Today, Northern Michigan artist Elizabeth Pollie is wearing black, as she says she does most days, belying her genial demeanor. Stretchy pants, silky tank top, open-toed shoes, silver and turquoise bracelets. Her earrings, a gift from a friend, are little skulls with turquoise headdresses that evoke the Day of the Dead, which is ironic, because Elizabeth has a hard time with death. In fact, she doesn’t like it at all, wishes it didn’t have to happen. (There is a live trap for mice on the floor.)
She has shortish hair, which she recently began cutting herself. I ask if she takes pains to get it right. “No,” she chuckles, “I just chop away.”
Her dogs—Luigi the pug, and Topo (Italian for “rat”), a mutt she rescued—are in the Harbor Springs studio, as usual. They yap for a while when we arrive, then settle down. Topo is afraid of the photographer’s lights and retreats to the half bath behind the easel. Elizabeth picks her up, cradles her, speaks to her encouragingly—an Italian phrase I can’t quite make out—and Topo nuzzles up like she could stay there forever.
A female jazz vocalist who sounds like Norah Jones plays on the stereo, the volume dial encrusted in splotches of dried, multicolored paint. Everywhere, there are brushes in glass jars, crinkled tubes of paint, bubble-wrapped frames leaning against walls.
But a lot of Elizabeth’s stuff is boxed up. Soon, she’ll be moving to a new studio down the road. She owns the new building and is renovating it, and hopes to spend the rest of her life painting there. She says, “I think to myself, Yeah, I could easily spend the next 20 years in the new place.” Then, her face widening with realization, “Oh my god, I’ll be 73 in 20 years.”
She regrets not having children. Now she thinks of her paintings as her children.
Elizabeth worries a lot. People tell her, and she tells herself, “Don’t worry about it.” But she still worries. She worries about the state of the world, about suffering and injustice and hunger and the environment. She sometimes has insomnia, so she leaves the radio on at night.
When she’s not painting, Elizabeth enjoys cooking and daily walks on the beach with her dogs and husband. And she has an insatiable urge to travel. “Travel is a very optimistic thing to do,” she says, “because you find out there are nice people everywhere.” We agree that hospitality is one of the great things about being human.
“At a certain age,” she tells me, “you begin to think in different terms. While my career is very significant to me, and I hope to paint until I die, I also feel like simple aspects of experience, like kindness, are more important.” She says she’s reached a point where, while she still loves thinking and learning, she’s given up on the big questions.
Which is not to say Elizabeth isn’t inquisitive. She asks me about lots of things—what else I’m working on, what I’m interested in, my parents—and listens intently to my answers. I tell her that I’ve mostly been interested in nonhuman subjects recently. She looks down at her pug dog and says, “Luigi, did you hear that?”
It takes her anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months to make a painting.
She often works from photos she takes. Some people think it “has to be painted from life to be valid.” Elizabeth disagrees. She shoots photos wherever she goes, has thousands of them. She wants to paint everything, but wonders if she needs to stay more focused for the sake of her career (a teacher once told her she paints too many things). She still struggles to rein in her fascination with a wide range of objects, ideas, landscapes.
She thinks a lot about her evolution as an artist. She feels she’s finally found her creative place, and now it’s a question of how to continue evolving without losing everything she’s gained. After all, she’s profoundly good at what she does, and she’s selling a lot of paintings these days. But she doesn’t want to be a sellout either. “I tell myself: It’s really okay to be successful and get money for your work. Then I say that, and there’s a part of me going, No, it’s not.”
Elizabeth uses a minimal palette because it harmonizes the colors, brings the painting together in a softer way. But then she adds flecks of foreign color to disturb the harmony. “It’s like I’m building it, then sort of breaking it.” This is a technique she began using just recently. She considers it a signature of hers. The flecks add dimension and a sense of excitement, or, as she puts it, they excite the painting. “It’s like taking light and breaking it into big fat particles.” I say that maybe the light sometimes has to be exaggerated to be portrayed accurately, to capture the electric buzz of the three-dimensional lit environment. Elizabeth says, “Yes, I think that’s right.”
She tries to add the flecks swiftly, to be energetic about it. It’s risky, but risk is where the excitement is. Sometimes it doesn’t work, she overdoes it, and has to start over.
The piece she’s working on the day we’re in her studio, a Great Plains highway with a huge cumulous sky overhead, has an entirely different painting underneath. She overworked the first one and had to sand it back and begin again. Sky and water are the most difficult scenes for her to paint because of the problem of portraying scale—the immensity of a scene can get lost without an element, like, say, a sailboat, or a road, to set it off.
She thinks a lot about the quality of her brushwork. She talks about the focal point of a painting—the strongest edge, the most vibrant color, the highest point of contrast. The brain seeks a focal point, she says.
Her new thing is: don’t work on a painting for more than an hour at a time, and step back every ten minutes for perspective. She talks about the value of traditional art education—color, light and shadow, art history—and how when she was in art school, all traditions were being thrown out, modernist abstraction was all the rage, and she felt out of place. Abstract art depends upon the big idea, the intellectual weight behind the work, and that just didn’t feel like her. Elizabeth resigned from the argument game. “Everywhere you look there is something beautiful,” she says. “My work is more about poetics than intellect.” So she ended up hungry for traditional knowledge, and had to go out and find it on her own.
She often feels a dualistic conflict when she’s painting. On the one hand, it’s all about what she needs to do. On the other hand, it’s not about her at all—it’s about everything but her. “I love being humbled by the world,” she says.
I begin to think of her paintings as visual odes, reveries, love poems. I ask her if she ever gets emotional when she paints. “There are times when I experience a flood of being truly in the moment. And there is extreme excitement—elation, even—when I feel like a painting reaches its full potential. It feels like paying homage to our astonishing world.” What she looks for in life, and tries to transmit in her work, is the exhilaration of discovery, newness, of experiencing the intrinsic nature of a moment.
Elizabeth used to feel sorry for herself because she was in an artistic vacuum, not part of a community of likeminded artists. Now she appreciates her isolation, because she’s too suggestible. She went to China a few years ago with a group of artists and ended up feeling like she was losing her own voice in what everybody else was doing. She’d look at work she admired and think, “That person uses lots of yellow. Maybe I should use more yellow.” Developing and understanding her own artistic voice is a recurring theme for Elizabeth, one of her greatest aspirations. Now she appreciates the company of likeminded artists more for the sake of camaraderie than for the influence it has on her work. She recently went on a trip with other painters to Cape Cod and had loads of fun.
Her work is now in five galleries (including her own) around the country, and they all want more. Scottsdale, Arizona, wants 10, Charleston, South Carolina, wants five, Fredericksburg, Texas, wants five, and three are going to Seattle. These days, Elizabeth is becoming famous in her field—garnering awards and accolades from her peers as an exceptionally adept oil painter. She is proud of her work, thinks she’s doing the best she can with what she has right now. But she is not complacent. The creative fire still burns. She still wants to be a better painter.
Even as a youngster, Elizabeth Pollie was a collector. Her mother says Elizabeth’s room positively overflowed with found objects. And she’s always had an intensely visual experience of the world. She would pick up all sorts of things—bottlecaps, shells, leaves, whatever caught her eye—bring them home and sort them according to color, shape, texture. Her mother was an innovative educator. Her father was a clinical psychologist who loved architecture and design. They both encouraged her to be creative, to learn and explore. Mostly, it was a good childhood.
After art school, she worked as a freelance illustrator for a number of years, and taught illustration at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. She got married. Her work appeared in a few national magazines and prestigious journals. She became known as the woman who paints the sad illustrations. She illustrated editorial content, meaning she would try to represent a story with visual metaphors—for one, an AIDS victim alone with a scarlet A on his hospital gown. But she didn’t have it in her to do the self-promotion required of a freelance illustrator, always having to hustle for work, and so the quest for her true artistic home continued. Nonetheless, illustration was foundational then and remains foundational to what she does now. People who love illustration, she says, tend to be tied to representational art rather than total abstraction. “We want to represent something, anything, that is recognizable as part of the world we live in.”
Recognizable, but standing for more. So when she talks about still lifes, she explains how they are sometimes metaphorical representations of stories. She loves still lifes because they feel dusty, atmospheric.
Now, she’s considering making a series of still lifes based on Darwin’s Beagle Diary. I wonder aloud if maybe her recent success has freed her up a bit, allowing her to dream again about working with stories, as she did when she was an illustrator. She says that yes, sometimes she worries that her work isn’t telling enough of a story. “I love stories. Who doesn’t? Who’s not fascinated by stories?”
Like the story of her ancestors Henry and John Pollie, father and son, who owned and operated travelling carnivals and circuses in the first half of the 20th century. She’s thinking about doing a whole show at Petoskey’s Crooked Tree Arts Center, tentatively titled “When the Circus Came to Town,” inspired by the archives of Henry and John. Painting, illustrating, and poetry are her personal triad, the modalities that are always with her, that follow her around, she says, “like a little tornado.”
By the end of 2000, Elizabeth’s first marriage had long since gone bad. She felt smothered by her life and still felt she'd never found her artistic identity. She decided to end the marriage, move to California, start over. But the move never happened because shortly after, on a trip to Harbor Springs, she fell in love with a man, an Austrian named Bernie.
They began spending weekends together, driving back and forth between her home in Fenton and Harbor Springs. Elizabeth was driving north one Friday, listening to a self-help cassette tape. The woman on the tape was talking about commitment, about the power of committing to something completely, giving it everything you’ve got. It was a eureka moment, a revelatory experience. Elizabeth realized she was a dabbler—she had always been interested in so many things—and therefore would never reach her full potential as an artist. She had been hearing the same message for years—once, a therapist told her, “You are addicted to potential”—but this time it got through to her. She felt clarity and freedom and relief. She thought, this is what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life, and decided then and there to give herself completely to oil painting, which she’s been practicing full time ever since.
It was the same way with Bernie. At the end of one of their weekends, as they were saying their goodbyes, Bernie said, “We’re going to be together for the rest of our lives,” and she agreed. Last summer, after a decade-long engagement, Elizabeth threw Bernie a surprise wedding.
When you talk to Elizabeth Pollie, gratitude comes up a lot. “I’m just so grateful for my life,” she’ll say, and you get the sense that she really means it.
Artful Weekend Escape to Harbor Springs to check out Elizabeth Pollie’s gallery first hand, and then roam the town and nearby Petoskey to explore work from dozens of other fine artists working and showing in the area.
Perry Hotel, Petoskey Beautifully restored Victorian hotel in downtown Petoskey. From $99/night. 800.737.1899, staffords.com.
The Colonial Inn, Harbor Springs A former family estate just a few blocks from downtown Harbor Springs. From $99/night. 231.526.2111, harborsprings.com.
Legs Inn, Cross Village Authentic Polish food a lovely half-hour drive north of Harbor Springs on M-119. 6425 N. Lake Shore Dr.
Palette Bistro, Petoskey Inventive, contemporary cuisine overlooking Little Traverse Bay. 321 Bay St.
Chandler’s, Petoskey Natural but elegant setting, top- flight cuisine. 215 Howard St.
Pier Restaurant, Harbor Springs Classic dining on the waterfront in Harbor. 102 E. Bay St.
Art Shop: Multi-Artist Galleries:
Crooked Tree Arts Center, Petoskey
The hub of arts in and around Petoskey. Ever-changing gallery always worth a stop. 461 E. Mitchell St.
Stafford’s Gallery of Art & History, Petoskey
Located at the Perry Hotel. Paintings, jewelry, sculpture, gifts. 410 Rose St.
Tvedten Fine Art,Harbor Springs Sophisticated landscapes from more than a dozen artists. 284 E. 3rd St.
Kuhlhaus, Harbor Springs Jewelry, sculpture, pottery and painting from more than 50 artists. Wide range of styles. 294 E. 3rd St.
Northern Michigan Artists Market, Petoskey Eclectic offerings. 445 East Mitchell St.
Mary Ann Archer and Adam Garret, Harbor Springs Jewelry, 263 E. Main St.
Doug Bacon, Harbor Springs Jewelry, 249 E. Main St.
Elizabeth Blair Fine Pearls, Harbor Springs Pearl jewelry, 115 W. Main St.
Hanni Yothers, Harbor Springs Jewelry, pottery and more, 140 S. Spring St.
Pierre Bittar, Harbor Springs Paintings and lithographs, 188 E. Main St.
Trish Witty, Harbor Springs Paintings and prints, 236 E. Main St.
West Wind Atelier, Elizabeth Pollie, Harbor Springs
Paintings, 231 E. Main St.