Second skin: Artist tells stories on vintage leather gloves
Let’s be clear: Ellen Greene is not a tattoo artist. She paints tattoos on the skin of an imaginary woman.
“I don’t think I could ever tattoo,” Greene says. “My paint is sloppy and hazy, while ink needs to be pretty straightforward.”
Yet the artist’s medium often is skin: the soft, thin doe, lamb or cow skin of vintage leather gloves. To this, Greene adds bare-breasted mermaids, spread-legged ladies, clipper ships, gooey-looking embryos, jaguars and eagles.
“I imagine this inner life that she might have led and the subconscious of her experience,” Greene says of her character muse. “I’m able to be completely free in that thought process.”
The result is wearable paintings that represent a female experience told in a language historically reserved for men — tattoos.
Greene especially loves the classic style of tattoos associated with sailors and soldiers. Her twist on these bold images creates a compelling juxtaposition when applied to gloves associated with feminine formal wear (or at least female polite society).
As artist Peregrine Honig says, Greene’s creations “steer a tight ship between fashion and fine art.” Greene recently brought her gloves to Kansas City for “Ballad of the Tattooed Lady,” a trunk show at Honig’s Crossroads boutique, Birdies Bridal.
On a First Friday, her butterscotch ringlets cascading onto a fur stow, Greene instructed curious shoppers who gingerly stuck their hands inside delicate gloves. “Don’t be afraid to tug ’em on. They’ll stretch.”
Another series of her gloves, although technically wearable, she does not intend as fashion accessories. “I think of them as paintings,” Greene says. Tiny magnets hold these gloves inside wood and metal frames created by her husband, who is also an artist.
Honig decided to arrange four of the five framed sets Greene brought to the trunk show on a love seat instead of on the wall of her shop in order to highlight the three-dimensional nature of the art objects.
A Lawrence native, Greene met Honig met at the Kansas City Art Institute in the 1990s. They bonded over feminism, “riot grrrl” bands and the peculiar sense of creating strongly woman-centered art under the direction of mostly older male instructors. “Peregrine and I were up to lots of shenanigans together,” Greene recalls.
With a couple of other students, they even started a sorority. Theta Alpha Omega was kind of a joke — the young women’s response through art to modern femininity and the stereotypes associated with sorority girls. But the bonds of their sisterhood stuck.
“Theta Alpha Omega presented a cohesive concept of contemporary group femininity, and the ideas spawned from our collaboration still influence my studio practice,” Honig says.
Before Greene moved away, Honig encouraged her to show her painted gloves to Tony Fitzpatrick, a gallery owner in Chicago. Greene recalls waddling into his studio very pregnant. “He said, ‘Make more gloves. When you make more gloves, come and see me.’”
But life distracted Greene from her art.
“Whereas Peregrine went from art school and took off, I took the road of marriage and motherhood,” she says.
Greene poured herself into motherhood with an intensity that left no energy for art. “I took all of that creative energy and put it into my children,” she says. “It felt so overwhelming to me that I just did not want to mess it up.”
Then came the realization: “I’m going to mess this up no matter what I do.”
Abandoning her art wouldn’t necessarily do her kids any favors, either. “I need to lead a full life,” she says. “There’s no reason for me not to be doing what I love to be doing.”
Last year, Greene did go back and visit Fitzpatrick. “I said, ‘It’s been 10 years, but I’m ready now.’”
He was still impressed.
Since resuming her career as an artist, Greene has shown her work several places, including Fitzpatrick’s studio, and been featured in Bust magazine. You can see her work at her website: artbyellengreene.com.
A next step for Greene could be having some of her own art tattooed on her body. She started getting inked in Kansas City, “back when tattooing was still very scary” and considers herself “very tattooed.”
Although evoking the same iconic style as many images on her gloves, none of Greene’s tattoos originated from her paintbrush.
“I’m constantly searching for that perfect image that looks like a tattoo, reeks of history but at the same time has this particular voice that’s me,” she says. “I’m almost there.”