Who are you and where are you from?
My name is Bethany Ellington and I’m from Fauquier County, Virginia, although I’ve been living abroad since August 2012.
Can you tell us a little about your work and the reasons behind it?
I didn’t always work in this style and I still don’t consider it “my style”, it’s very much a result of circumstance and experimentation. In previous years I was known for bold colors, acrylic portraits, and hand-sketched comics. When I moved to Taipei in February 2017, I’d had an instructional book on making comic noir art. I got a small tub of pre-fab comic ink and started practicing. I immediately loved that it forced me to make risky decisions with shadows and negative spaces, that it demanded both large blocks and impossible detail. I also very much appreciated that this medium required minimal material, making the whole set-up very portable - a feature very necessary for my life in Taiwan. My experiment in ink quickly evolved to larger, planned works. I had hundreds of photos from a bike trip I’d taken around the whole island of Taiwan in 2015. I chose a few of them and used them as reference and soon had a few cohesive pieces. From there the Taipei Noir project came together. I wanted to use the few years I’d have in Taiwan to focus exclusively on this new medium while painting scenes of my new adopted home.
This URBN Exhibition is the first time the completed series has been on display together and the first time any of these works has been available for purchase. After over two and a half years of this ink experiment, I’m looking forward to returning to colors and acrylic. While I will be incorporating ink in future endeavors, this will most likely be the only full series from me created entirely in ink.
How do you think your childhood impacted your style?
When I was a kid I would draw cartoons to entertain myself and my siblings. The fridge was littered with proud doodles and I had several sketchbooks full of scenes and characters my brothers had requested. After I left home I would still occasionally return to comics. I’d make little comics as farewell gifts to friends or to commemorate a trip. In November 2016 I won a comic competition in Auckland, New Zealand. It was a small victory but was enough to encourage me to try to focus and improve my abilities. I got a few books on comic-style art and started with the comic noir book and still haven’t really gotten around to any of the others.
Can you tell us a bit about your workspace?
I’ve been a bit of a nomad for the past decade or so, - even in my “settled” life here in Taipei. Since moving here in February 2017, I’ve lived in about nine different places. As a result, my workspace (and my work) has had to adapt and become as minimal as possible. I prefer to work on desks or tables but I’ve been known to tape a piece to the wall if I have no other options. I have a bag with a few pencils, brushes, a ruler, an eraser, and an ink pot. I’ll go out and get more paper only when I’m ready to start a new piece. As a result my workspace(s) tend to be as clean and simple and they are transient.
Do you listen to anything while you’re working, and if so, what?
I love a good podcast. I’ll start with a few NPR news updates and then on to hours of podcasts. I’ve been doing a lot of true crime casts recently but I’ll listen to anything from Medical Mysteries to Talkin’ Birds.
How do you approach the creative process? (Talk us through how you construct a piece? Do have a concrete idea of what it will look like before you get started? What type of reference do you use?)
While I’m a hard-working and disciplined person, I’m also deeply distracted. To watch me you might think I was intentionally scattering myself. I’ll sit down to paint and put on a podcast and then get up to make coffee but then stop on the way to fold laundry and then remember some John Oliver thing I was supposed to watch and then remember the podcast and start it over and then remember the coffee and then stop to text people back while not fully reading the messages and then I’ll pour a cup of coffee and then do some stretching while simultaneously trying to listen to a podcast and watch youtube then an hour has past and I think “maybe i’ll take up knitting again” and now the coffee is cold. I would not call this “my creative process” but it’s how I operate when I’m not carefully managing myself.
Further, I suppose it’s usually in this daily tangle that a random idea will pop up, like “ hey maybe I should collect cockroaches and make a topographical map of Taiwan with their bodies…?” or “I should make a giant painting of that big escalator at Nanjing Fuxing”. When an idea pops up multiple times I may choose to weigh its merits, legitimize it, and eventually, prioritize it until it becomes a reality. In the case of paintings, when I’ve chosen a subject I’ll rely on photos I already taken or go out and takes ones more suitable to my needs. I’ll then doctor the image a bit in Photoshop and then splice it into smaller boxes. From there the process is quite technical. I’ll math our corresponding proportions on watercolor paper and draw them in with light pencil. I’ll lightly sketch in the image and, from there, work almost like a typewriter, square by square; like several smaller images puzzled together into one cohesive scene.
When creating feels forced what do you do to get things flowing again?
Honestly,I scroll Instagram, make another pot of coffee, and unintentionally distract myself until I remember what I was doing and get back to it.
What have been some of the greatest breakthroughs you’ve experienced within your learning as an artist? (Those moments that have opened up whole new creative avenues or that have led to you taking large leaps forward in your development?)
In my adult life art has mainly been an occasionally hobby, a neglected talent gathering dust. When I first came to Taiwan I was in one of the moments where I’d picked up art to answer a passing whim. At the same time I was reading a book a friend had given on the psychology of work. In it the writer promoted the idea that, to be productive to a more fulfilling degree, we must commit to our ideas and impulses beyond the honeymoon phase. After the idea becomes tedious and you’ve lost your inspiration, you need to continue. The book suggested devoting a minimum of two years to any new enterprise. I applied the idea to several avenues in my life, art included. I decided rather than my usual diluted and varied approach I would pick a theme, a medium, and I would work in that for at least two years. I realize, in retrospect, that this is precisely what I was made to do in university art classes. However, choosing to do it for myself and by myself as an adult who certainly didn’t need to do anything of the sort, felt like a turning point. I’d like to think it will change how I create art beyond this project.
What do you look for in art of others? What would you hope people look for in your work?
Personality and style. Technical ability matters less to me than an artist’s ability to convey a message or feeling. The thoughts in Liana Finck’s subway scrawls are much more interesting to me than something that is purely aesthetically pleasing, no matter how finely-tuned. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate a conventional sense of beauty, it just doesn’t stand out to me if it doesn’t have an extra bit of charisma. I hope viewers of the Taipei Noir series can find a certain atmospheric curiosity and calm beyond all the carefully placed details.Any artists (new or old) that have been inspiring you as of late? I can’t say he’s been directly inspiring my paintings lately but, I’ve been really enjoying the work of comic artist Simon Hanselmann. His work has a grunge to it that combines nostalgia and comedy in a pretty fun way.
Are you ever satisfied with your work?
Yes! While still working on a piece I’ll refine it over and over and beat myself up over minor imperfections. But, when it’s done, I’ll step back, see the final product and say,“Damn, did I do that??”.
What are some of your favourite places or things in Taiwan?
The east coast is amazing. I’d recommend a Hualien to Taitung bike ride to anyone. It’s stunning. Also, have you been to 7-11? Please go get yourself a road beer and enjoy some entirely gun-free safety. Youbike across the city at 4am. Go get some xiandoujian and dip a yeotiao in it. Get a massage at Lungshan. Maybe go to the doctor? Why not, -it’s free! Hit up a fully-equipped government sponsored gym. Take some amazing public transport to a beautiful seaside mountain and hike with worldly people who would never ever vote for Donald Trump.
I’m leaving Taiwan as soon as I can, to be honest. I’ve been in Asia since 2012. I’ve done years of exploring, met loads of good people, and grown up quite a bit. I’ve loved my time here but I think it’s given me all I needed. In May 2018 my dad died very unexpectedly. After the funeral I decided to continue living in Taiwan because I had a job that was allowing me to rapidly pay off my (giant vulturous American) student loans. I made my final payment in May 2019 and quickly realized there was nothing I’d like more than to go home, sit around with my family listening to John Prine, and then maybe go on a real long walk. I have many reservations about returning to America, but it’s time. From March to August of 2020, I plan (to attempt) to thru-hike the entire 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail. It’s a 30th birthday present to myself, a welcome back to America, - it’s a long stretch of time to grieve, think, plan, and walk off the burnout. Any proceeds from this exhibition will go towards helping me fund my hike. Thank you!