Elsie Dinsmore Popkin

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Cornell Series: View of Cayuga lake, Late October, 1998-2001, pastel, diptych 22" x 60" ©2001

Cornell Series
When I arrived at Cornell in 1954, painting and sculpture were housed in Morse Hall, which had burned down in 1916. All that remained of this old chemistry building was the roofed-over first floor and basement, now filled with graffiti and creativity. Morse was finally demolished in 1956. Little did I dream that forty-five years later I would be painting the view from that very same site - five stories higher.

My Cornell Views series began during a University Council tour of the museum on a spectacular fall morning in 1997, when I asked museum director Frank Robinson if I could paint from the Asian Gallery windows the next day. I skipped Saturday’s lunch and football game, and using a borrowed easel and dropcloth, I joyfully painted my first October View of Cayuga Lake. When I told Frank I would love to do this every time I came to Ithaca, he said yes. Thus was born the idea for this show of “Cornell views through the seasons” as seen from the Johnson Museum.

I shipped up paper and drawing boards, stored table, easel, and portfolio in a classmate’s garage, and, bringing a large backpack full of Diane Townsend’s handmade pastels each time, came early and stayed late for every University Council and President’s Council of Cornell Women meeting for the next five years. Sometimes the weather and meeting schedules forced me to wait several years for the right conditions to finish all the panels of a panoramic painting. In all seasons, as I watched storms and wind sweep down the lake, I marveled at my good fortune in being able to paint on site without having to battle the elements.

Cornell Series: April View of Cayuga Lake from the Johnson Museum
pastel 14" x 90" ©2002

Statler Hotel Ithaca, New York - The Statler- Hotel at Cornell University, NY

Popkin's first show at Cornell's Herbert F. Johnson Museum was held in conjunction with her 30th Reunion in 1988. The catalogue essay was written by Laurance D. Triplette:

Elsie Dinsmore Popkin was given her first set of pastels at age 14. Her life has never been quite the same since. She remembers that December 1950 gift vividly, for Popkin had become fascinated with the idea of drawing portraits in colored chalk. After receiving those Rembrandt Soft Pastels, Popkin (nee Dinsmore) spent seven years exercising her compulsion to make those portraits. During those seven years, Popkin entered Cornell University (1954) as an art major in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning.

Popkin credits her years at Cornell as whetting a hunger for artistic knowledge that continues to this day. Major influences on Popkin's development while at Cornell were two instructors: Joseph Hanson, who taught Popkin the true significance of the Golden Mean; and Norman Daly, who opened her eyes to the world of composition and color.

Popkin recalls, as clearly as if it had just happened, the moment in Daly's "Arts and Design" class when she first consciously "felt" and "saw" air and space contained within a painting. It was during Daly's series of lectures on Paul Cezanne. The painting was "Chestnut Tree" Popkin says she saw "how all that universe could be compressed into a two-dimensional surface, yet extend again by means of the viewer's perception!'

That particular class, that instructor, that painting, forever altered Popkin's attitude about pictorial composition. Her entire oeuvre of painting, through at least three stages and three decades of evolution, has been built upon her belief, formed at Cornell, that a painting without a strong composition is a body without a skeleton.

It is useful to examine other influences on Popkin during the past 30 years, for each one boded a new stage of development in her creativity.

• A term of study at the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, in 1958. That time in the artists' colony established personal discipline and sense of self-as-artist.

• Periodic study with artist Leo Manso in New York City at NYU each year from 1961 through 1968. Under Manso, Popkin assimilated the modem art concepts of abstraction.

• Master classes at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, 1969 and 1970.

*Participation in a workshop on pastels conducted by artist David Lund in 1975. Under Lund's guidance, for the first time, Popkin learned how to build colors through layering them onto the paper surface.

• A Mary Cassatt exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the late 1970s taught Popkin that the artist could retain complete mastery over this medium, while experimenting freely.

• Renting her first studio in downtown Winston-Salem in 1974; hiring models to pose for her compositions.

• Becoming artist-in-residence at Reynolda House Museum of American Art, responsible for conducting periodic classes, workshops and lectures, while being given free run of the 1919 country estate designed by Charles Barton Keen.

• Participating in a landscape invitational exhibition in eastern North Carolina in 1982. After years of working exclusively with the human figure, Popkin broke away from her models and executed tiny window-view landscapes.

• Fall 1983-Popkin received a fellowship to study and paint for four weeks at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts (VCCA). This experience instilled in Popkin a stronger determination to continue expanding her artistic sensibility.

• January 1984 -Popkin created a large lithographic landscape at Winstone Press atelier in North Carolina. The lithograph was based on a highly keyed landscape Popkin had created at VCCA. Learning to translate her landscape compositions into the lines and colors of lithography taught Popkin more about the problem-solving techniques required for that medium. The experience forced her to loosen her drawing strokes and become more gestural in order to retain the freshness of the moment being captured on paper by way of stone.

Fall 1984 through Fall 1985 ... Popkin spent another seven weeks at VCCA, followed by a six-week fellowship stint at Yaddo Colony, and a subsequent three-and-a-half-week stint at VCCA again. This continuum of fellowship residencies in the colonies' isolated splendor, where Popkin was surrounded by fellow artists committed to the full force of their creative expressions, rejuvenated Popkin. While at Yaddo, Popkin began work on a 40-inch by 60-inch landscape study for a monumental mural. The mural project never materialized, but Popkin became entranced with the large-scale format. Enlarging her compositions forced Popkin to continue loosening her technique for applying pastel to paper. She learned that, like the stage, a large-scale pastel picture demands exaggeration if it is to properly convey gesture and emotion.

Popkin's work during the past 30 years can be classified in stages based on, or evolving from, the events and experiences that shaped her above.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, Popkin worked once again on portraits. She ventured from painting pictures of mothers and -children, to painting nude models. The nudes began to gain significance, first as still life, then as landscape, then as component in pattern painting.

By the late 1970s, during the height of the Pattern Painting movement, Popkin's compositions had evolved into kaleidoscopic pictures depicting luscious, jewel-toned nudes against complex backgrounds. Unlike the Pattern Painters, though, Popkin was working directly from traditions established in the 19th century by Edgar Degas and Pierre Bonnard. She flattened areas of color, blurred lines separating the colors, foreshortened her perspective, and manipulated the plastic elements into symmetrical or assymetrical compositions. Her pictures were reminiscent of the Japanese Ukiyo-e tradition of prints.

Having sublimated many of her professional goals while rearing her children during the early 1970s, Popkin re-entered the world of artists with relish in 1974. Imagine, if you will, this Yankee-born, iron-willed, female ARTIST having surrounded herself for years in the sometimes smothering mantle of conservative, domestic respectability in a small Southern community in the Bible belt peopled by Preppie ancestors.

By leasing her studio in 1974 and hiring models to pose nude, Popkin was shedding that mantle of respectability to reveal her true self. Perhaps Popkin's obsessive exploration of the nude figure - male as well as female-in that time and place, when her avant garde peers were wrapping buildings or performing their art, was Popkin's way of rebelling. Whatever her subliminal motivation, Popkin's artistic abilities expanded as a result.

Once she began painting landscapes en plein air in 1981, Popkin's style of feverishly capturing the subject on paper accelerated, as she learned that light changes, as well as temperature, and that flowers die and leaves fall, much like a human model changes from moment to moment. After Popkin began incorporating figures into her landscapes, most notably through her series of marble statues in gardens, Popkin's works became complex statements about life generated from or generating life.

Like Henri Matisse, Popkin has learned that the color in a painting must have structure as well as form. Structure is given to the painting through the relationships of the constituent colors.

It is important to recognize that music also is an important factor in Popkin's work. Always interested in music, Popkin is married to a musician and her sister is a musician-composer. Her house and studio and her backpack (when working outdoors) constantly echo with softly playing classical music.

The seemingly random colors in Popkin's paintings actually distill and condense the essence of color-related sensations for the viewer. Popkin's applications of colors has been made easier since her discovery in 1985 of a source for handmade pastels. The supplier of these custom-made pastels adds mica to them to generate luminescence and sparkle on the painted/drawn paper surfaces. Some of the colors are fluorescent, heightening the light quality in the paintings. Many of the pastels are matched to Nature by Popkin and the pastel maker.

Remembering her lessons from David Lund, Popkin has continued to experiment with the support medium on which she applies the pastels. She now uses Rives BFK paper, which she coats with marble dust and acrylic to add color and enough tooth to hold her ever-thicker applications of pastel layers.

Upon this "canvas" Popkin embroiders layer upon layer of pastel, the pastel sticks serving as literal extensions of her hands. The pastels become actual sculpting tools and sculpture medium, connecting her directly to the tactility of the drawn lines.

Popkin's expression is intentionally emotional and passion-charged underneath the seemingly straightforward subject matter. It might be argued that her sensibility springs from a strong sense of Self as Female. What does that mean? Certainly one would not wish to imply that Popkin's concepts or her pictures are mushy and obtuse in any negative interpretation of feminism. Rather, the works are generated from this artist's strong sense of self as creator and responder, as Transmitter and Connector to and in her world.

There is a joyousness inherent in her work. The joy reflects Popkin's utter satisfaction with the process of capturing and transmitting those frozen moments to the viewer. Ultimately, the joy springs from Popkin's relish for life itself. Popkin's attitude about making art and about experiencing the process of making art reminds me of lines from the D. H. Lawrence poem, "We are Transmitters."

As we live, we are transmitters of life.
And when we fail to transmit life, life fails to flow through us.

... And, if as we work, we can transmit life into our work,
life, still more life, rushes into us to compensate, to be ready
and we ripple with life through the day.


Popkin's works ripple with life through the day.


-Laurance Daltroff Triplette
February 1988

Harlem Meer with Picnic and Twins, triptych 22" x 90" Pastel ©2003

Central Park
The Harlem Meer is at the northernmost end of New York's Central Park. This view is from a path paralleling Fifth Avenue, looking northwest toward 110th Strreet. The Meer and Boathouse were recently renovated, and this is now one of the most beautiful spots in the city.
While I was working on this painting in late August 2002, several friends came by and had a picnic lunch under the trees. The geese stayed just long enough for me to paint them, then vanished. I framed the two left-hand panels as a diptych, then decided it really needed another panel, and returned to the site the following August.
I bring two drawing boards when I am working on a triptych - one long enough for two panels, and a smaller one for the third panel, so I can see the entire expanse at once. Back in the studio I line them up on my wall to make sure everything fits together correctly.
Happily, those twins spent several afternoons playing on "The Beach" (there is actually a sign identifying the sandy beach as that) and their mother encouraged them to stay there until I finished. drawing them. Late every afternoon the ladies in saris arrived with their fishing poles. People sitting on the benches along the path guarded my work from soccer balls and rowdy children and watched over my pastels when I headed for food (at the park kiosk with delicious smoothies) or to feed the parking meter. One reason I love to work on site is because I meet so many lovely people and collect so many wonderful memories which imbed themselves in the work. I remember the good parts and forget the heat and bugs!

Botanical Garden

New York Botanical Gardens: Perennial Garden, pastel 9-1/2" x 7" ©2003

New York Botanical Garden - Conservatory and Sunflowers, pastel, 12" x 9-3/4" ©2003
In August 2003, I got permission to paint in the New York Botanical Gardens. Each time I went, no sooner had I gotten all set up and started, than the sky turned black and torrential rains ensued. I managed to finish the one with the Enid Haupt conservatory, but when I started one of the perennial garden, just as I was really getting into it I started hearing horns tooting outside the park. I kept working and just as I was finishing a guard came by to tell me they were closing early that day because of the blackout! Fortunately my route home was almost all expressway, so I had no problems getting home, until I had to climb to the 14th floor in my building.

Thelma Boose in her Meadowlark Iris Garden, pastel, 50" x 38", ©May 2002
This iris farm actually exists on Meadowlark Drive, a few minutes drive from my home in Winston-Salem. In the winter, Thelma Boose and her family make and sell Moravian cookies. When spring arrives, she is out there with her beloved iris. Her small iris patch has expanded and expanded to become a spring tourist attraction. She digs and sells irises "to support her habit." If you look closely you will see Mrs. Boose at work in her garden.

Pilot Mountain

Pilot Mountain - Late October, pastel, 30" x 28" ©2003

Fans of Mayberry RFD may not realize that Mount Pilot is actually named after Pilot Mountain, a landmark of Piedmont North Carolina. I was invited to paint the view from a house on a bluff overlooking the Yadkin River, with Pilot Mountain rising majestically in the distance and Autumn Sedum blooming in the foreground. North Carolina landscape artists regard Pilot Mountain as our Mt. Ste. Victoire...and as a challenge to paint. This is one in a series of Pilot Mountain paintings which I have done over the past 12 years.

The Pond at Sapsucker Woods

The Pond at Sapsucker Woods, pastel, 22" x 22", ©2003
At the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, October 2003.

Galaxy and the Girls

I fell in love with pastels -at first sight -when I was in high school. For many years I concentrated on painting the figure, always from life, usually in interiors. In 1981 I was invited to be in a landscape show at the Wilson, NC, Arts Council. I agreed to the challenge and quickly discovered that I loved working on site, never having to take a model break, having a wonderful excuse to travel to beautiful places or set up in gorgeous gardens, and trying to capture the light and colors and personality of each place I paint.

In recent years I have painted in Alaska, on Celia Thaxter’s Appledore Island in Maine, at Penland School of Crafts, in New York’s Central Park, at Crater Lake National Park as part of their centennial artists-in-the–park program, in North Carolina gardens, and on the grounds of Reynolda House Museum. I have also painted a series of views from the windows of the Johnson Museum at Cornell University, which were shown at that museum in June 2003. My hope is that the viewers of my landscapes will feel the essence of each place and the leap of joy I felt in being and painting there, and will begin to see the beauty of the world around them with greater depth and clarity.

In 2001 I began working on a series of pastels of sheep in a pasture. One morning, as I was preparing to go out to finish a pastoral landscape, I realized I really wanted to do portraits of these animals. I prepared paper of the size and shape these portraits should be. As I put the finishing touches on the scene that afternoon, Maori the New Zealand Coopworth appeared at the fence, staring straight at me in just the pose I had envisioned, almost saying, “You wanted me to pose? Well here I am – get to work!” I quickly grabbed my prepared board and my digital camera, snapped a few shots for insurance, then drew as quickly as I could, first with charcoal, then blocking in the colors with pastels, and finally building up the layers with Diane Townsend’s deliciously soft handmade pastels to achieve the colors and textures I needed. I spent most of that winter painting “the girls.” Each of the ewes had a distinct personality; all were done primarily from life, using the photos only to check details. With this series I have fulfilled a longstanding desire to paint the figure in the landscape.

Extended Gallery


More Flat

Pilot Mountain Behind Cows

Maine Garden

Summer View from the Johnson Museum

April View from the Johnson Museum

Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen

Swing Low Sweet Chariot