wise-guy! Here’s one. See what you can do with it!’ and to be fair, he handed me one of his to see what I could do with his and we ‘defiled’ (them), if you will,” she explained.
Sesow didn’t start painting until the early 1990s while he was working as a software tester for IBM. Roommates of a woman he dated were painting when he visited; asked if he, too, painted, he said he did. That harmless lie provided impetus for Sesow to adopt painting as a hobby, and he began creating works expressing his thoughts–mainly about losing his left hand after an airplane propeller blade struck him at age 8. “I saw it as a neat way to communicate feelings,” he said.
After a stint in the Peace Corps in the Solomon Islands, Sesow retired from his tech career and became a fulltime professional artist in 2001. Today, he finds inspiration in everything from punk rock music to memes he sees on the Internet. “I think his work with coloration and loose energetic style is just so powerful,” HeartSong said.
While Sesow has exhibited across the United States, he recently had a year-long solo show at The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. Once the show concluded, the museum acquired 26 paintings for its permanent collection.
Sesow enjoys the process of creating a painting and likes to work fast. On a recent weekday, he completed eight small paintings in a day; his longest painting took him four days. He estimates over his career he has sold more than 11,000 paintings.
Growing up, Ellyn was “the kid that did the art,” she said. “I grew up in a really small town where everyone had their thing. In a class of 60 people in your grade, I was the artist. I was lucky my parents encouraged it and bought me art supplies.”
Moving to Washington, D.C. to earn a bachelor’s degree at George Washington University, Ellyn, then age 30, left the corporate world in 2002 to be a fulltime artist. “Looking back, (it was) a bigger risk than I even acknowledged at the time,” she said.
Sesow encouraged Ellyn to accompany each of her paintings with a story; he felt she needed to paint what she cares about. As a part of a “31 days in July” series than ran for a decade, the couple painted political and current events. Ellyn did some religious work as well. “I’ve been a long-time vegetarian and a long-time animal lover, and once that found its way into my art, I realized that is something that is me and will always be me and always has been me,” she said. “Once I hit on that as a topic and how much I had to say about it and knowing I will always have those feelings, I was like ‘Aha! That’s it, that is going to be my thing!'”
Ellyn also finds inspiration in living and walking around D.C. Recently, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s circus art theme motivated her to create some circus- and clown-themed pieces. “It’s really just having your eyes open and observing the world,” she observed.
HeartSong said Ellyn’s work has a sense of social responsibility and encourages viewers to make good choices in what they eat. “I think her work really expresses her life viewpoints of being conscious, and I respect her work tremendously,” she said.
Both artists pride themselves about offering affordable art. “Matt, more than I, has been told ‘You should raise your prices,’ but we don’t,” Ellyn said. “It is really satisfying for people to come in and see good/great art by two legit professional long-term artists and we are not charging thousands of dollars. That leaves a mark.”
Each month, the couple host an open studio where folks may come to see and/or buy their art. “It’s becoming better and better known, and people know when they come to the open studio, the prices are even better,” she said. “If you like it and you’ve come here, (we have a) ‘let’s make it happen’ attitude.”
“Stronger Together: the art of DC’s power couple Ellyn & Sesow” is on view through Aug. 30 at Artists & Makers Studios 1, 11810 Parklawn Drive, Suite 210, Rockville. Viewing hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and by appointment Sunday and Monday. Call 240-437-9573 or visit http://artistsandmakersstudios.com.