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Art as social commentary at Montpelier Arts Center

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Photo by Wanda Jackson. Matt Sesow's "Keep Calm and Carry On," with dog of summer and dog of war, is a 30-by-40-inch oil and acylic on stretched canvas.

Photo by Wanda Jackson. Matt Sesow's "Keep Calm and Carry On," with dog of summer and dog of war, is a 30-by-40-inch oil and acylic on stretched canvas.

Published on: Friday, October 12, 2012

By Wanda Jackson

For nearly a decade, Washington, D.C., artists Dana Ellyn and Matt Sesow have engaged in an annual self-imposed project called “31 Days in July.”

Inspired by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, Ellyn and Sesow decided to document the unique history they were witnessing. Each morning in July, the artists select a top news story and use it as their inspiration to paint a unique work.

Select works from their 2012 “31 Days in July” are being exhibited in a show titled “See Something, Say Something” at the Montpelier Arts Center in Laurel through Oct. 26. The show features 29 works in a variety of mediums including oil on unstretched canvas or chipboard, mix on watercolor paper, oil and acrylic on watercolor board, acrylic on canvas and housepaint on unstretched canvas.

Ellyn and Sesow are known internationally for their colorful, expressive interpretations of politics and pop culture. Their paintings make satirical comments in scenes that convey messages about social or political protests, social and racial injustice, economic hardship and life’s struggles. Their narrative works use humor, social realism and expressionism to provoke emotional reactions and critique social norms.

Photo by Wanda Jackson. Dana Ellyn's "The New Normal" is a 30-by-40-inch acrylic on canvas.

Photo by Wanda Jackson. Dana Ellyn's "The New Normal" is a 30-by-40-inch acrylic on canvas.

Ellyn, whose style sits on the fence between social realism and expressionism, attended the Center for Creative Youth at Wesleyan University during high school and later majored in fine arts and art history at George Washington University. Having spent her childhood and college years honing her skills and striving to be technically correct, she has spent the last eight years “unlearning those restrictive habits.”

“I am, by nature, more controlled and my years of academic art training solidified those habits,” Ellyn said. “Doing things correctly and realistically was always the goal. I’ve learned to loosen up, (to) be more expressive and make mistakes.”

According to Ellyn, that’s a good thing “because it leads to learning new things and creating something unexpected.”

Ellyn’s paintings, which range from $380 to $1,600, tell stories and unapologetic opinions. She delivers hard slaps to myths of all kinds — from religion to politics and women’s issues. She employs humor when holding a subject up to her artistic scrutiny. But, humor is as subjective as art, and Ellyn’s brand of humor is a polarizing factor in her art. Love it or hate it, she definitely starts a dialogue.

“I get my news from RT (Russian TV Network), Democracy Now and Al Jazerra,” Ellyn said. “Mainstream media seems to focus too much on stories about celebrity scandal and lost puppies.”]

Ellyn also uses humor “to draw viewers in and to engage them” to take a close look at her work.

“While they examine the painting and see more with it, that is where the humor may turn to understanding and they see the subject matter may not be humorous at all,” Ellyn said. 

Before becoming a full-time painter, Sesow worked as a software engineer at IBM in Bethesda. While working in the computer field, he unexpectedly found painting as a way to express untapped emotions caused by a childhood accident. After being hit by an airplane when he was a child, Sesow’s left, dominant hand was amputated.

In 2001, Sesow, a self-taught artist, turned his painting hobby into a career. While some describe his painting style as “contemporary outsider,” Sesow considers himself an expressionist.

“My style reflects the emotional process I oftentimes experience while creating my work, especially the more personal and self-portrait type paintings,” Sesow said. “I suppose the simplistic style of some of my paintings may tend to look like outsider art, so I accept that … as well the fact that I price my paintings much lower than other artists.”

His watercolor on paper and oil on unstretched canvas works in the Montpelier Art Center exhibit range from $180 to $800.

Like Ellyn, Sesow feels it is important to paint what he sees and to document the “times we live in.” Often his expressionistic style incorporates icons that tell a story within each painting. For example, in Sesow’s work “bunnies represent innocence,  a dive-bombing phoenix symbolizes failure, a rising phoenix indicates positive and good things, and the head with wings is a sort of guardian angel or death object.”

Reader Comments - 1 Total

captcha 00f424d9ac0f4d42989db30b5a299382

Posted By: Dana Ellyn On: 10/15/2012

Title: Thank you from Dana Ellyn

Thank you to Wanda and The Sentinel for publishing this story about our exhibit at Montpelier Art Center. If anyone would like to see more about my work, please visit:
And, we have a full catalog of all work available in the show at:


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