SciArt: Artist Ellie Irons Profile


The Maker Faire, home of robots, drones and other electronic sleight of hand, is not where you might expect to find a naturalist, but perhaps that was why my eyes were drawn to a sign that read: CUT/PASTE/GROW and a Formica table strewn with plants sprouting from vases, and everything one needed to watercolor.

Ellie Irons, the visiting artist with the plants, greeted me with a warm smile and what sounded like a southern accent, although it turned out she was raised in Northern California.

Irons pointed me to a clipboard where I could sign up for a time slot. Later that day, I returned for my session where the artist instructed the small group how to make paint from invasive weeds, which she had collected in the surrounding Queens neighborhood. It was as fun to watch her make the paint, as it was to use the paint.

“Invasive Pigments” is the name of the artists’ most recent show at The Center for Strategic Art and Agriculture in Bushwick, New York. The research-based project, a garden sprouting from dirt Irons had collected from all over Bushwick, alongside infographic maps using the garden’s harvest as her colorant, combined Irons complimentary vision of ecology and art. Fruition, the artist told me, that was “the most self-generated, coming from my life, the day-to-day quotidian experience in New York City.”

For most of her career, and as early as childhood, Irons has immersed herself equally in art and the environment. She tells me of finding a painting she made when she was nine years old that showed a food web in the forest. She tells me: “It looks like a happy forest painting but if you look closer it has all the elements of the ecosystems.” The painting was good enough to enter in the county fair.

Irons attended Scripps College in Claremont, California as a double major in environmental science and art. Back then the artist struggled with her competing passions. When she was outside enjoying nature, she felt guilty she wasn’t in the studio painting. When she was inside, well you know what comes next. In her junior year, Irons traveled to Latin America to study bio-diversity. It was around this time that she became dissatisfied with how she could express herself. Her dilemma: Science versus art. In a funny sidebar, the artist shared that her thesis medium was Flash animation, a technology she hasn’t touched since 2003.

In 2005, after a short stint in Los Angeles where she worked at a gallery and painted in her studio––aka her kitchen––Irons and her husband, Dan Phiffer, also an artist, moved to New York for a graduate program he had been accepted to. Even before the move, Irons was concerned about moving to the east coast. “I didn’t know how to exist in New York City,” she told me about that transitional time. After watching her husband flourish at school, she enrolled in the MFA program at Hunter College.

While her struggle with location continued throughout graduate school, Irons was accepted to a three-month program with The Frank Mohr Institute, a graduate program in arts and emerging media in the Netherlands. The change couldn’t have been more ideal. “I was isolated from everyone who had been watching me paint, and outside my studio was a giant park. I could ride my bike and the landscape was fascinating––wide open, but carefully organized.” Irons would explore the outdoors and bring found objects back to the studio. From there things like spiny branches began to be incorporated into her art. It was all the inspiration she needed: “I came back [to New York] making site specific sculptures after that program.”

Written for SciArt in America, February 2015. Read the full piece