Bringing Art to Life : A Conversation with Ella MacQueen-Denz on Her Recent Projects

Bringing Art to Life : A Conversation with Ella MacQueen-Denz on Her Recent Projects

Written by Miray Eroglu

Ella MacQueen-Denz’s enchanting assemblages merge together life and art, fantasy and reality—embodying the impulsive act of creation. Inspired by the imperfection of everyday life, her moving, breathing drawings are cut apart, drawn over, and pieced together. Her paper puppets are held together, fastened with small pins, and a string which you can pull to change positions.

Ella records her daily impressions through writing and sketching in her journal, which informs much of her portraits and abstract landscapes. Some are also like family photographs, where Ella integrates a memory which can then be played with, adding words and sketches to the surrounding figures. While based on a human body, isolated forms, such as multiple arms, legs and other body parts, create a sense of expressive abstraction, which reminded me of the multi-media art of Dada artists, surrealist poses reminiscent of Leonora Carrington, Goya’s sketches, and German photographer Hans Bellmer, as well as folk shadow puppets from the Balkans and Eastern European art traditions. Ella and I had a wonderful discussion about the inspiration behind art. Ella describes art as spontaneous, instinctual, and emotional; it is something personal that is later transformed into a finished piece. 

Ella’s commitment is to the process; while making art, this is the first space to explore. She generally begins with a drawing, building on her graphite sketch with paper, adding watercolor and color to her composition. Ella likes to work with essentials. While she makes art in her studio, she is very inspired by working with limited resources, such as when she was working from her tent this summer while tree planting.

There, Ella worked with scissors, paper, string and other found materials. She creates from anywhere, embracing unknown environments and working with new materials. She is also inspired by textile arts and traditions, knitting, and sewing; in fact, these interconnected mediums often inform each other in practice. “I love fashion and looking at fashion magazines,” Ella says. While she enjoys working in textiles, she says she is also drawn to impulsive artwhereas fibre/textile work is very planned and specific to a time and place. While assembling, Ella also reacts to the organic shapes formed by graphite, such as when her hand unintentionally touches the paper. Ella says she rarely plans in advance, rather, watching the process take shape. She says, the “final product isn’t important to me, but what is important to me is showing the process.” Art provides a sense of calm, both to the artist, and to the viewer, who is swept away by creations. Making art is also a space of escape, where one looks to find peace and deeper connection. 

Through whimsical, often fantastical poses, the paintings carry their own sense of nostalgia, yet are looking towards the future. They are like fantasies constructed from reality. They offer multiple perspectives in one picture plane; the figures are often in abstracted landscapes, evoking both the magical and mundane.

I first met Ella in Montreal in 2015. I remember she was knitting a red hat, and she has continued to create many lovely creations since then. I love to hear about Ella’s journeys and artistic projects as we have kept in touch over the years. Ella is currently finishing her Bachelor’s of Art from the University of Victoria, where she is majoring in English Literature. She always maintains an active art practice. She has also taken extensive courses in Germanic and Slavic studies at McGill University and in Berlin, Germany. Prior to beginning her studies at the University of Victoria, Ella earned a certificate from the Textile program at the Kootenay School of Arts in Nelson B.C. Following her dreams and passions, Ella is talented and skilled in many art forms including textile arts, mural painting, drawing, painting, and fashion. Her portrayals carry with them the interplay between mediums, often starting on the page and then coming to life. Both the interactive media and craftsmanship breathes life into the subject. Part of what makes Ella’s compositions extraordinary is how organically fantasy merges with reality. Often, they operate together.

Ella’s compositions explore identity and embodiment, serving as personal portraits of emotional states. In Waiting for the Bus (2019) Ella portrays a still with two people leaning on each other, supporting one another as they await the arrival of the bus. They are immersed in an enchanted landscape, and the figure in blue holds a doll. It is a familiar yet unfamiliar portrayal of the unknown, the dual states of hope and fear one can experience. Will the bus bring them home? Or take them somewhere else? 

Waiting for the Bus, 2019, graphite, watercolour, Gouache on paper. 16 x 16". $500

In Ghosts (2020), Ella portrays an ageless nude woman, looking over her shoulder to spirits and animals, which are mainly anthropomorphic shapes, giving an illusion of full body but only pieces. The nude figure expresses vulnerability and naturalness, appearing also like a spirit, surrounded by supernatural creatures and forms. Two faces look out, one directly at the viewer, and the other into the distance. With age, clothing, and even hair, stripped away, the figures are reduced to their natural state of being. In her depictions, Ella portrays babies, children and adults. Ella says, “removing hair and clothing from [these] creatures makes them the most is a state of reflection…[where one] is not afraid in that vulnerable space.” 

Ghosts, 2020, graphite and watercolour on paper. 10 x 10”. $400

In Dreaming of Dancing (2020), a personal favourite of mine, graphite figures float across the page in swirls of motion and movement. The dark graphite shading against the white paper is a juxtaposition, and certain areas seem to be erased. At the foreground center, is a child in an arabesque pose and a maternal figure. Surrounding them are other figures which emerge, including a face looking out directly at us, and another dancer who blends into the background. The figures all occupy this abstracted space that is constructed by shape, line and form.

Ella MacQueen-Denz, Dreaming of Dancing, 2020, graphite on paper. 13.5 x 10”.
Dreaming of Dancing, 2020, graphite on paper. 13.5 x 10”.

Love Poem (2020), evokes an inner feeling of safety and enclosure. At the center is a sketch of a figure outlined in red ink, curled up as if asleep. Emerging from behind the form is a leg and a foot; the leg can be moved and manipulated by a small gold pin. The oversized foot, also in red and gray tones, looks as if it is stepping over the page. The background space is composed of sharp edges, sketches, and words, transposed from Ella’s diary. In the foreground corner is the shape of a dark man, gazing to the distance. Love Poem captures feelings of captivity, yet freedom, in a dreamscape that at times is nightmarish but is calm through the body of the dreamer. The toes touch the landscape, approaching and dipping into space, but bound to the body of the dreamer. Love Poem is evocative of how love bleeds into creative force, offering repose, respite yet also a departure to an unknown threshold, at times appearing dangerous, embodied by the multiple vantage points and sharp corners.

Ella MacQueen-Denz Love Poem, 2020, graphite, ink, watercolour on paper. 7.5 x 11”.
Love Poem, 2020, graphite, ink, watercolour on paper. 7.5 x 11”. $250

The puppet form, Ella described, makes them also feel like “toys.” Most of the paper puppets are portable, and can also be placed on the wall, in an open frame without glass or against a matte board, where the puppet has a string that can be pulled to activate the movement. You can manually change their positions and they can be re-assembled in many ways. This theatricality recalls cabaret and dance, with the actors constantly changing positions and costumes as they pass along the stage. Here, Ella’s paintings and paper puppets occupy their own sphere. Transported from the imagination, and now in reality, the figures are brought to life, manipulated and assembled, creating new forms and shapes.

Ella’s work also represents intergenerational dialogues and storytelling, which is present in her meaningful compositions and framing. Her sensitive and empathetic portrayals reveal her understanding and curiosity about the therapeutic processes of art, and reflect her interest in counselling and art therapy, which is something she is also interested in pursuing. For the past two years Ella has coordinated a drop-in art group at a local shelter. The diverse community she has found there is incredibly inspiring, and has shown her the therapeutic power of a safe place to be creative. This space is what she looks for in all of her creative pursuits, and urges her to provide that space for others as well. 


Miray Eroglu holds a B.A. in Art History, French and Medieval Studies from McGill University and is completing her M.A. in Art History and Archaeology at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. Currently she is an editor for Lapis Journal and an intern in the Islamic Art Department at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Find Ella MacQueen-Denz on Instagram at @ellaso_moves.