Surrender: Ellen Claes

Artist Ellen Claes explores the contradictions associated with control and questions the compulsiveness and unpredictability of how we experience fear with her expressive paintings. Ellen shares how she finds balancing control and surrender in her own life; from being a mother to two teenagers, to how she creates art. She shares how lockdown has affected her art process and some of the lessons that have shaped her work so far.

We believe we can control the course of events, but I often wonder whether this is really the case?

I like how your work explores contradictions and questions the compulsiveness and fear found within control. Please could you expand on this? And share the main themes and inspirations behind your work?

Control is accompanied by a fear of something unpredictable. We believe we can control the course of events, but I often wonder whether this is really the case? Our world has become so complex that we feel like we are losing control, but I feel like every time we gain control, we lose freedom. Fear is the feeling of losing control for nothing; it is anticipating what could happen and is out of touch with reality – which is why fear is so effective, because it is only fantasy: it is a confrontation with what I imagine.

We are slaves of meaning; we give meaning to a lot of new things out of fear. We create the world from fear, when it can in fact be something else. We should actually approach the world from curiosity, wonder and openness; ratio and intuition – action and acceptance are therefore the major themes in my works. I often experience these contradictions in the creation process and use them purposefully.

How do you find balancing control and surrender in your own life? 

As a mum of two teenagers, rules are always needed to operate the ship. We cannot function without these rules. But I understand that I cannot and should not control the lives of my children. I raise them with the confidence I have in them and the lessons they have to learn for themselves. The world may feel dangerous and unsafe, but it is not necessarily so. In this way, I hope to give them faith and the ability to look at the world with an open perspective.

Beehive by Ellen Claes
So far, 2020 has brought a lot of uncertainty and a lack of control for many. How has this time impacted your creativity? 

In Belgium we had a complete lockdown at the beginning of March. As a result, I was able to work from home and manage my time more flexibly. Also, many things that “should” fell away suddenly, which gave me a lot more time to draw. Although I realise that I have not experienced the full impact of the pandemic like others (who may have lost someone or got into financial difficulties) it was a period of calm and rejuvenation for me. As the lockdown continued, there was inevitably a lack of family and friends. So as you ask how it impacted my creativity I can only answer that it gave me more time to create but hasn’t had an impact on my creative process.

To let go of the urge for results and to be daring is very liberating.

Walk us through your creative process .. what are the different stages of your work? From initial concept to the execution of your idea. 

I find that I don’t actually have a creative process at all! I just get started and see where I takes me. It starts with the haphazard placement of some paint movements. I let myself be guided by the form and the rest follows automatically. Sometimes I already see a form that I want to emphasise at the start, and other times the search remains until the last moment. Whilst creating I can be guided by coincidences as well as by thinking about the route to follow. In this way, it is a new process unfolding every time.

Mediocrity by Ellen Claes
What is your favourite part of the creative process?

I (rarely) work from a preconceived idea or concept. I never know what the result will be at the start. That makes the start of each drawing unpredictable. Often at that stage I have a rather negative voice in my head that tells me it doesn’t look like anything. I have to work through that. Once I have made some progress I can see what I need to work towards. Then everything finds its place. My favourite part is when the title of the work reveals itself to me. That’s when I know what it wants to say.

What have been some of the main lessons that have shaped you and your work thus far?

The most important lesson so far is that I can make mistakes. When I first started drawing, I could encounter the feeling of a mental block  because I was afraid of messing up a work. This is a fear of not knowing which direction to choose because of fear for what might happen. I have since realised that my “mistakes” are not visible to the viewer and that they are part of the whole process. The viewer only sees the final result and not every decision that preceded the result. To let go of the urge for results and to be daring is very liberating. It creates more freedom for me in my search.

Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos by Ellen Claes
Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos
Do you have any art rituals? When and where do you like to work?

I work at the kitchen table in our house, which I share with my husband, two children and a dog. I do not have an enclosed space or studio, which has its advantages and disadvantages. I can work at any time and I don’t have to make any transportations, but I always have to tidy up all my equipment. I sometimes get “interference” but I just put on my headphones with some music and create in my own world. I find working from home more easy because I like to work as much as possible, preferably every day, and it doesn’t matter what time of the day. I have the urge to discover, develop and evolve. On the other hand, I don’t rule out the possibility that I may move to a studio in the future.

How does art and creativity affect your overall well-being? And how do you feel when you create?

I have both positive and negative experiences with creating. There are times when I think everything I make is bad and I should better not hope to ever achieve anything with it! These thoughts come up from time to time. However, when I am actually drawing, I experience a rest, a pleasant “search”. I can best describe it as a kind of meditative state.

We create the world from fear, when it can in fact be something else.

What are your hopes and dreams as an artist?

Like any artist, I hope to get my “message” across to an audience. It is nice to think that what I make affects someone in some way. I hope for opportunities that will help me to reach this goal but I have no expectations or a master plan, I will instead see what comes my way. Furthermore, I cherish the hope that at some point I can live from what I make in order to have my own independence that way. That would be the ultimate freedom for me.

Anything coming up we can look out for?

I look forward to working on a bigger scale at some point in the future. I would like to explore how to translate my current visual language (or perhaps a new language) into a larger format.

I see the creation process as one big quest so I hope to continue to evolve with it. I have no idea what the future will bring but I look at it with confidence and wonder.

To view more of Ellen’s work:


Instagram: @_ellenclaes_

Blues by Ellen Claes

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