Growing up on the Isle of Man, an island in the Irish Sea steeped in folklore and superstition, Ella Garvey was more aware of mysticism in her early life than most. Now living in London, both in her everyday life and in her painting practice, she keeps one foot firmly in the realm of dreams.
Ella Garvey is a painter based in London. Her practice centres around the mythologising of space and objects; By collecting imagery spanning civilisations and styles, from ancient vessels to art nouveau designs, she produces a visual language of recognisable symbols and forms that relate yet contradict: blending myth and matter; interior and exterior; fluid and formed. Involved in her practice is a deep reverence for the act of constructing an image and she experiments with the layering of the lucid, creating illusory portals into new realities.
Ella’s aim is to create a mythological lyricism and poetry from the ordinary and mundane. She compares her works to dreams: disparate objects that intertwine to form fantastical images that have emerged from the subconscious. Often her narratives are obscure, encouraging the viewer to uncover their own meanings.
On the Isle of Man, tales of troublesome fairies and supernatural creatures from the underworld were so woven into the place that Ella never took much notice of it. Only once she moved to London to study at Central Saint Martins did she realise how special, and odd, it was that these tales were so embedded into the everyday. “Moving to London, I yearned for that more animated, magical sort of life so I delved more into the stories of the land that surrounded me,” she says. Her curiosity opened up an exploration of mysticism, myth, ritual and early religions, which naturally seeped into her heart and art. “I’ve started creating my own meaning and my own stories through these little pockets of knowledge I’ve collected.”
There can be a beauty to making this kind of work in today’s digital age, with democratised access to such narratives. However Ella does not overly romanticise her process. Instead of visiting dusty libraries taking down tomes from the top shelves, her references are screenshots and pixels scattered across folders in various apps. But there is a little Manx book of fairy tales which she reads from every morning before she starts drawing. It’s a practice that frees her imagination from the rules of the real world and reminds her to believe in something more. “Folklore doesn’t subscribe to rationality,” she says. “There’s a lot of shape-shifting, contradictions and duality within it.”
Victorian love tokens are her latest research topic. She’s interested in how humans attach feelings to objects – taking something you can hold in your hand and tethering it to something beyond our grasp, something from “that place between life and death where anything can happen, anything is possible.” By finely painting objects in oil on canvas, like the beautiful shells she collects, she’s created a visual code around themes including life, death and hope. “I see my work as sort of a personal narrative and personal myth-making through universal symbols,” she explains.
The painter as archeologist: Ella Garvey collects imagery spanning timeframes and styles. The result is an aesthetic of an eclectic sensibility – think Salvador Dalí or David Lynch. Or the poetry of Icelandic pop artist, Björk, whose songs create a space both hushed and thrilled – as you might describe a ritual, the sense of which inflects Ella’s paintings as well. She’ll often compose them as frames within frames, alongside the recurrence of eyes, which draws attention to the inseparable relationship between observer and observed.
When we talk about the magic of art, we don’t always mean it literally. But magic is foregrounded in these paintings, through the occult, strange and votive. The Untethered Vessel may remind us of Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ when he writes, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.” The uncanny imbues these works, as in, what slips free of rationalisation into the wider realm of the sensual imagination. As a result, Ella emphasises a beauty that can’t be spoken, an eerie stillness inhabiting each world she imagines.
In I had your love, I have your hate, she paints her version of the weeping Virgin Mary, a figure for the sorrow of the world, where the tearful face is flanked by two crows in flight, representing new life. Ella’s message in this painting is that through both pain and pleasure we can transform and grow. She explores similar themes around death and rebirth in Let Me Rest Now, Beneath the Trees, which was inspired by the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. “The lamb to me represents a sort of warmth beneath the land waiting to emerge in the spring, gathering the energy from the roots of the trees.” Borrowing from centuries of story-telling (myths, legends, fairy tales, scripture) she selects the iconography that means the most to her and weaves it into intricate personal codes, re-telling fundamental human truths.