Jun 30, 2017 12:25AM

Ellie Kammer On Pain, Feminism And Turning Suffering Into Art

Power babe.
Ellie Kammer's oil paintings are big — so big that they dwarf her frame and fill the studio she keeps in an artist-run space in Adelaide from floor to ceiling — but in a sense, they'll never be big enough. Her paintings are big because they are a demand for attention. They're made to provoke an emotional response: to unsettle, or invigorate, or even to disgust. The nature of the reaction doesn't matter so much as the reaction itself. Ellie Kammer's paintings are a scream to be heard.  
At 26 years old, the ferociously talented artist has produced a body of work both intimate and arresting, and has suffered more pain than most people will know in a lifetime. Like her paintings, there's something quite raw about her. She's able to rattle off a barrage of medical terms — laparoscopy, septicaemia, adenomyosis, D&C (which stands for dilation and curettage, and which I had to Google) — but she has none of the detachment that some people employ when talking about their conditions. When she speaks about her disease, her voice shakes. I watch her press her hands together to stop them from shaking too. "For me," she says, "two hours without pain is a rare occurrence. I've lived with pain from morning to night. I wake up during sleep because it hurts. It affects me every single day." 

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The product of what she calls a "shitty upbringing," Ellie grew up in Adelaide alongside her near identical twin sister, with whom she is close, her mother, and her stepfather, who was abusive and with whom she is estranged. She came to art with no formal training — she started out by copying from life, and discovered an aptitude for photorealism. Her work is precise almost to the point that it leans into the uncanny valley, where it's hard to tell whether you're looking at a photo or a drawing. She produced commercial graphic design work and a series of stunningly executed charcoal drawings that earned her a small solo exhibition in Adelaide. 
But as her practice was developing, her health was deteriorating. By this point, she'd been experiencing bodily pain for years. It started as something she experienced during her period, and then when she had sex. Then there were the UTI symptoms. The clotting. The shooting pain through her thighs and legs. It was centred in her pelvic area: vagina, uterus, ovaries. "Sometimes, I could actually feel my ovaries," she says. "I can tell where they are because they hurt so much." She'd go to see doctors and they'd do some cursory tests, prescribe antibiotics for the UTI symptoms and shrug off the pain as normal. "I was basically told to just go on my way and deal with it," she says. "They didn't want to investigate it beyond taking a urine sample." Partly it was to do with her age — doctors are less inclined to recommend invasive surgery to an 18-year-old— but partly, says Ellie, it was that they didn't take her seriously. Her experience is not uncommon: there are studies that have found that "women are more likely than men to be undertreated or inappropriately diagnosed and treated for their pain." This type of pain — a pain that occurs with menstruation — is regarded as particularly benign. "There's a pretty common idea that period pain is a normal thing to go through," says Ellie. 
Only it wasn't period pain. It was endometriosis, a disease that although one in ten women suffer from, often goes undiagnosed. There is currently no known cure. Once Ellie was diagnosed with endometriosis — eight years after first developing symptoms — things changed very quickly. She had multiple surgeries: some exploratory, some to burn away the endometriosis that grows around her uterus and reproductive organs, one to widen her urethra in a bid to stop the frequent urinary tract infections. It took its toll on her body. And her art also changed. "I remember after my first surgery, I felt like I was going to erupt," she says. "I was very, very sad and emotional, and I decided to do one painting that was completely visceral. And it turned out to be one of the best works I've ever done." Instead of careful hyperrealism, she began producing work as an expression of how she felt — melding her innate technical talents with a freer line and a more intuitive approach to colour and form. 

Feeling nostalgic

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She cites Alex Kanevsky and Francisco Goya as influences, and the two artists provide a useful framework within which to place her work — falling somewhere between Kanevsky's expressive figural abstractions and Goya's images of violence and torment. Her paintings depict women's bodies: they are mostly up close, mostly truncated to show only the torso, and nude in a way that has nothing to do with eroticism. The paint is daubed on, thick and eloquent, using a large, flat brush. Her touch unfolds the central drama of her art: living in suffering flesh. "I use a lot of paint," says Ellie. "I feel that the paint is really fleshy." Her use of inexact almost opalescent colours, which tend to catch and reflect light, provide a counterpoint to the dark flush of blood that clots and pools in her figure's laps. The blood is always painted last, and intuitively. "I paint the blood," she says, "according to how I'm feeling."
Lately, she's been feeling some sort of way. After a recent surgery, she contracted sepsis and her weight dropped to 47 kilograms, leaving her feeling at odds with an unfamiliar body. She's also been diagnosed with adenomyosis, a sister disease to endometriosis that's largely untreatable without compromising fertility. At the same time, her art is reaching more people than ever. She raises awareness of her disease by working with Endometriosis Australia, and in July, she'll exhibit a solo show at Adelaide College of the Art's Light Square Gallery. Her mentor, LA-based hyperrealist painter Robin Eley, will travel to Australia to launch it. Her health permitting, she will exhibit about a dozen large-scale paintings, including several arresting self-portraits in which her nude form is laid out on a bed like a martyred saint. 

The magical combo of a nearly finished painting, sunshine and Bon Iver

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I ask how people react to her work, and she shrugs. "When people come into my studio, it makes them immediately uncomfortable to be in my space," she says. "But in my opinion, that's the whole reason for making art — to talk about something and make people uncomfortable enough to pry into what I'm doing." 
Ellie Kammer's solo exhibition NESCIENCE is showing at Light Square Gallery in Adelaide from July 6 — 26. 
Text: Nadia Bailey
Photography: Rebecca Kammer