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Friday, May 14, 2021

Her Own Art History

At 12 years old, Elsi Vassdal Ellis already knew what she wanted to be when she grew up: an archaeologist.

Although that dream never became a reality, Western design professor Vassdal Ellis has found a way to make her art into her own artifacts for others to find one day.

Vassdal Ellis takes her skill with bookbinding, typography and print and creates works of art in the form of  books, she said.

“I think whatever you wanted to be at the age of 12 is still with you,” Vassdal Ellis said.

Though she decided not to become an archaeologist, her interest in other cultures and humanity over time never left her, Vassdal Ellis said.  Her work reflects a lot of these themes, such as war and genocide, or her own personal memories from growing up.

Her most recent work,“The Blues Series,” is a compilation of books based off pivotal moments of her personal life turned into art. It includes the moment she discovered the difference between male and female bodies and her experience with bullying as a child, as shown in her piece “What’s in a Name Cowgirl Blues.”

Illustration by Nicole Swift
Illustration by Nicole Swift

The piece includes 19th century prints combined in Adobe Photoshop, portraying a young girl looking in the mirror and seeing a cow looking back, and in the next frame, the cow attacking a young boy, Vassdal Ellis said.

Her next piece in the series will include themes surrounding her love of archaeology in her childhood, Vassdal Ellis said.

The daughter of two Norwegian immigrants, Vassdal Ellis was born just a year and a half after her parents came to the United States after World War II in 1950, she said.

At the age of 12, her father decided to get a graduate degree, so the family moved to Iowa.  She spent a good amount of time in the library with her father, going through multiple books and learning about ancient civilizations. This, Vassdal Ellis said, is where her interest in archaeology was sparked.

But when a recruiter from Washington State University visited her high school, Vassdal Ellis’ dream of becoming an archaeologist was crushed.

The recruiter informed the student body at an assembly in 1969 that a man with a doctorate in the field, teaching at a university would make around $10,000 a year, while a woman with the same degree could make $5,000, because “a woman doesn’t need that much to live on.”

“I had just assumed that if you were as smart as a man, that you made the same amount as a man, and believe me, when I got hired here, women got paid less than men, same degrees,” Vassdal Ellis said. “That was the culture.”

Vassdal Ellis was encouraged by her mother, as well as Western faculty to try teaching, she said. Thirty-eight years later Vassdal Ellis continues to teach at Western.

Vassdal Ellis’ book art has made its way to Virginia Commonwealth University, Emory University and even Baylor University in Texas, which surprised her, she said.

“I would much rather have my work purchased by an institution because then more people see it.  If a person buys it and they put it on their library shelf, maybe the family sees it,” Vassdal Ellis said. “But if you really want to get the best bang for your buck, you’d like institutions to buy it.”

Prices for her work are able to remain low, due to the fact that she has a full-time job at the university, Vassdal Ellis said.

Her office door is always open, and Vassdal Ellis is known to drop everything just to help her students, senior Amelia Barlow said.

Professor Kent Smith has been teaching alongside Vassdal Ellis in the design department since 1993 and described her as a hard worker.

“Working with [Vassdal Ellis] has been great,” Smith said. “She’s got a great reputation in the book arts arena.”

Vassdal Ellis’ time at Western will come to an end next year on June 15, 2017, when she plans to retire, Vassdal Ellis said.

“She’s just a role model.  She’s really inspiring. She’s part of the reason I’m really excited about design,” senior Sean Williams said. “It’s really cool to have someone that I could talk to about credits and stuff but can also push me and excite me about new experiences.”

Next spring when Vassdal Ellis leaves Western, a lot of knowledge will go with her, Barlow said.

“Who will teach that binding class?  I just don’t think anyone can do it justice, other than her,”  Barlow said.

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