Q&A with Resident Artist Ellannah Sadkin
Throughout Ellannah Sadkin’s life and career as an artist, there’s been a rebellious streak to her work that seems to run in the family. While other students filled archetypes as class clown or know-it-all, Sadkin found herself filling the margins of her notebook with doodles and taking up the mantle as “the kid who draws.” The faculty was far from supportive, but one teacher noticed her talents and commissioned Sadkin to draw murals depicting characters from The Simpsons on the chalkboard every day to the delight of the class. As she moved schools regularly, Sadkin built an identity around her talents as she became a teenager.
It’s those formative, grade school rebel days that continue to bring a youthful spark of color, personality and character to her creative output as an adult.
“Art has always given me stability,” says Sadkin, sitting down for an interview a few weeks into her residency at Red Bull House of Art. “It’s a comfort blanket in a way. When everything else is turbulent, you’ve always got that.”
Sadkin quickly follows her thought with a summary: “If I don’t paint, I get weird (laughs).”
While living in New York with her mother, Sadkin lived on Great Jones Street in NoHo just west of the East Village. Throughout the 1980s, neighbors included artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat (creating some of his best-known work in a building owned by Andy Warhol), Francesco Clemente and Kenny Scharf.
Purchased in the 1970s by Sadkin’s well-known record producer father Alex Sadkin, she grew up in a world where both street art, skateboard graphics and cartoons made a lasting mark.
The influence of those elements are evident. Sadkin has bucked traditional arts education, formulating a style that’s definitively unique, fresh and stimulating at every turn. Often described as surrealist cartoons, Sadkin essentially melts moments from memories of skipping school to watch cartoons and creates a work that borrows from the past but is very much her own. You wouldn’t be wrong to consider her work as a remix of animation cells from your childhood.
We spoke with Sadkin about the influence of cartoons in her work, how narrative can add and take away from the final piece and the impression she wants the audience to walk away with when they see her work.
Tell me a little bit about the lasting impact of watching cartoons growing up on you personally and in your work.
I used to not go to school very often because I hated it. I would just stay in and watch cartoons all day. I feel like I got properly addicted to cartoons when I was 12 because I remember staying up 24-hours to watch a Flintstones marathon. It just became my thing, you know? I have fond memories of that. It was definitely an escape. Everything in the cartoon world is simple, is moral and makes sense. It has a clear beginning and ending. When you’re in that world, everything is right. In the real world, it’s not. I like the simplicity of it and I could really get lost in it. If it had been dark and twisted and had bad endings, I don’t know what that would’ve done to me (laughs).
At the same time, you’ve stayed away from bringing that simple cartoon narrative into your work. Instead, you celebrate a lot of the simplicity of the image itself.
I’ve stayed away from narrative just because it overcomplicates things. I want it to be simple. I have thought about doing backgrounds and there being a story, but it doesn’t go with the look that I want, so it’s for quite superficial reasons. I want something that is strong and pops. When I was younger, I just used art as a pure escape. Now, I do think about trying to delve into it. What does this mean? Can it mean this? My work is definitely starting to go in that direction. Before, it was purely about drawing something big and colorful. It’s like a reflection of my mindset, you know?
What are your initial impressions so far working out of Red Bull House of Art in the heart of Detroit’s Eastern Market?
The fact that I’m allowed to paint all day — not that I get up that early (laughs) — is amazing. To have a studio and a place to live for the winter is great. The fact that there’s people here to help me is great. I don’t think I’d try anything new otherwise. I’m normally in my little safety zone and this is giving me an opportunity to try something new.
Is there an impression you hope the audience walks away with when they see your work at Red Bull House of Art?
The main thing I’ve always liked about making art is the response to it. It’s basically this — I want to make people happy. I used to paint and kids would walk past my studio and have this excited response to my work. That was something that made me really happy above everything else. I could see the joy it was spreading and it was the best feeling ever. If I can spread a little bit of joy with it and get people in a better mood, I feel like I’ve done it right.
By Ryan Patrick Hooper