The Artist, Transformed: An Interview with Elly Tullis

Vice President and COO Amanda Shepard

An artist always hopes, at least implicitly, that her art will inspire a positive change in others. But does she hope or even expect that her work will change her? On January 1, 2019, painter Elly Tullis impulsively turned to the image of the biblical figure Mary for artistic inspiration, herself exhausted from the demands of motherhood. Over the next year, paintings of the Virgin Mary poured from her mind to create the Theotokos series now on view at FWMoA. In this interview, she shares with us her development as an artist since her childhood and what has happened to her as a result of this series.

A colorful portrait of Mary, hands crossed across her chest, as a pair of floating hands places the crown on her head. Around her head is an orb, alluding to her saintliness. The background is a colorful, floral menagerie.
Elly Tullis, American, b. 1983. Reign (after Giacomo di Mino). Acrylic on panel, 2019. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo courtesy of FMWoA.

I have long known your talent as a painter. When did you first know you had this talent, and what prompted you to commit to this course of study at Indiana University?

I honestly can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in art and painting. The earliest memory I have of creating is sitting on the dining room tables in Chappell’s on Broadway coloring on a large piece of butcher paper when I was 4 or 5 years old while my mom was working in the kitchen getting ready for dinner. Art has always been my main interest. When I got to IU, I started as a Fine Arts major but then switched to an Art History major when I wound up being the only freshman sitting in the prerequisite Fundamental 3D class, full of juniors. I was so intimidated by the scope of the first project that I dropped the class and changed majors. Art history was enjoyable, but I knew I wouldn’t be happy unless I followed my true passion and switched back to Fine Arts. Junior year I sucked it up and re-enrolled in the 3D class and loved it! The BFA Painting program wasn’t even on my radar, until my Painting I teacher, Caleb Weintraub, asked me if I was going to apply for the program. He said he thought I’d be a “shoo-in.” He told me it was an intensive 2-year program, and I think I said something like, “I really just want to graduate.” Completing the program would’ve added a fifth year on to my college career. Then he said, “Well, what are you going to do after graduation?” I didn’t have a good answer for him. I ended up applying for the program the following semester and was accepted into the BFA Painting program. I’m certain I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not gone through that program and had the privilege of working under some truly wonderful teachers.

Did you ever see yourself as anything but an artist?

I always dreamed of being a writer or a singer/songwriter or a detective, but I always knew painting is what makes me “Me.”

How have you matured artistically since you finished school?

I’ve painted nearly every day (other than a few long stretches after childbirth) so I’ve put in about 12 years of studio time since graduation. In that time, I’ve learned how to handle the paint differently through lots of experimentation and practice. I’d say I have better control handling the paint, a better understanding of color theory, and am able to take more risks in my work. Like they say, “You have to learn all the rules before you can learn to break them.” 

You’re a wife and a mother. How have you maintained a studio discipline in fulfilling your other responsibilities?

Having babies and raising children means you have to be flexible with your studio time. Just as soon as you get a good routine going, someone changes their sleeping habits and so, too, must you change. When I was pregnant with our second child, the only consistent time I could find was heading out to my studio at 4am every day. When our daughter was a newborn and I started getting back into painting, I began working in the house and painted from about 5-8am. By the time I was creating the bulk of the work for this exhibition, the only time I could find to work was from about 10pm-2am. I had to forfeit some sleep in the process, but I thought, well, I could sleep more and create nothing or carve out some time in the middle of the night and have a career. We’re still in this difficult season, but I know it won’t always be like this. I’ll sleep later. And I’m very lucky to have a wonderfully supportive husband!

How does being an artist relate to your roles as wife and mother?

All three roles require commitment and creativity. For me, the role of artist has more in common with being a mother than being a wife, from the perspective of getting to share in the creation process. I think it’s fair to say that an artist “gives birth” to a painting, yet (for me, at least) there’s also the fact that I didn’t consciously form every aspect of the painting.    

What would you tell other artists who struggle to maintain a studio practice as they raise a family?

You’re never going to find the time—you have to make it! Be flexible and creative. Some days I could only find 10 minutes here or 20 minutes there. A few times I had to finish painting for the day while holding my baby. Whatever works! Try a different medium. I exclusively used oil paint before our children were born, and even though I’ve made the switch to using safer non-toxic thinners and mediums, it still wasn’t practical to bring into the house. I began using acrylic paint, and there was a bit of a learning curve. Acrylic paint dries really fast, so occasionally I’d put a bunch of paint on my palette and it would dry before I got a chance to use it. I told myself it was better to waste paint than waste my time. It’s also a good idea to start removing any unnecessary distractions from your life, like TV and social media.

Your series of paintings of Mary focuses on one of the most oft-depicted people of art history. How do you think you’ve added to the visual lexicon of Mary? What of her traditional iconography has been the most relevant to your own paintings?

I feel like painting Mary, today, makes her a contemporary again, I’m sure, just as she became a contemporary figure when any other artist throughout history painted her. I suppose my paintings of her feel more modern than others, but who’s to say that hasn’t been the case with artists’ renderings of her during the 1500s and every subsequent era? There are so many aspects of Mary’s iconography that have drawn me in: her typical downward gaze or prayerful/reflective posture, the gentleness of her face and hands as she’s holding the Christ child, the serene images with a gauzy veil that wraps around her hair and falls over her shoulders. I’m truly captivated by the images where she’s portrayed with a deep blue mantle and pensive look. All of these elements add to her mystique. 

In the style of Ingres, Mary looks down at the host, glowing like an orb. She wears a blue cloak and red dress, set against a colorful, abstract background.
Elly Tullis, American, b. 1983. Luminescent (after Ingres). Acrylic on panel, 2019. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Most of the paintings in Theotokos are reinterpretations of art historical masterworks, and yet you’ve taken some liberties with style, composition, and iconography. What do you mean to tell your viewers when you make these types of decisions?

With the first few paintings I tried to adhere loosely to the style and proportions of the figure, while adding modern elements like bold floral patterns or placing the figure on a white ground. Then I read an article about religious iconography and how it didn’t have to be naturalistic-looking to be meaningful or contemplative. When I read that, something clicked and broke the tether of ‘staying true to the naturalistic quality of the image.’ I let the paintings become more emotionally driven after that point.

You didn’t begin this series as a serious religious person, but you’ve shared in your exhibition that you’ve experienced significant spiritual transformation as a result of this series. What were some of the key moments for you in this transformation?

There have been so many key moments for me during this transformation. There is one that stands out in my mind that is directly related to the act of painting and creating this body of work. When I was working and reworking one of the larger pieces for the show, it became so tortuous, repainting her head over and over again, even sanding it off many times. I stood in the same frustrating spot for hours a day, over the course of a couple of months. I felt like a failure, completely incapable of successfully finishing this project that I felt God had given me. I wondered why He had chosen me to do it since I clearly didn’t have what it takes to see it through. Then, one night, something clicked and it became beautiful, the experience was beautiful – everything was working. Even the music I was listening to felt like it aligned with God’s words. I was so happy, I felt like my soul was singing! I had an immediate realization that the trials of that painting had been a gift from God, showing me that there is such a great joy and peace at the end of the arduous journey. And instantly I thought I’d go through that a million times over to reach this kind of bliss again! It felt like a moment of true happiness!

When I was first considering joining the Catholic Church, I was still very apprehensive. I felt that I needed a big sign from God before I made the “leap of faith.” For weeks, I said things like, “I wish I could walk outside and have a white dove land on my head…then I’d know.” Well, one day when I got the kids down for a nap, I headed outside for some fresh air and said aloud “Well, should I paint or pray?” As I rounded the corner of the front of the barn, I heard rustling in the gutter of the low roof just above my head. Out flew a brilliantly white pigeon (with a few specks of rust coloring on its head). It circled low overhead a few times and then flew to the north. That’s the first time in almost ten years that I’ve ever seen a pigeon out here before. I turned around and went back inside to pray!

After Bellini, this Mary is more somber. The lighter abstract background showcases her portrait, from head to shoulders. She wears a white wimple and her eyes look to the side of the composition.
Elly Tullis, American, b. 1983. Maiden Pure (after Bellini). Acrylic on panel, 2019. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

When my family and I started attending Sunday Mass I was overjoyed, but I had a strong sense that something in the universe was trying to break me. One Sunday after Mass, I broke my nose, and the following Saturday an eight foot board fell and cracked me on the top on the head. I was literally being beaten up and I wasn’t getting any rest, which made it impossible to focus on painting. After Mass the following Sunday, I asked Fr. Tim if he thought God was trying to break me. He said, “No, no, it’s true He’ll test us now and then, but God wouldn’t do that, that’s the Enemy. Pray for St. Michael to help you slay this dragon.” I had no idea that I was caught in a spiritual attack, but I knew something was trying to keep me from creating these paintings of Mary. I learned a couple of valuable lessons after that conversation with Fr. Tim. I learned that not only is God good, but God is always good and anything not good is not God. I also learned that if God is always good and never says or does anything to deceive or manipulate, then I can believe that everything He ever said or did is true! The spiritual attack bore good fruit and it made me even more determined to finish the project.

There really have been so many wonderful moments like these that have helped to guide and inspire me along the way!

Have there been other unexpected outcomes you’ve experienced as a result of this series and exhibition?

I’m most surprised by the response to my conversion. When I was working on these paintings, I prayed that they would inspire others in their faith. I had no idea anyone would take an interest in my personal conversion story. I didn’t even know there was a story worth sharing until someone, who is Catholic, told me how moved she was by my story. It was then explained to me that when a person unintentionally arrives at a truth, it reaffirms that truth for those who already hold it to be true. While I was working, I definitely had a case of “I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.”

Will you continue to paint religious icons? What other subjects do you dream of exploring in future work?

Yes! I really feel like this is a calling and want to do this forever. I’m still painting images of Mary as I’m continually searching to uncover more about her, including her true face. I just read “Medjugorje: The Message” by Wayne Weible and have a totally new Mary in my head! I feel like it’s my new mission to find someone who looks like Our Lady of Medjugorje and create a large painting of her as Mary. Someday I’d like to do a series of the saints and I even have a few Jesus paintings in mind. Religious art thrills me and I feel like it’s truly an inexhaustible subject!

Want to meet Elly Tullis and curator Amanda Shepard? Come to FWMoA on Thursday, February 6th for a Curator’s Tour of Theotokos: Contemporary Visions of Mary at 12:15pm. Curator’s Tour is free with general admission. Can’t make it that day? Come in another day before the exhibition closes on March 8th!

One Reply to “The Artist, Transformed: An Interview with Elly Tullis”

  1. Her works remind me of Kehinde Wiley portraits, the most famous being the portrait of Barack Obama. I would be interested to know if she was influenced by him.

Leave a Reply