By Carlo Wolff
Eileen Dorsey loved playing in the woods when she was growing up in Westlake. She and her brothers would build forts, horse around and get lost in that exciting but safe way unique to childhood. Those bygone activities, which evoke the excitement and safety of childhood, drive Dorsey.
“The progression of my work has always been through what I needed to do or is therapy for myself, and I’ve been focusing mostly on trees the last four years because I used to play in them when I was a kid,” she says. “It’s like exploring as a child.
“I was kind of a tomboy,” she says, recalling the fun she and her younger brother had as they bicycled around their neighborhood, played in nearby woods and parks, and built forts. “I got a lot of scars from that time period.” And memories of beautiful, pristine nature.
In a forest, “everything affects what the colors are,” says the Cleveland resident. “You know the bark is actually brown, but depending on what is next to it and the time of the day, the colors are going to change. Colors bounce off objects like light bounces off.”
Color interplay is what Dorsey is after.
“The term ‘acid trees’ has popped up a few times,” she says, referring to commentary on her work. “I think that’s kind of funny. I’ve never done serious drugs and I’ve never taken hallucinogens, but if my work can put someone in better spirits, I think that’s a great thing, whether it refers to an old acid trip of theirs or not.”
While she loves to hike, Dorsey actually spends most of her time in her studio-gallery at 78th Street Studios, the artistic hive on Cleveland’s West Side where this year she is celebrating her 10th anniversary as a tenant – and was one of the first.
Both fierce and dreamy, her nature “portraits” seem plucked from the earth itself. Color is a primary focus, particularly in the oil paintings Dorsey favors. The way she treats what she observes gives even her most realistic paintings a layer of abstraction.
In her oils, “the colors stay the same especially when they dry,” Dorsey says. “Acrylics are great, and the pigment has gotten better and stronger over the years, but they dry several different shades.” She likes “the viscosity of oil paint; it has this quality of playing with mud, getting dirty, kind of a childhood sensation.”
Becoming an artist
Dorsey, 36, knew early on that she wanted to be an artist, but it wasn’t until 2002, her sophomore year at Kent State University, that she locked into painting as a career. Credit Charles Basham, a part-time fine arts faculty member at Kent State with whom Dorsey shared an exhibition this spring at the Massillon Museum. Dorsey was on academic probation, but all turned around for her when Basham told her, “You have a very good eye for things.” The praise “inspired me to take my studies seriously,” Dorsey says.
“Before I was a landscape painter, I was a figurative painter, and most of my early influences were figurative artists,” she says, citing Alice Neel, Egon Schiele, Cecily Brown and Willem de Kooning, who are “more Expressionist figurative painters. And certain periods of Picasso.”
Her work is not plein air. “I create sketches based off of a photo or photos I take, and then I exaggerate the colors or make up my own,” she says.
Dorsey toggles between different styles, all realism-based. She has done some abstract work, and wants to do more, though recent shows have required her more nature-based work. While her favorite medium is oil, palette knife painting – she points to her palette, which seems to smolder with paints of various hues and blends – is her favorite technique.
Dorsey also creates “oil reductions,” smashing a “wet” oil painting against a “dry” acrylic. This aggressive process results in highly textured paintings very different from their originals. While not as radiant as her oils, they’re “kind of a positive and a negative,” she says, and they emit distinctive and substantial kinds of energy, as well as physicality.
Dorsey prefers producing paintings 30 by 48 inches in size on her easel. “I can reach these, and I can use my shoulders instead of just using my wrists; there’s more movement, more interactivity,” she says. That size also fits into her vehicle, and it’s great for hanging over couches and fireplaces. One young couple bought a Dorsey painting 4 by 6 feet in size – an inch too big to fit into their vehicle. The husband began to walk it home even though Dorsey warned him that wind can make a painting that large act like a sail. He nearly reached his house but couldn’t quite make it, returned to Dorsey’s studio with it, and picked it up the following day.
“The size of my paintings has changed over time depending on the vehicle I have,” Dorsey says.
A ‘creative’ develops
The fifth of six children, Dorsey is the only artist in her family; one brother works for a labor union, another works for a cable company and her one sister is a software developer.
“I was the little artist type,” she says. “No one really understood me, and it was a ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ kind of deal” in dinner-table conversation. Still, her sister and mother encouraged her leanings. “Art was pretty much the only subject I was doing well in,” she says. “My mom was very crafty,” she notes, and could make a doll out of a two-liter bottle.
“I know I have to make art,” Dorsey says. “I’ve always had this insatiable need to create things.”
Her love of nature, above all, feeds into that impulse. “I really like going on hikes. I just like walking around in the woods,” she says, especially in Colorado, where she hopes to revisit soon; she has relatives there. “I love to see the aspens change there. There’s something really beautiful about the way the bark takes on the light at different times of day.”
Christopher L. Richards, curator and collection manager at ARTneo: The Museum of Northeast Ohio Art in Cleveland, says he’s watched Dorsey’s art evolve into a more expressive body of work over the last five years.
“She has been able to blend reality with fantasy by painting the impressions places have on her, as well as reflections of her own personal emotional story,” he says. “One can see glimpses of Cleveland artists who have come before her, like how Abel Warshawsky captured light, or how Paul Travis expressed the wild activity of the jungle. While her flatter and more abstract paintings seem like a departure from the Impressionist-influenced work, they remain related through color palette, compositional structure and the subject of the natural world.”
“I become very moody if I don’t paint for a certain period,” says Dorsey, a restless and disciplined artist. “I paint as much as I can. This is my job, so I treat it as such, and I’m in my studio every day.”
• Visit Dorsey’s studio-gallery every Third Friday from 5 to 9 p.m. at 78th Street Studios, 1305 West 80th St., Suite 105, Cleveland. Her space also will be open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Black Friday, Nov. 29 and from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Dec. 14-15 during the Cleveland Bazaar.
• “52 Weeks/52 Works,” Fawick Art Gallery, Baldwin Wallace University, Berea. Through Dec. 6.
• “The heART of Cleveland,” Baycrafters Center for Fine Art & Education, Bay Village. Nov. 23-Dec. 22. Opening reception 7-9 p.m. Dec. 6.
• “Nature Preserved,” Gallery W, Crocker Park, Westlake. Opening reception Jan. 16, 2020. Through March 5, 2020.
• “Self Image,” Sandusky Cultural Center, Sandusky. Opening reception March 1. Through April 5, 2020.
• “Out of the Shadows: New Paintings by Eileen Dorsey,” Feinberg Art Gallery, Cain Park, Cleveland Heights. June through July 2020.
• Untitled exhibition, C. William Gilchrist Museum of the Arts, Cumberland, Md., August 2020.