Ellis Island Series, Medical Exam, 1907


by Beth Burrell

Over the last eight years, I’ve followed the emerging visual art of a friend and fellow writer, Catherine Bancroft. I already knew her to be an impressive writer and poet but her newfound love of painting fascinated me. How did she balance her writing and painting? How had painting changed how she viewed her writer-self? I’ve attended several of her exhibit openings in the greater Philadelphia area and last spring had the opportunity to see the latest paintings in her Ellis Island Series at the Da Vinci Art Alliance in South Philadelphia. She spoke there about her work, and later agreed to talk with The Sunlight Press about her evolution as an artist. In addition to writing and painting, she also taught English, history, and writing in her past life, and wrote book reviews for the The Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as co-authored two children’s books, Felix’s Hat and That’s Philomena with Hannah Coale (Simon & Schuster).

The Sunlight Press is excited to share our conversation and three of her paintings. Find more on her website.

Back in 2011, you picked up a book of black and white photographs at the local library. The book contained pictures of immigrants coming through Ellis Island in the early 1900s. What made you pick it up? And what made you paint a picture based on one of those photos?

The book was for sale – being “deaccessioned” as they say. Full of old black and white photographs that were hardly explained, with a text about Ellis Island that didn’t correlate with the photos, the book right away declared itself a treasure. I have always loved faces and have been intrigued by the past and its mysteries. In that one book, in that one extraordinary place called Ellis Island, gathered people from many vanished worlds.

In a morning in the studio, I gave myself the exercise of trying to draw one photograph from the book – of detained men waiting for a medical exam. The intensity of the drama at stake was clear – an individual or family could be sent back depending on what the doctors found. I found myself doing impressionistic brushstrokes in strong colors – almost like collage. I only intended to do one painting. It is now seven years and seventy paintings in the Ellis Island Series later.

Having been a writer for a good part of your life, do you feel now you’re a writer who also paints? Or now a painter who will always write?

I suppose because I’ve been more consistently a writer, and done it for far longer, that that is still my primary default identity. I’ve been keeping journals since I was eight and writing has kept me sane. Painting, however is like a newer and exciting boyfriend, who brings out another side of me, a side which I sometimes think is freer and more truly me. Is that because it’s new? I came to it in adulthood? The nature of painting? I can’t add this up in a neat answer.

How and when did you come to painting, and are you surprised to find yourself still painting?

I returned to graduate school in literature, was in my forties, teaching undergraduates and pregnant with my third child, when a friend who was an artist had an idea for a children’s book and asked if I’d like to help her write it. Over the next few years, we wrote that book together and then another, and she did the illustrations. Witnessing the birth of the images got something going in me that had been dormant for years. I ended up not finishing my Ph.D thesis, and enrolled in a painting workshop and then a poetry workshop, both of which I continue in to this day.

I’m not surprised I’m still painting. I love it.

As a medium, what does painting offer that writing does not? And vice versa, does painting sometimes fail you and you choose to write instead? We are curious about the interplay of the two and whether choosing to do one must always mean sacrificing time and energy needed to do the other.

Early on, I realized that making visual art tapped an older part of myself than writing did – a pre-verbal part. It seemed my hand had a more direct relationship with what I was portraying — what I saw and wanted to express traveled down my arm onto the canvas without having to pass through my brain, or so I imagined.

Entering the poetry and painting workshops also coincided with the time that responsibilities of motherhood were lessening, and I think I was ready for a general recalibrating of my identity. I needed to unlearn some ways I was a too-good-girl; words and careful prose sentences, I felt, represented that overly scrupulous part of me.

I love the directness of images. However I also love how things connect, and trying to follow and catch the way consciousness unfolds – which feels like a magic only words can do. Words also can interweave memory and the present, the layers of time in a way that painting can’t. Not to mention the fun of playing with words, their sounds and rhythms, their history of connotations. So writing – particularly poetry for me now – will always be an equal love.

As to whether attending to one sacrifices the other – yes, always, but no always. Even more, each one teaches me something that I can apply to the other. I will say more about that below. The obvious disadvantage of going back and forth is being more of an amateur in both – never applying myself wholeheartedly to one with single-minded devotion.

Are there moments when you realize your deepest thoughts lend themselves more to paper than to canvas? Or the other way around? Are you drawn to one form of expression more often than the other?

In painting I feel a sense of liberation.  I am discovering what happens when I change a color, or extend a line, or alter a form, in a very physical way – through hands and eyes – in the same way that a child learns what happens when they roll a truck, or dig a hole. I get out of my head into the physical pleasure of manipulating the world. And afterward there is the pleasure of the physical object which exists in the world — real as a bed or a chair.

When I’m working on a poem, it can be scary to follow where the mind goes. Words feel more exposing than visual images. Painting has helped me find the courage to follow the contradictory, quicksilver nature of consciousness because painting has trained me more readily to accept the world as it is. Painting (or a very simple poem) can work to reduce the anxiety of thinking I need to change the world, or myself, or others, or even thinking I should know how it is it should change. Because I’m excited where both lead and what remains to be discovered in each, I can’t say which one takes me deeper or is more necessary.

Ellis Island Series, Women Just Arrived

Do you find yourself throwing away a painting, in the same way you might toss (or delete) a bad poem or essay? Writing means revising, revising, and revising some more. Is that true in painting?

Revision is key: I revise my paintings as much as I revise my poems.

In both, the biggest problem is figuring out what to take out. This is another place where I have learned from painting in ways that help writing. An artist once said, “I put details in so I have something to take out.” Over time you learn that the wrong things confuse, they clutter. You need to put them in to get somewhere, and to know where you’re going, but then a lot of them become extraneous. I’ve found it takes time and sometimes a trusted friend/mentor/husband to move along the process of letting go.

To give one example, the inspiration for the painting above was a photograph of a group of Jewish immigrants in a medical examination room in 1907. I had focused on just a few people, the two doctors and the men they were examining, but there were also people in the background I included in the initial conte crayon sketch. Francine Shore, the wonderful artist who leads the painting workshop I’ve been in now for almost 12 years, was the one who said – do you think you really need those figures on the side? I was surprised  – I thought their presence was integral to the mood of the scene. I resisted, but as soon as I tried painting them out, I knew she was right. The painting needed more economy – the gestures of the doctors, and of the half-undressed men became starker without the distraction of the others. Without them, too, the red background had more oomph. The painting has its own demands. I have gotten less scared to paint out what someone has called “my darlings.” I have also gotten more unashamedly ruthless about not feeling I have to be faithful to the photograph. And I have learned that if this painting ends up not working, there is always the next one. The poetry workshop has reinforced that lesson by demanding I write a poem each week – the  message is clear in both worlds: keep going.

And revision can be dangerous. They say the artist Pierre Bonnard was still touching up his paintings in museums. The poet Marianne Moore was famous for revising her poems multiple times even after they were published. Over-perfectionists like us need help. Whistler said that every artist (and, I would add, writer) should have someone standing beside him to hit him over the head and say Stop.

At your most recent exhibit in May at the Da Vinci Art Alliance in South Philadelphia you talked about what we are sometimes called, or perhaps destined, to do. Can you talk about what this has meant in your life and tell us about the long-ago painting you did of a family passport? You also spoke about transitions being hard for you. How?

I am shocked sometimes at the unseen and long un-apprehended threads that have been winding through my life. In preparing a talk for the Da Vinci gallery opening I found myself looking at a painting that’s been hanging in our hall for years. I did it when I was nineteen. I was living in London with a boyfriend, taking a year off from college. The painting was based on a passport photograph taken when I was 3, of me and my three older siblings. We were getting ready to move to Geneva where my father had taken a job with the U.N. A family on the brink of a life-changing move – wasn’t this the same subject that I was to take up some forty years later? Why had I never noticed this before?

That painting was the only one I did that year in London, and I think now it was probably a response to the stress I felt living with a boyfriend for the first time, being far away from home, being full of doubts and equivocations in contrast to my boyfriend who was a committed Marxist (this was the late 60s).

I am terrible at transitions. It’s taken me a while to recognize this unmistakable pattern. If there’s a new hygienist at the dentist’s office I freak out. No wonder the Ellis Island immigrants – sitting in that limbo of complete uncertainty, not knowing if they would pass inspection, and if they did, how they would fare in this entirely new country – have been teachers for me. And tracing their expressions and body language have continued to fascinate me, even more so as the issue of immigration has become more contentious.

My family did not go through Ellis Island. They came as immigrants earlier – from England, France, Germany, Scotland. And in my extended family now are a Pakistani-Canadian, a Japanese-Canadian, and two Dutch nephews. We are a polyglot family and proudly reflect a polyglot nation. I am scared of transitions, and I believe in the foundational value of America’s openness – art comes from contradictions.

Ellis Island Series, Serbian Gypsies

Not only do you capture the emotion in newcomers’ faces, you paint them with rich and vivid colors. How did you decide to bring color to these black and white images? Why?

My goal has never been to slavishly copy a photograph, but to experiment with color, line, and composition in the presence of the photograph. The “reality” is a jumping off point. There is another reason, too. I have always loved the painters Matisse and Bonnard, and feel that, even in serious subjects, color in their hands is an instrument of joy – for them and for the viewer. Painting seems to me fundamentally about joy – the child’s joy messing with thick gooey stuff, with the wildness of red, the coolness of blue, with putting your own mark down and having people react to it. Learning how to marshal that primitive exultation in the service of a finished painting is a wonderful and ongoing experiment.

What is the best way to reach you to inquire about your paintings or your next exhibit open to the public?

Please contact me via my website – catherinebancroft.cullina.com. You also can view more paintings on the site.