Philadelphia, 1995: Shannon’s walking me through a maze of bright white art studios. Soon faces appear and voices erupt: New friends greeting each other. Introductions are made. Lori is tallest, and her voice distinguishes itself from the others.
From the moment I heard her speak, Lori Ellison’s characteristic contradictions were immediately legible in her voice. I noticed first what wasn’t there: Almost every other artist or peer I met in the ‘90s talked with a layer of self-protection, whether it was a kind of macho feminism, a voice in a deep register, a mumble, a way of never being surprised or knowing the right set of fan-boy facts, or simply a readiness to rely on sarcasm or cool. So many of us called each other “dude.”
Lori was older than me by over a decade; she was from another time, a different generation. She enunciated. She articulated. She knew who she was. She spoke to be heard, never to blend in. There was something in her voice and way of speaking that was girlish and outmoded, but the thoughts that came out of her mouth were original, intelligent, and strong-willed. Her voice and her style of speaking form my overriding memory of her, I can hear her clearly as I write this. I can see her tall frame, her wide shoulders taking up room, her gestures emphasizing her words. The way she spoke was surprising because it was so un-cool, yet she spoke so often about things that mattered the most to me, to the artists around her. Part of what I’m getting at is that she was willing to be vulnerable on a regular basis. It could be endearing or off-putting, but it was arrestingly real.
When we met in Lori’s art school studio, I was studying photography and printmaking in Manhattan and she was working on her Master’s with abstract painters on the north edge of Philadelphia. I’d started taking Trailways bus trips to her city to visit my good friend “Boy-Shannon,” who was also her classmate. Shannon was a painter and a waiter I’d met while living in Austin the year before, a well-traveled Texan with a wry sense of humor, a dry wit.
Was Lori a good friend of yours?, someone asked me the week of her passing. I would say Yes, of course, but how to describe it? I never called her up and made plans. I don’t think I’d sat down at a table with her since 1995 or ‘96, our earliest meetings, when we were gathered over two-dollar mugs of beer or bourbon shots with all her Philadelphia art school cohorts, getting into passionate fights about art history and aesthetics, gender politics and the state of the world. Lori and I had mutual friends. I spent a mid-90s Fourth of July with a great mob of us on her vast rooftop. By then she had moved to New York and lived in a huge warehouse-turned-artists’ loft building near the Brooklyn side of the East River waterfront. The particular firework we remarked on the loudest was a triptych of dollar signs. Another time it was a bunch of us going to an endless open studio party on Hope Street, scores of people moving from floor to floor and room to room, my favorite sight, the Underwood typewriter someone had pulled apart into a beautifully-meticulous pattern to make a dazzling eight-foot-high wall installation. In a different moment, Lori was a coworker of mine, at St Mark’s Bookshop–only briefly, sometime after the turn of the Millennium. I helped her land the job and then got flack for it as my bosses were unhappy with her cash register performance, the thing they’d hired her for exclusively as a part-timer. She wasn’t there long.
What Lori was to me most was a comrade. She made my world more real, more coherent, more possible whenever I saw her. Where I came from, moderation was a virtue and art was an excess, an indulgence. To move to New York and live inside the excess seemed fragile, a dream always on the verge of ending. Back then I thought what I needed to keep it going was wall-to-wall art friends living the same dream. What I was doing in those years was building something inside me, articulating my own relationship to creativity, trying to secure its place in the center of my days. But the next phase of life still had all the dangers waiting: Pregnancy, debt, “career.” Rising rents, heavier expectations. To stay focused on art, I needed all the encouragement I could get.
Lori was a comrade just by being herself. She was an idealist with relentless energy. She kept all my art hopes alive, not only with her own optimism but with her dedication as she went along, her life as she lived it. From my view, she seemed committed, prolific. There were attitudes I assumed we shared because nothing said otherwise: Neither one of us wanted to teach art or have kids. We had no use for television, and the only material possession we coveted was the trail of art and writing we were producing day by day.
In a way, comrades in your art community are more important than friends. They are the living, lovely wallpaper of people who exist just beyond your immediate circle, who let you know that the art life is viable, not just by constant pumping of your best friend’s vanity or fueling of your roommate’s self esteem, but by something more internal, timeless, unbreakable. Every time I saw Lori again, she’d probably finished another 10 drawings, or 25, or 100, who knows. That was the direction she flowed, the abundance she exuded. It seemed obvious that Lori loved making art.
What was art? Art was the thing that amazed us when we took the first step back. Art was the space we were carving for ourselves, the thing the world didn’t know it needed before we hung it on the wall. Art was starting to play at something with the skills and curiosity we knew we had, and then taking one piece to its unlikely conclusion with a monomania that led to repeated efforts. Art was modulating our nakedness on the canvas, and discovering the anxiety and ecstasy that went with that. Art was never ceasing to show up in front of the blank page. Better make the next thing or you never know how it would have turned out. Was that endeavor a practice or an urgency? A sketch or an aesthetic innovation? A warm-up or a triumph? Lori when I first knew her made these gorgeously compulsive compositions. She’d pull a notebook out of her bag and show me her latest: patterns in ball-point pen filling lined notebook pages. By the time she’d landed a Manhattan gallery and national reviews, she hadn’t moved on to another project, she just kept making more of it until it was fascinating, until people understood that she really meant it, until they wanted more, until the patterns on the page shifted from intricate design to zen conundrum. The art life is nothing if not an act of faith, and it’s crucial to have other believers along the way.
Lori was always a believer. She was fully engaged in the struggle. She never named her demons to me, but she didn’t have to. I knew the self-doubt that could arise in the middle of the night, the terror that could appear in the middle of a half-filled page, the rent anxiety that could strike in the middle of the month. Those furies lived at the manic edge of Lori’s enthusiasm. Her art was made there, and as long as drawing could remain the priority of her days, it seemed like optimism was always at her foundation.
She was a fellow traveler down the same road, almost literally. I ran into Lori often on Bedford Avenue and in bookstores, Manhattan or Williamsburg. Whenever I saw her it was always time to stop and catch up, check in. Was there a new love, a new creation, a new job, a new opportunity? We talked feminism and alternative medicine, psychology and geography.
When I say geography, I mean that Lori and I had an uncanny amount of overlap in the cities or states we’d lived, which we laughed about and bonded over. It kept getting stronger over the years. When we met, we had Austin and Virginia in common. Lori had gone to school in Richmond for sculpture, and I had studied literature and photography an hour away in Charlottesville. We were both raised in DC area, although I knew little about her childhood. After she graduated with her MFA from Tyler School of Art and left Philly, Lori moved to Williamsburg, the Brooklyn neighborhood through which I walked every day on my commute from Greenpoint to the East Village. In early 2001, I lit out for Paris: Lori wished me well and said she had loved living among the artists there years ago. I was back in New York after a few months, but departed in late 2005 for Pittsburgh, which brought us back to the Commonwealth where we’d first met.
One day when I crossed paths with Lori on Bedford, she pulled me into an art gallery that stocked her work, a warehouse near McCarren Park called Pierogi 2000. The gallery was unlike any I’d seen before, with its scores of flat files, one drawer for each artist they represented—in addition to whatever show adorned the walls. Another time I drifted into Sideshow Gallery on South Bedford one leisurely day off. There was Lori, sitting and greeting people as they darkened the doorway. That day I learned that Lori’s drawings had a new venue, and she learned about the new boyfriend on my arm. Why would I need to call her up? Lori was always around the next corner.
Somewhere in the middle of our overlapping New York years, I started to figure out that Lori was congenitally a bookstore person. The first thing to know about this is that working in a bookstore is like being paid to be yourself. You are an avid reader, you have many interests, the interests go into and come out of reading books, and someone pays you to interact with other readers without submerging who you are. There are some tasks you’re getting wages for, but you don’t have to shoe-horn yourself into some other persona during your work day in order to accomplish them. Your bosses and your coworkers celebrate your interests, or at least the fact that you have interests. In this sense, it goes very well with a life of expression. The difficult thing is making it on a bookstore clerk’s salary, which can be half of what the average office worker takes home. Bookstore people don’t necessarily like the salary but generally would rather be themselves all day and will sacrifice much to remain employed in the book world.
I remember associating Lori, for a long time, with her job at Hacker Art Books, a renowned fifth floor bookstore on 57th Street. Seymour Hacker had one of the largest collections of art books in the world and specialized in antiquarian books and rare finds. He had been raised as a bookseller on New York’s famed Book Row, and that put his employees in a higher category of bookstore clerk in my mind: “old school,” “knows her shit.” After Hacker, Lori worked at Posman’s Books off Washington Square Park. Posman’s was a well-regarded general retail bookstore with a strong philosophy selection. They weren’t as punk- Marxist as St Mark’s Bookshop but catered to a more academic side of the NYU crowd. Later Lori followed one of her Posman coworkers to Labyrinth, a serious bookshop up near Columbia that predated Book Culture. At some point she had worked at the notorious Gotham Book Mart uptown, at the always-hiring Strand Bookstore near Union Square, and at Pageant Books (formerly of Book Row) on West Houston–as well as independent bookstores in Richmond and Austin. Back on Bedford Avenue, it was common for me to find her thumbing through design monographs at Spoonbill & Sugartown or checking out Eastern Philosophy titles across the street at Clovis Press.
I often ran into Lori in the back of St. Mark’s Bookshop, where I worked for eight years of our acquaintance. We’d see each other in a spot between the remainder table and the free-standing shelf of literary magazines, surrounded by the walls of fiction and memoir. I’d be on the clock restocking novels that had recently sold, and Lori would be browsing art books or buying something to feed her voracious reading habit. One time as we stood there chatting, she told me almost casually to check out her drawings, featured in the newest issue of Open City journal. As she handed it to me, I remember thinking that Lori seemed too nice to be ambitious enough to land herself in this uber-hip magazine. And realizing that I must have some misguided assumptions about good-hearted girls and their desires, or maybe I was still fooled by Lori’s enunciating diction and not paying enough attention to the whole woman behind it.
Another day, I ran into Lori and she’d started seeing a man who would later become her husband. She was full of a new happiness, describing how much she liked him and admired his art. And then she was telling me his 9/11 story. How he’d been an Assistant Manager at the Borders Books in the basement of number Five World Trade Center, and survived the flaming wreckage to make the long, strange walk to the Village. She hadn’t known him then, but she felt for his story, his walk, his shock and bewilderment.
Late in my New York years, Lori handed me off to Pittsburgh when no one else did. My friends’ reactions to my announcement to leave the City ranged from neutral to disgusted, from sad to see me go to angry at the very concept. One poet insisted, “There’s almost nothing in Pittsburgh.” One trustfunder told me, “I would never move away from the ocean.” One bookseller repeated incredulously, “Pitts-burgh–?” and it sounded like he was vomiting the word out of his mouth. One of my best friends stopped speaking to me for six months. Lori, with her characteristic generosity, told me, “You have to meet my friend John! He just opened a gallery there!” She’d lived many places and didn’t think moving was weird, even if it was away from our North Brooklyn art ghetto.
I remember the first art opening at the “Digging Pitt Gallery” after I came to Pittsburgh, sometime in December 2005. It was a frigid Friday evening. My partner did not have the same interest level in braving the snow to check out an art show across town, and I discovered that I was too daunted by the bus transfer and the streets of Pittsburgh to go it alone. I had lived in the big city and the small town; I didn’t yet have a sense of a city the scale of Pittsburgh. I knew it seemed starkly segregated–by race, by class. There was no such thing as blending in. Street crime seemed both aggressive and random. New York streets had density and unspoken rules about how not to get mugged. Pittsburgh sidewalks were quiet at night. There were more cars than pedestrians, more windshields than faces. Never mind the mugging–waiting for an hourly bus on an empty street in the winter wind seemed like an annihilation in itself. Where were my comrades and how would I find them? This was so very different than waiting on a subway with a few late-night commuters in the shelter of an underground station.
I remember feeling surprised at myself, at my new life. This was the moment it hit me that I had nothing here—I was starting over, utterly from scratch, in a new place. I was thinking about Lori, the New York life that was our shared milieu, the landmarks that were our shared familiarities, the frequent faces and daily customs that formed our sense of safety. I was thinking, too, about the laissez-faire creative energy Lori embodied, and wanting to locate that energy here in my city. Trusting that this John person she recommended would be a good match, easy to talk to and understand my new city through. Thinking it was unbelievable that streets and buses would stop me from going across town, after a life of urbane self-sufficiency. Also knowing that something would be fine, would be much better once I made it to the gallery, like getting a glimpse of the story awaiting me on the other side. The other side of working dreary temp jobs and not knowing anyone yet.
And it was. When Thomas and I finally made it to the Digging Pitt the first few times, on sunny Saturday afternoons, we met Susan the gallery assistant and then John the gallery owner. Conversation was immediate. They shared some of our favorite talking points: Art and its economics, gentrification, urban design. Susan talked about Renaissance pigments and Portland, Oregon and John talked about Jane Jacobs and the vernacular architecture of Queens. We perused the flat files at the gallery, as John had borrowed the Pierogi 2000 model. We enjoyed John’s taste in art and that made us want to return, to the art and to the people who made it. I met painters and photographers and writers at gallery events who became acquaintances, then friends. Before long, I started blogging for John’s Digging Pitt arts and urbanism blog. I wrote there only sporadically, with a short roster of other contributors, but it gave my imagination a further vector into my new city. Reading what my fellow bloggers had to say about art and Pittsburgh was just as important: These were my new comrades.
The whole time I have known John, he’s dropped sheepish references to an event in his New York past, thinking that I knew a particular something Lori had told me. But Lori wasn’t like that. Lori didn’t dish the dirt on John, she just shared her enthusiasm about John. A hand-off with no strings attached, no hidden agenda. Just her perpetually expansive perspective: “Meet my friend! Go forth and share art and life!”
Lori Ellison, a Brooklyn-based artist, passed away on August 1, 2015. Find her artwork at McKenzie Fine Art.
Image: Lori Ellison, Untitled, 2013, ink on notebook paper, 11 5/8 x 8 1/4 inches. Private collection, courtesy McKenzie Fine Art, New York.
Karen Lillis is the author of four books of fiction, including the novellas Watch the Doors as They Close (Spuyten Duyvil, 2012) and The Second Elizabeth (Six Gallery Press, 2009). Her writing has appeared in The Austin Chronicle, Composite Arts Magazine, Evergreen Review, Everyday Genius, Cashiers du Cinemart, Free State Review, Guide to Kulchur Quarterly, LA Cultural Weekly, and TRIP CITY, among others. She is the recipient of a 2014 Acker Award for Avant Garde Excellence in Fiction.