Ellen Forney, Master of the Intimate, Goes BIG

Cornish faculty member Ellen Forney has become well known for her comic book masterpiece of personal revelation, Marbles; now she’s made the jump to large-scale public art.

​Of the public spaces in Seattle, the new light rail station on Capitol Hill is perhaps the most public; after all, the Hill is the cutting-edge art and lifestyle district of the city. Fully visible from the sidewalks surrounding the station will be two giant installations, flats of porcelain enamel on steel, depicting gestures, Crossed Pinkies and Walking Fingers. Surprisingly, they are the creations of a comic artist known for her small-scale work.

​​For a lot of people, when they think of Ellen Forney’s art, they think of little rectangles a couple of inches long and wide. The long-time Cornish faculty member set the bar for honesty and self-revelation in her drawn book Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me (Gotham/Penguin, 2012), a work that is in turns lacerating and hysterically funny. Though it documents her personal, Dantesque journey through manic depression and medication, there is nevertheless an unnerving universality about it. Everyone who reads it can feel the sting of realizing themselves in Forney’s wrong turns, self-flagellation, over-reactions, image crises, and all the other painful fissures in her world—and in her triumphs over adversity. Though Forney’s cartooned work in Marbles is most often small and squared-off on the page, from time-to-time the constraints seem all too much for the artist and the art bursts its seams and explodes, sometimes sprawling over the book’s gutter to consume a full spread. So it should come as no surprise that she seized an opportunity to scale her work up.

​Forney’s major commission from the City of Seattle is now being installed, and we have learned how far the scale of her artistic sensibilities can be expanded.

“My murals are up! WHAAT!” Forney wrote recently on her Facebook page. “Crossed Pinkies and Walking Fingers, my large-scale porcelain enamel on steel murals, are finally real-live things in the entryways of the Capitol Hill light rail station. I am happy and proud and very thankful to my team.”

Sound Transit surveyed the Capitol Hill community about the type of public art wanted and were told to look for authentic, contemporary art for their station - pieces that engaged the public in consideration of its meaning, that created a landmark for the station, and that fit well with the neighborhood architecture. Forney, a Capitol Hill resident, and artist Mike Ross were selected. On their website, Sound Transit noted "The clean graphic quality of Forney's work, in addition to the bold red color she has chosen, allows the mural to become beacons for the entrances to the underground station."

A project eight years in the making, her piece of public art began when Forney pitched a variety of ideas for the station. One idea everyone will be sorry did not come to pass was a giant worker-woman with a wrench whose stride would have spanned the walkway between tracks of the station. After Forney's designs were selected, there came the long wait as the station was constructed. Installation took place in the last month and the station opens in 2016. Eventually it is projected that more than 26,000 people a day will be walking past her installations.

​Forney teaches several courses at Cornish: two studio classes in the Design Department, "Comics: Essential Tools" and "Autobiographical Comics," and two in Humanities & Sciences, "Graphic Novels As Literature" and "Reading Graphic Memoir." She's also involved in Cornish's efforts to expand access through the Internet. “Cornish is developing online classes,” she says, “and I'll be continuing work developing my online comics studio class.”