On the website for artist Timo-Nanda Elliott, he expresses his personal philosophy: “The trouble with perfection is, it’s apt to be boring.” There’s certainly nothing boring about the artist’s work, which can currently be seen both as part of Featherstone’s latest show and at Pathways at the Chilmark Tavern. Not only has he chosen to depart from realism, he also works in a variety of styles — none of which are exactly conventional.
Most recently Elliott has been creating a series of portraits based on photos that caught his attention in the New York Times and other sources. The images that are hanging at both Featherstone and Pathways are all based on a photo of Katharine Cornell, the famed actress who lived on the Vineyard for many years. Elliott noticed the photo in in Kate Feiffer’s awardwinning story on the actress in Arts & Ideas magazine last year.
“For these two shows I focused on women,” says the artist. “I was trying to think of a strong female figure when I came across that story about Katharine Cornell in the magazine. There was something about the structure of her face that I liked.”
Both exhibits honor National Women’s Month. The Featherstone exhibit is titled “The Backwards and in High Heels Show,” referencing a famous quote about Ginger Rogers that compared her talent with that of partner Fred Astaire: “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did … backwards and in high heels.”
The Featherstone show features the work of dozens of artists working in painting, photography, collage, and more. The centerpiece of the exhibit is a literal interpretation of the theme — a massive steel sculpture by Jay Lagemann depicting a couple dancing the tango. The man is seen supporting the woman in a low backward dip, and to add authenticity to the image, Lagemann solicited a pair of red high heels from designer Kenneth Cole. Cole, a patron of the artist, was happy to donate the work’s finishing touch.
Elliott, who has established a successful career as an artist in Los Angeles and elsewhere, has had limited exposure on the Island. Although he has a longstanding relationship with Megan Sargent of the Sargent Gallery in Gay Head, and has shown his work there, many on Island are unfamiliar with his work. The new spacious art barn at Featherstone inspired the artist to focus more on his presence as an artist here. “I went to the Big Show [grand opening show for the Art Barn], and it really shifted my thinking about being an artist on the Island,” he says. “There’s such a diverse and talented group of artists here.”
Among many other accomplishments over the course of his 50-year career as an artist, Elliott was honored with a retrospective of his work at the Traction/Hewitt Modern in Los Angeles in 2015, and he created the theme and artwork for a prayer room project at the House of Blues in San Diego. At one point during his 30 years living part- or full-time on the Vineyard, Elliott served as assistant to renowned conceptual artist Stella Waitzkin.
Mr. Elliott is a contemporary artist. He has worked variously in collage, watercolors, and acrylics, and has employed a number of different styles. The unifying factor is a dedication to an emotional, as opposed to cerebral, approach to painting.
He describes the process for creating his portrait series: “I get into sort of a zen state and find the character within the painting.”
Elliott developed a fascination with the concept of wabi-sabi, partly through his work with various Japanese gardens on the Vineyard. According to his website, “Timo-Nanda has long been an advocate of the wabi-sabi way of seeing and experiencing life. Zen, Japanese tea ceremony, sumi-e painting, and haiku are all associated with wabi-sabi.”
“Wabi-sabi ties into control,” says Elliott. “Wabi-sabi has to do with how you experience something when you look at it, like an old wooden chair that’s been weathered gives you a feeling of comfort. It’s warm and comfortable to you. The concept comes out of the Japanese tea ceremony, and Japanese brushwork and calligraphy.”
Through his immersion in wabi-sabi aesthetics, Elliott created his own method of working, which he calls controlled carelessness. “I let the paint make suggestions to me about how the image will go,” he explains. “When you work wet on wet — watercolors on paper, I do the first round and let it dry. Certain things happen when it dries. I come back and try to find the face through what has developed.
“It’s the balance between having control of the brush and the flexibility of being relaxed enough to give the lines fluidity and freedom. It’s the balance between freedom and structure.”
The “Backwards and in High Heels Show” will hang at Featherstone through March 31 in the Francine Kelly Gallery. The Pathways exhibit honoring National Women’s Month will also be on display through the end of the month. To see more of Elliott’s work, visit timonanda.squarespace.com.