Eleanor Powell is remarkable in many ways. For one thing she had 11 children and didn’t turn to art full-time until the youngest were in high school. Furthermore, she creates intricate, hard-edged geometrical paintings that few people can do. Her influences include Escher, Al Held, Sol LeWitt, and Frank Stella. Powell mentions only one other woman, Bridget Riley, doing this sort of art.
In addition to solving compositional complexities, Powell needs unrelenting patience. She has to mask hundreds of edges and work on small areas one at a time, keeping the acrylic colors consistent throughout a long project. Computers are not involved.
Powell was in the WAVES during World War II. She earned a BA in economics in 1944 and an MFA 46 years later. She met her husband, also in the service, and married in 1948.
This writer has enjoyed Powell’s work at many art shows in Norfolk, Virginia, where she has lived the last 60 years.
Q: How would you describe your work to someone who has never seen it?
A: I like vivid, clear colors with strong contrasts in values. This style is called hard-edged geometric abstraction. The subject is form and color.
Q: You certainly do experiment in many directions, as the slideshow illustrates.
A: I like to try a variety of designs. Some of my paintings give the impression of forms projecting from the canvas. Others look like hollow cubes or triangles entwined together. Still other paintings have layers of objects to give them depth. Then there are flatter designs in which lines of circles curve across the canvas. There is also a series of skyscrapers in one point perspective, as if seen from a helicopter.
Q: Do the ideas come into your head in the form that they will end up? Or do you doodle on the paper and the design slowly evolves?
A: I seldom do sketches but plan the paintings in my mind. Answers to problems often pop into my head while doing something, like sleeping. I usually write notes on the color palette I plan to use.
Q: Do you ever get halfway through and realize that you lost control of the design?
A: Once in a while, but I always find a way to finish them.
Q: For me the mathematical or engineering complexity is the most striking thing. I think you must have a very unusual brain.
A: I have always been interested in numbers: statistics, graphs, measurements. I have a BS in Economics with some courses in statistics. But I am no mathematician. Everyone’s brain is unique.
Q: When the piece is done, can you always go back and explain it to others so that it makes sense to them? Or do you sometimes realize that the thing is actually a paradox or a mistake?
A: I can usually explain my paintings, but there are three pieces I can’t figure out at all. One is a work in colored pencil that I would like to do as a painting. The other two pieces involve entangled hollow cubes and triangles.
Q: I read a profile of you which listed the famous artists who do related work. How direct is the influence? Put another way, if these people hadn’t existed, could you have evolved into this work?
A: I admire Escher’s work but can’t do the things he does. I think I could have done work similar to what I am doing now based on a class in color theory and two dimensional design at Old Dominion University and the quilt patterns I am familiar with (no, I don’t make quilts).
Q. What are the main feelings you want people to have when they look at your work?
A: I would like them to feel pleasure, happiness, cheerfulness.
Q: What is the main feeling you have when you look at your work?
A: Color always gives me pleasure, as does a design that works well.
Q: Finally, what are the main points that you would like the whole world to know about Eleanor Powell and her work?
A: I love sharing my paintings. I also appreciate all the friends I have made through my art, especially the artists at the d’Art Center and all my mentors, those I have met and those who have inspired me through their work. I am greatly blessed to be able to enjoy making art even in my nineties.
Eleanor Powell goes to her studio almost every day. She is presently at work on several ambitious new pieces.