Ellen Zagoras is bit of an anomaly in the sleepy ranch town of Silt, Colorado where I grew up. She lives on top of a hill overlooking the valley in a white disc-shaped abode known as the Spaceship House. She is an artist, mother, proud “Grammie”, and a self-described alchemist, incorporating materials like Acetone, blowtorches, WD-40, animal bones, & gunpowder in her work. She is now 80 years old with no intention of slowing down. I talked with Ellen about her approach to making art, her philosophy on life, and our extraterrestrial neighbors. Here are some of my favorite moments from our afternoon conversation at her home in early spring, 2015.
You live in a spaceship house. Have you ever been visited by an extraterrestrial?
Not yet. But I know what I’m going to do when they come for me. They’d come to the sliding glass door right there at the back of the house. I’d invite them in to sit down, and I’d be nervous so I’d go over the kitchen and start to make them some tea, even if they don’t drink it, just something to calm me down. And then they’d ask me to come with them, and I would go. I’ve already told my family, that if I disappear they’ll know where I went and that they should be blissfully happy for me.
Speaking of extra-terrestrials, what does it mean to you to be a human today? How do you feel about humanity and where we are headed?
Well I think humanity is in a state of separatism. We’re social beings, social beings from cave men on, the cave men always had their clan. The Indians had their tribes. And then we have religion where we can go to church and have everybody believe the same thing. When you believe the same thing as a big group, when the whole group agrees with you, you have a sense of contentment. I think unhappiness and being discontent are extremely fearful for people, but above all that is death. The reason we go to church, the reason we don’t open up to things, is cause we’re going to die. Now, nature dies and grows again. So if you’re stardust and that’s stardust, I think part of us will grow again, in another way. When I die, I’m not going to know I’m dead so why do I care?
So anyway, there’s this division, this divisiveness in our society, and we divide, divide, divide, but in the end we’re all one. But what teaches us in school to accept our differences? Accepting what you see in the world as being a little different should be extremely exciting to us. But we’re not always taught that.
The other thing I think everyone needs is to learn to really truly like yourself. Happiness doesn’t come from anything out there, it’s from in here out.
How did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Well when I was fourteen my art teacher told me to do something, a drawing or something, and he looked at me and said, “Ha, you’ll never be an artist.”
And I never touched art for years and years. We think other people know stuff. I knew I liked to do art but I never touched it—I never bought a pencil or a crayon. The only thing I did do was start in clay, because I worked in the garden—I grew up on the farm. And I always liked dirt. So dirt was cheap and I could make something with it and nobody seemed to care. That’s how I found out how much I loved making things, when I was doing that. That’s who I am. And that’s the journey to continue to find out, who am I?
So then, at 60 you left your life & marriage in Chicago and moved to Colorado to be closer to your daughter, and you bought the Spaceship house — is that when you started to make art again?
Yes, well I had to make money, so I had to make something to sell. That was a lesson right there. So I started making jewelry and I would go to Texas and all these places and sell it. After about five years of that I thought, ‘Well why don’t I just make hamburgers and sell them on the corner?’ Because I found that I was being tricked with money. Money was tricking me into spending my life doing something that wasn’t so much fun.
But then one day I was 65 years old, I had bought all these paintbrushes, I had 167 paintbrushes and I’d never used them. I said, I’m sixty-five, I see the end of the tunnel, the end of life, and I want to see how that painting thing works. So I spent three years painting. I painted 50 paintings. I cut the pieces out that I thought were interesting of the first 50, and ended up with 14 cutouts. I took those 14 cutouts and took everything else off my walls and I just put those up.
I did another 50 paintings. During the second set of paintings I was so busy that I wasn’t hung up on rules. Nobody was judging me so I was free as a bird. And all of the sudden a painting was on my table. I looked down and I said, my god I think that’s a painting!
I learned the most important thing is you can’t demand a painting. It took a while to get over the ego and just go back into the fun of making stuff, like a 4 year old. I continued that, from 65, and at 70 I had made a lot of paintings, and then the Aspen Art Museum contacted me to put my work up in a show.
What was it like doing the show?
The night of the show was interesting. It was kind of like your guts are hanging on the wall. That’s you, that’s your essence. After about an hour I was so overly emotional I actually went outside of the museum and sat for a while because I couldn’t take it. I decided that’s not where it’s at, unless I want to get into the money game…but the freedom to just paint like I did was wonderful.
How do you approach your artwork today? What’s your creative process?
I use the greatest two creative words in the world: ‘What if’. That freedom of possibility is what creativity is all about it. I’m not anymore creative than anyone else, I’m just not rule-oriented. I’m not going to say, well if I put blue down, I’ve gotta put the complementary down…I don’t want to deal with that. You’ve got to watch rules in life. Particularly who gives you what rules.
I guess the word is intuition—there’s a subliminal knowingness that we have. And everyone has it but they get ruled away. The thing about that is, I’m comfortable with the ambiguity and not knowing whether it will ever be anything. Sometimes I’m through half the painting and I say, ah I’ve lost it. And I don’t care, it’s just a piece of paper. I learned from it already, I learned from that horrible painting. So it’s a good thing. People get to think that everything they do is so precious…but we’ve got a billion more. What a wonderful feeling, isn’t it? To know we can go anywhere we want with a million more ideas. It’s really called freedom and I think that’s what I’m feeling in later life.
What are you working on now?
Well I’ve continued painting—I got into explosive painting. I don’t use the paint like they tell you to in books. I put WD-40 in it. I bought a tilt table, 5x8ft, and would throw half a bucket of water on it and the paint would just slide off on the floor and I’d say, well look at that…I’m an alchemist.
But the fun thing about life is this — everybody helps me. The guy that cleans my stove has BB guns, and he comes up and shoots holes through my paintings cause I wanna see what happens. And then I did the gun-powder one and my daughter called and was hysterical and said, ‘Mother what are you doing?’ and I said, ‘Oh hi I’ll call you later’. Talk about having fun.
So I’ll go along with something for a while, and then there’s this feeling of, ‘I’ve gotta reinvent myself’. So then I decided I’d start playing with bones. I’m out there walking, and I found these bones on the ground and I thought, these are just sculptures without having to do anything. I’ve got about 2,000 bones now.
Now I’ve started doing this styrofoam thing, and experimenting on it with deadly chemicals. I couldn’t hold stuff anymore because of my shoulder and the foam is more lightweight than the bones. Maybe all of these mediums will combine into something eventually.
I don’t really know what that great sentence should be about what I’m doing, but I don’t really care. If you don’t know when you’re happy you’re a real fool.
Do you have any other life advice/philosophy you’d like to share?
You can choose how you think. You can choose every moment, decide how to think about it, and how you think is how reality is for you. And your choice of how you think is different from billions of other people in the world that are all thinking something differently. But just think about how you can change your reality.
Actually controlling your thoughts is going to be a practice. You’ve got to be awake. It’s really a good thing to just set aside some time in the day when you just shut yourself down and sit here for a minute and say, who am I and what the hell am I doing? You have to sit in solitude and just let it come out.
Another thing is, you gotta have guts. To be who you are. And aren’t I lucky? I’m the freest person in this whole town. Everybody else has these constraints. People like to be content. I like to be content for about a half hour and then I get bored. Boredom is the worst thing you can have. I think a lot of people live with a lot of boredom in their lives, and they don’t push through it. I think that if boredom comes to you, you have to say, it’s trying to teach me something, this boredom.
So the thing that gets me through life, and I know that I’m going to live until 100, is that I am so excited about every day. One baby step every day I make. But I don’t know where I’m going! But that’s because I’m comfortable with that ambiguity. I just follow myself. Boy we are rebels aren’t we?
Watch below to see excerpts from this interview and our visit to the Spaceship house (video by Zach Becker):
*This interview has been edited and condensed from its original form.