This is a profile in every sense. Multi-talented Ellie Fabe is a singer/songwriter as well as a maker of visual art, our focus here. So profile, with its suggestion of a view from only one side, applies in all shades of the word.

Recently I met with Fabe in her studio to talk about her art works and their place in her life. The studio is upstairs in the family house, the house itself reached by a steep winding drive up a Mt. Lookout hill so tree-clad as to block the view of passersby. Parking is at the rear and Ellie met me from the back door, taking me in through the kitchen and up the stairs to the crowded, practical room from which her art works emerge. This is a capacious house, where she and her architect husband, Frank Russell, have brought up two sons, now 22 and 18 years old.

Fabe is tall and slim, with long blond hair straight to her shoulders and below, accented by long earrings. The day we met she wore jeans and a couple of layered, sleeveless tops, a sensible working outfit. She says she’s messy – with a gesture to the general accumulation in the room – but I suspect she knows where everything is more accurately than she suggests. Indeed, when I asked what sort of books were behind the glass doors of book shelves lining the walls she could promptly point out the separate sections for “children’s books, art books, books on writing.”

We talked that day and continued the conversation by email, as the family tradition of summer in Michigan, going back to her childhood, was shortly in place.  Has Michigan influenced your art, I asked?

“I love light and color – for me color helps to make sense of the natural and emotional world. I work in waterscape inspired by summers I spent in Michigan as a child – I’m definitely emotionally imprinted by that – the imagery deep in me – light on water – dark night skies. . . I work from memory. . .colors reacting to each other – sparking – pushing back and forth – the beauty – the impressions – and how it makes you feel a certain way. . .I have a kinship to water and the relationship of light on water – and how the horizon creates a perfectly simple relationship. Things visually can be confusing but a horizon gives structure and lets me go out as far on the edge as I like without falling off.  Its simplicity lets me be clear.”

Childhoods affect us in ways we recognize and ways we don’t, but artists tend to know what’s going on. “I’m strongly connected to my childhood,” she told me. “I have an open channel to my past and remember scenes and moments in time that don’t always make sense to the world, but I like to do work revolving around my memories of growing up and the private world it was. Sun on the water glinting through the trees like Paparazzi flashes are the visions that mark the line between childhood magicality and growing up – memories before loss and reality intrude. And part of me likes to live there – to collect it in my arms and swim around in it.”

The pasted-on figures that make her watercolors into collages usually come from the old magazines that are a continuing source of pleasure for her. “I collected old magazines before it was easy,” she says.  “I love them.  Sometimes I hate to cut them up.  They speak to me on an emotional level, and are like people I remember, my mother and her friends. There’s something to be said for the past, for being aware. . .”  Thinking back to how long she’s been caught in by these publications she adds “Those early impressive years haven’t left.  They are a burden and golden material.”

Asked when she began thinking of herself as an artist, Fabe’s first response was that she’d always been one, adding that by seventh grade she definitely knew that would be her role. “In fourth grade Degas had made a really important impression on me. I wanted the skill set to get these ideas out there.”

The University of Michigan’s School of Art is where she went for the skill set; in 1983 she was a magna cum laude graduate from the University’s five year plan curriculum. A Cincinnatian by birth, she also is a graduate of Seven Hills School.

Fabe, of course, is not an unfamiliar name in the Cincinnati art world. Ellie’s grandfather, David Fabe, was a talented amateur artist who “worked passionately – and was hugely prolific. I like to think I got a thimbleful of his drive,” she says.   Paintings by Robert Fabe (1917-2004), her father’s first cousin, “were on our dining room wall,” she remembers, adding that children he portrayed in a sand dune landscape worried her. “I was concerned that the children on the dunes were orphans,” and she smiles at her own childish response.

She copied her cousin’s paintings when she was young, although not in oil, and remembers Robert Fabe and his support of her work with pleasure and gratitude. In the years she was growing up he would have been on the faculty at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, following several years teaching at the Art Academy of Cincinnati – an ideal relative for a young artist. Her parents were also supportive of her interests, she says. In fact, her father introduced her to Daniel Brown, then an independent art advisor (now editor of this publication), who included her in a show at KZF Gallery in the late 1980s and continued an interest in her work. Brown, she says, “really molded my art career, allowing me to break in, in a more meaningful way, letting me know better how to take my place.”

We talk a little about what triggers ideas, prompting her to say she is “obsessed with beauty products” and illustrating that in a manner I would call curatorial. “I have a thing for Sea & Ski,” she explains, showing me three period containers of the sun lotion.

She sees herself as connecting with viewers’ memories, that her work is intimate.  “Music and visual art in my mind are separate but remain thoughts coming out in different ways.”  She says they don’t feel interwoven, but although she used to keep the two disciplines separate she is now integrating them.  “As people age, a different perspective comes along.”

This musician/visual artist finds writing prose stressful, but feels it has informed the song writing, that it encourages clarity. In another email following our interview she wrote “playing music – chords on the guitar, the harmonies and what I hear – sometimes leads me to what I want to say. . . .The brain is a wondrous instrument!”

In another way her two disciplines have fed each other, she first published her own cds and eventually thought about doing a book.  “I can publish myself,” she realized. Her personally illustrated Pride and Prejudice is the result.

–Jane Durrell

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