With a variety of skills under her belt, both traditional and nontraditional, University of New Mexico associate art professor Ellen Babcock excels in the art world knowing she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“If you’re an artist, you don’t really want to be doing anything else. It’s its own satisfaction,” Babcock said.
Babcock is experienced in both painting and sculpture but has been more concentrated on painting in the last five years. She said painting is a faster process and isn’t dependent on physics like sculpting is.
“I’m really intrigued by the way that paper reacts to watercolor and I’m liking the way that it moves and buckles, and I like the different effects of the different colors of paper, the different range of possibilities which each of those kinds of paper offer me,” Babcock said.
UNM art professor and multidisciplinary artist Mary Tsiongas met Babcock when Babcock was hired with the art department in 2009. She said Babcock is “very skilled at getting things done” and figuring out how things should be done.
“I saw her very quickly as a unique thinker and somebody who’s extremely observant and has very broad definitions of what art would be; it wasn’t just doing stuff in the studio — which I know she does. She has a very strong studio practice, whether it’s her sculptural work or now, more recently, she’s doing these amazing drawings,” Tsiongas said.
Babcock said painting allows for an internal meditative process in “trying to be aware of how my mind works and how thoughts have a way of occurring and disappearing.” Painting also gives her time for solitude.
“At different times in my life, I’ve had a meditation process — I don’t right at the moment, but I have at other times — and I’m intrigued by the way in which this process of painting feels parallel to following thoughts and then just returning to sensation and being and existence,” Babcock said.
Babcock founded Friends of the Orphan Signs, an organization that makes artwork with abandoned signage, the same year she joined UNM.
“The mission of the organization is to make collaboratively produced artwork in signs, and it’s a changing group of people but I’ve been directing it for … about 10 years and just over the past year have turned over the leadership to one of my former grad students,” Babcock said.
This allows many different groups of people to come together, from artists to property owners to pedestrians, according to Babcock.
“The inspiration for the public art pieces was enjoying working with other people, enjoying collaborating and the satisfaction of taking something that just seemed derelict and being able to bring more light and color to it,” Babcock said.
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Babcock was smart in applying for grants and made the organization a nonprofit, according to Tsiongas.
“It was such a smart and innovative idea, looking at a city, looking at her community around UNM and seeing that there was this potential to activate things that were neglected and forgotten and that working with people, especially high school students, to sort of see the beauty and potential of things that are maybe discarded and forgotten,” Tsiongas said.
Babcock’s involvement in the community creates accessibility for more people to see art, those who might not go to a gallery or art show, according to Tsiongas.
“I think she has a really strong aesthetic sense, and that’s a really important thing for an artist,” Tsiongas said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Babcock said Friends of the Orphan Signs was lucky because the group was able to do everything online with digital billboards. As for her own life, although the pandemic was stressful, it inspired her to create a home studio along with other personal benefits.
“The pandemic made me able, in some ways, to have sustained involvement with this thinking and engagement with my paintings where I didn’t have deadlines to get things done in the same way. I had a little more time, a little more freedom,” Babcock said.
Babcock said she feels lucky to be a professor at UNM.
“One of the things that’s really wonderful about my life here at the University is the balance between teaching and then working at my studio because I get excited and inspired by my students, but then I also get to have this time to think and ponder about the experiences that happen in the classroom … And I also get to vacillate between speaking, using language all the time, and then these very non-language-based communications,” Babcock said.
Tsiongas emphasized how humble and friendly Babcock is, someone who is very easy to talk to.
“I think she’s a very kind, caring person,” Tsiongas said. “She’s very quick to help if somebody needs help,” Tsiongas said.
Looking toward the future, Babcock is considering her own show featuring her paintings without frames at first, in a place “where I can feel comfortable showing them as vulnerable as they, just the paper, and then eventually being able to frame them.”
“When you have your own show, it’s as if you’re creating your own little world … for other people to come into,” Babcock said.
Megan Gleason is the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @fabflutist2716