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Chester County Press

Atmospheric abstraction: The art of Ellen Catanzaro

04/11/2017 09:41AM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

That which began the artistic life of Ellen Catanzaro can be traced to incidents and accidents, influences and attributes, and what got her to the point she is now – as an artist who is building up a commercial and personal portfolio – can be stitched together through people and circumstance.
Maybe it comes from her being the youngest of three children growing up in New York and New Jersey, when she loved looking at her father's doodles of Greek soldiers. Maybe it was from growing up in the tight-knit Venetis family, where annual trips to Greece fed her with the flavors and colors of her family's homeland.
Maybe it comes from the clashing alchemy of non-perfect skies, those that form cloudbursts and turn a sunset into a child's crayon experiment. In those skies is the voice of her late father, compelling her to get to the studio she has in her home, place a canvas on the floor and translate what the weather says in the application of acrylic paint on a piece of wood.
Maybe it was the time she gave a painting of a dog to a friend who'd experienced the loss of a dear pet. Soon after, another friend admired the painting, but saw its gorgeous background as well. “The painting of the dog is nice, but look at what you've done with the sky,” she told Catanzaro.
Or maybe her art derives from a moment 19 years ago, when her oldest daughter, Maggie, was a baby who would not sleep, and Catanzaro decided to open a watercolor kit that she had just purchased and paint a flower.
“My husband complimented me on the painting of the flower, and it was enough confidence I needed to paint two large paintings for our dining room,” she said from her Kennett Township home, which she shares with husband Mike, Maggie, and her youngest daughter Claire, a junior at Kennett High School. “I began to give paintings as gifts to Mike's family and my family, and when we would travel with friends, I would give them paintings that represented our travels.”
Now, nearly two decades later, the creative life of Ellen Catanzaro has matured into an expanding portfolio of both commercial and personal art, a signature branding of acrylic-on-wood mosaics that suggest an ethereal infinity and a cloudy, colorful endlessness.
“I don't normally put a boat in the painting, or people, but there's a focal point I aim for that brings the viewer into the painting,” she said. “There is always something there that draws someone closer to it.”
There is no designated studio space in the Catanzaro home, but merely a room that's near the big family kitchen. Boxes of paints and brushes are strewn about the hardwood floor in the well-lit space, but there is no standing easel. Catanzaro works with her canvases on the floor, whether on deadline from one of the many interior designers she works with, or on her personal work.
“I like to complete the entire painting in one sitting,” she said. “I need to get the basic idea of it down and then I can come back and work on it, because if I don't, my fear is that I will lose it. It becomes my outline for what I am doing.”
While her personal work continues to grow in popularity – with several shows scheduled for the spring and summer – Catanzaro wears another artistic hat as well. Some of her work is done commercially, in conjunction with interior designers and their clients. She works with the needs of homeowners who give her ideas for what they are looking for in their home, working from a theme, ideas or photographs.
“As a personal friend of Ellen, I knew she was talented, but it never struck me that she could potentially make a career out of it until I saw that one of her paintings she'd donated for auction to the Kennett Foundation was purchased by one of my clients,” said Petrillo, who owns Hoffmann Design in Kennett Square and owns six of Catanzaro's paintings. “We took the painting to my client's home and it was beautiful. That's when I began to tell Ellen, 'You're going to start selling your artwork. You art is worth nothing if you don't put a price on it.'”
Although she defines Catanzaro's work as abstract, Petrillo said that its strength is in the breadth of how it can be interpreted. Getting a client to buy into that can be challenging, but Petrillo said that what makes Catanzaro's commercial work so popular is her ability to listen to what the homeowner wants and translates it to the canvas.
“A lot of artists paint what they want to paint, and don't want to hear what a non-painter wants,” Petrillo said. “Ellen takes in everything that she hears. In many ways, her work, whether commercial or personal, is like giving birth to a child. It's just that personal to her.
“Anybody who meets Ellen wants her art,” she added. “First, you fall in love with Ellen, and then you fall in love with her art.”
An artist of any merit struggles mightily with the warring demands on his or her time, and with it, the persistent demand from their muse to abandon everything else in favor of it. For Catanzaro, living the life of an artist – both commercially and personally – has been a slow and sometimes timid walk to acceptance. In 20 years, she has grown from being satisfied with presenting her work as gifts to developing her own “look,” that has recently expanded into pillow designs and the transfer of the originals into print form.
“I feel like I can call myself an artist,” she said. “Enough people have purchased my paintings and enough people desire to purchase my paintings that I feel comfortable with it now. I feel like I represent what it is in my head, on the canvas.
“I feel the colors more than I see them,” she said of her art. “It is my view of the world, and I want people to see it. It's taking someone on a journey, and once they acknowledge it, they're also on the journey. To me, that's what success is.”
Ellen Catanzaro's work can be seen April 21 at Galer Estate Vineyard and Winery (Folly Hill Road, Kennett Square); May 20-21 as part of the Chester County Studio Tour; and June 22 at the Urban Navy Yard Market in Philadelphia.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].