I suppose the Bloc 11 Café in Union Square, Somerville was an appropriate place to interview artist Phyllis Ewen. The café’s walls are covered with artwork, and it seems to house a vibe of creative energy. Ewen appeared to fit in nicely with the buzz I was feeling here. This Somerville artist is hard to label. She has a habit of collaborating with other artists, and has even worked with a poet—pairing images with her words. Ewen uses water as a metaphor for many things in her body of work-or body of water, as the case may be. Water to her represents consumerism, waste, abundance, and scarcity. She has created collages of maps and texts to explore the divisions (dams, man-made boundaries) humans have imposed on world culture. She explores the use of water to divide, it rivers and oceans a conduit for imperialism, all this is perfect fodder for her art.
Ewen has a space at the Brickbottom Studios in Somerville, and in fact is a founding member of this living and working enclave for artists. Originally Ewen worked in the Charles Webb Warehouse in East Cambridge but she and other artists were forced to vacate by the landlord. So in 1982 she joined a group of 100 artists who found an old warehouse in the outskirts of Union Square—that became Brickbottom. Ewen believes it was once an old A&P building. Through a lottery people chose their own spaces. They also formed a cooperative so people without the resources to own a space would be able to afford one. Ewen loves the milieu of the building because when artists live in close proximity they feed on the creativity that pulses through the environs.
Ewen’s work with themes of water started years ago when her young daughter Georgia made a little drawing of a boat. It was a simple, childlike picture of Ewen and her driving a boat. From this spark Ewin created a series of images of her daughter’s boat (painted in acrylic) as the boat moved through the water—all with colorful islands and backdrops.
In 2003 Ewen became involved with the printmaking project Proof in Print in which she brought prints from South Africa and the United States to Havana, Cuba. There she met the Cuban artist Janette Brossard. She collaborated with her and the two had an exhibit of interrelated installations titled: Oferta, Azul, Freedom Water, and Lost & found. Their work used water as metaphor for issues of contemporary society. Brossard’s work with wine labels influenced Ewen to create a series of prettified bottled water with labels like Holy Water, Rain Water, etc…
Now the poet in me had to inquire about Ewen’s work with Cambridge poet Denise Bergman. The two collaborated on a project named: The Space Between. Bergman sent Ewen a poem titled Petroglyph and Ewen sort of deconstructed the poem. She excerpted fragments, rearranged words—created new combinations. This led the pair to work on a sequence of Bergman’s poems. This lead to a sculptural wall piece. Both artists are intrigued by the way words and images expand and change as they are passed back and forth. The poem was transformed by image and altered text.
As our discussion rolled on Ewen continued to talk in her rapid fire cadence about her work with maps, her use of weather graphs, collages, and other materials. I must admit I was a bit overwhelmed by the breadth of her work. But Ewen, like other Somerville artists I have interviewed, contribute to this wonderful mix of artists, dreamers, polymaths, and creative people that live in work in the Paris of New England, Somerville, Mass.