Ella Guru has led a vibrant life… the mother of one is a ‘Stuckist’ artist and portrait painter, a teacher and has worked as a go-go dancer, a guitarist, and with the homeless, moving from Ohio to squat in London in the ’80s, all of which infuses her magic realist style. Her latest work is a 22-card Major Arcana Tarot Deck, which mirrors her journey from city to the seaside. Nicci Talbot met the artist at her home studio for a reading.
Last year Ella Guru packed her bags and moved to St Leonards-on-Sea after 23 years in London.
For the past 2 1/2 years, she has been working on a new collection: a hand-painted, oil on canvas, 22-card Major Arcana Tarot Deck, which has documented an arduous journey from city to the seaside.
“The cards are about the journey of moving,” she tells me when we meet at her studio and were inspired by her role as one of the 13 founders of the Stuckist Art Movement in 1999 (she also set up the website). At Paris Stuckist Ella Dax’s instigation 22 Stuckists painted a card each from the Major Arcana. Ella’s was ‘The Magician’ inspired by her friend, the international magician Paul Nathan. What she didn’t realise back then was that this was the start of a momentous journey that has culminated in a move to the seaside and the creation of her own Tarot Deck.
It has not been a sequential journey. “They are more back to front” and have taken on a life of their own with fortune-tellers, surfers and paddleboarders (her new hobby – she has swapped masked balls for masked swims…) colliding with Burlesque performers, artists, musicians and vagabonds. “Three of the cards are about Hastings, can you guess which ones…?”
There are recurrent themes of identity, alternative lifestyles, journeys, and being an outsider.
Does she feel that way about the art world?
“I’m a trained artist with a degree and so I don’t fit the bill of ‘Outsider’. However, I also don’t seem to fit in anywhere in the art world. I am not a conceptual artist. Nor am I a completely traditional painter. I am a ‘Stuckist’, which encompasses a huge variety of styles but is more of an attitude than a specific method of working. Some Stuckists can be outsiders; others have PhDs and successful careers.” She is inspired by painters like Caravaggio and Velázquez and her work has a modern twist influenced by The Tiger Lillies, Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Last Tuesday Society, Gypsy Hotel, Shore Leave (a sailor’s club) and the Lucha Britannia Mexican wrestling shows (wrestling comes up a lot of her work inspired by her childhood friend Maura who took it up in Seattle).
She works mainly from photographs she has taken and likes to play with role and gender reversal, exploring the idea of changing one’s identity through make-up and costume. She was brought up Catholic in Columbus, Ohio and says there was lots of shame around the body and being naked, so it’s interesting that she has chosen to push these boundaries with her work.
Scenes of Bacchanal Delight
Many of the cards depict a journey of some sort or a ‘facing the demons’ scenario. Occasionally she’ll add a self-portrait – the Medusa Mermaid is her scuttling away from the telephone not wanting to deal with bureaucratic nonsense, and in The Chariot, she is on the island of Sark in a chariot race, desperate to move. The Justice card shows a young black man, a friend’s son from Hackney who was so fed up with being stopped and searched by police that he went to Cambridge to study Law. The Empress card depicts Kali, the destructive side of the Mother Goddess. The Emperor is Pan, Alexander the Great and the Green Man, and the Devil is a drunk. My spiritual guide (The Hierophant) is a Rock & Roll priest, and Temperance is Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber, who mixes hair dye amongst severed heads. This was inspired by a friend, Amanda Mae Steele.
She had so many compliments on the peachy ass in the Devil card that it now has its own Facebook Page – The Arse of Almande Magdalene – and has been added to the Wheel of Fortune card. It was also a performance piece for a while in Brighton, she says, and you could spank it, stroke it, kiss it…
Ella has also been surprised by a number of uncanny events since she finished the paintings. Her friend who inspired the Empress Kali card fell pregnant and she noticed a fertility rabbit in the corner… another card shows a friend caught between illness and health and he later developed cancer.
I am curious about the eggs in the frying pan in ‘Baked Velázquez’, as they look slightly out of place. She explains that Velázquez painted eggs frying in his first masterpiece at age 19. In the 17th century, that would have been difficult because there were no photographs to capture that moment when the eggs are just starting to congeal.
Being in her studio is a bit of a magic carpet ride and so, feeling inspired I asked her to give me a quick Tarot reading.
“I can give you a basic 4-card reading,” she says, explaining that her friend Trisha is a whizz with Tarot (and will be doing readings throughout her exhibition, which starts tonight in St Leonards). “Trisha can do full readings with 72-cards. She does Romanian Gypsy cards too and the last few times she’s done them has been amazingly accurate – spookily so…”.
I drew the first and last cards of the pack as part of my set of four – ‘The Fool’ and ‘The World’ – which seemed rather fortuitous. The former indicates where I am now… “about to embark on a journey” she says, and the latter indicating that things will be alright. “The world is your oyster… things will come together.”
A nice balance to my favourite of the local cards, which depicts a darker side of Hastings… the Tower pub in St Leonards balancing precariously above the falling cliffs of Rock-a-Nore in Hastings Old Town (part of the cliff recently fell down and Ella was on the beach at the time). It captures the mood of living here brilliantly.
Signed packs of the Tarot cards will also be on sale at £45 each or you can buy them online here.
I took the darkness and ran with it. She is passing the baton to Anne Sophie, her young protégé. She is saying be bold, be free, and be true to yourself. Express who you are, and don’t hold back. And whatever you do, “Don’t wear beige. It might kill you.” Sue Kreitzman.
Sue Kreitzman – http://www.ellaguru.co.uk
Read our interview with Sue Bourne, director of Fabulous Fashionistas.