zoe|juniper visits Michelle Ellsworth Mar 10, 2012

by Zoe Scofield

A couple of weeks ago Juniper and I had the good fortune to hear Michelle’s lecture about her new project, Phone Homer, at the University of Colorado Boulder. I was completely blown away. (I wish you could hear my intonation while saying the previous statement because you would understand just how much Michelle blows my mind.) While listening to her I had the distinct feeling of being schooled on what it meant to actually be an artist. Or more what it is to be a grown-up artist. I was immediately struck by how she approaches and presents her work with equal measures of earnest ease and rigor. There is a serious playfulness that houses the many layers of grief, anger, mundane and ridiculousness. One of the things that really hit me was how much permission she gives herself to explore and exploit her interests in both her process & presentation.  There doesn’t seem to be an editing of impulses, but rather a thorough and rigorous exploration of what they do and how they function to serve the whole. I want that, I want to give myself the same permission and charge. (Done- thanks Michelle!)


Michelle makes smart work, through a smart process, without needing to tell the audience that it and she are smart. Like the super helpful, so much better at logarithms girl who tutored me in algebra, who knew she was smarter then me, but never made me feel stupid while showing me how much more she knew then me. That’s the kind of smart that Michelle’s work is, friendly smart. 


She and her son created their own internet specially for this piece. That’s right, a whole world wide web.  During her presentation she showed us Google ads that are running on the sides of Clytemnestra’s internet search that probably no one will see.  She has made her own ads, Pandora site with accompanying ads, and websites for links that may or may not make it into the stage performance and therefore exist without anyone else knowing they exist or see them. Huh? Page after page of unbelievably detailed websites for tube dresses for your Lamentation Dances, advertisements for torture kits for when no one is around to torture you, drawings for dresses made for grieving your dead father – it has bottles attached to the belt for carrying his hair and fingernails, what to do when your husband is gone, etc. And then she showed us these slightly Telemundo-like clips of her dressed as Agamemnon and Helen of Troy skyping with her on stage character. Throughout her presentation she keep asking us if we were bored, were we ok. She was genuinely concerned about our welfare while showing us this incredible labyrinth she has been so diligently and lovingly creating. Which was endearing and a bit odd since everyone was sort of dumbstruck and just wanted her to keep talking and showing her work. 


Her integrity and genuineness are almost heartbreaking- she has a steadfast determination that this has to be done; she has to make this piece.  Listen to Lane Czaplinski’s interview with Michelle, hearing how she talks about what she is doing helps to fill out the picture.  And she’s just so delightfully charming.


I am so glad that I have no idea how it will all come together. The ingredients I saw were magical and unreal. She introduced me to a way of creating and communicating that I had no idea existed or had ventured to think of.  And so of course I have no idea how that world will then be illuminated further in the finished performance.  I don’t want to try to imagine it or understand it before I see it- that’s the point. I wouldn’t be able to imagine the world that Michelle is creating, because it is purely, uniquely created and lovingly presented by her. I can’t wait.  


Okay, in full disclosure Michelle made us a delicious dinner at her house. I got to try on her costumes and take home some dinosaur stickers from her daughter’s sticker book. So I might be a little bit biased.