PORTFOLIO > Murder Ballads: 2013- gloves and works on paper

MBM: When did you start working with gloves as your canvas?
EG: I’ve always been kind of a fashion hound and a thrift store junkie; so I’ve always been on the lookout for things to decorate myself or my home. The vintage ladies’ gloves in those stores were always off to the side in some hidden spot. They were a kind of hidden exotica, somehow not meant for display.
I found it so fascinating to imagine the hands that were in those gloves and what they did when they were in them. A dress when it comes off a body is just material, but a glove is somehow still a hand. Body marking and flesh has been an interesting subject matter for me, and I found that I just had to paint on those gloves. What I think I liked about them initially was their skin-like qualities. Painting on the hand-like object drew me toward the tattoos. Before the gloves, I was just an oil painter. Now it’s turned into tattoos.
MBM: Which was first for you, the tattoos or the gloves?
EG: I’ve been tattooed since the 90s, since art school. I’ve always been drawn to the folk art forms, even though I was sort of a classic oil painter. Growing up in Kansas, I was always exposed to folk art. Folk art was just kind of in the air. Lawrence, Kansas is a university town. It has a lot of country aspects, and liberal/progressive aspects, but also a lot of frat boys from the university. William Burroughs was also based there, so his influence helped make for a freaky kind of art scene.
MBM: How did “Omie Wise” wind up on a pair of gloves?
EG: When I was working on my first big solo show of gloves, I was really wanting to mine imagery just a little past the tattoo vocabulary. There’s a traditional tattoo vocabulary, traditional forms—the star, the skull , the eagle, the mermaid. It has certain codes and symbols, but it is all very much steeped in a kind of military, working class, masculine culture—early America.
1900-1960 is the historical space that I love, so I was getting into that space. There’s a misogyny and a violence in some ways inherent to the tattoo as an art form, particularly in the vocabulary I mentioned. It presents images of women as sexual objects, lost women, or whores. There were always these symbols.
I’m trying to imagine where I came across “Omie Wise” for the first time. I think I’m just a seeker of musical knowledge, and I’ve always liked folk music. I think I just came across it, and my maiden name is Wise.
MBM: What’s your background with music and murder ballads?
EG: I think I knew about murder ballads beforehand, but I was looking for early American music. I was listening to a lot of that music while I was painting, especially Smithsonian Folkways’s recordings and the Harry Smith Anthology, and mining my own personal story. I was connecting to a sense of tension in the images—this sweet feminine glove, but the imagery has that aggressive masculine tattoo.
I think that’s what I love about murder ballads, too. They can have that sweet, lullaby form, but the actual nitty-gritty is intensely dark. This is juicy fodder for making a good glove. A lot of the tattoo imagery has that sweetheart imagery, and then the murder cuts that sweetness out.
MBM: You talked about that masculine/feminine juxtaposition in the tattoos. How does that fit into your work on the gloves
EG: Within my work…in this body of work… because the lyrics are very much present, and then the imagery is what is telling the other story. You might see the word as masculine and the image as feminine. The images seem more metaphorical and the lyrics are much more literal. The lyrics become more other worldly in that context. You don’t have to do too much to make it feel topsy-turvy.
The idea of warning young women through murder ballads about the consequences of loose morals is quite interesting. There’s a similar connection in the assumed morals of a tattooed woman. It’s also caught up in the idea of a woman’s ownership of her own body. Tattooing is an act of claiming the body as one’s own. It’s part of what these gloves do.
These issues of ownership of women still permeate our culture. Therefore, when there’s ever a critique of the power that a man may have, a supposed power to do as he wishes to his beloved, we have a hard time talking about that as a culture. We don’t like to talk about how much our culture still believes that men like to own and control women.
I think murder ballads were called “love songs,” because there was an undertone of warning. Don’t get yourself into a situation with a man. That’s the meat and bones to me—for me to dig into, without judgment actually. My people are of that background. I have that Anglo-Irish heritage.
There’s a reason why the traditional tattoo imagery has passed down. I think the old murder ballads are similar. I like the old forms even in their most uncomfortable ways.
MBM: Who does your favorite “Omie Wise”?
EG: Doc and Merle Watson. It’s really listenable. I think I just like the harmonies. ( I miss spoke- the Merle Watson I like is a solo voice! I like the mellowness- there is a tenderness in his delivery) I’ve heard some really old, single-voice versions that are just as compelling, just a little scratchier.
MBM: Tell me about music and your painting process.
I’m listening to a playlist while I paint. When I’m actually painting the lyrics out, I have to be careful not to be listening to anything else, or even listening to the words too much. I’ve done the research on the lyrics before I start. But, I’m listening to the music while I do the visual imagery.
Typically I would have a lot more imagery inspiration[from other artists] for my work, but I was actually shocked not to have found as much visual imagery for these pieces as I would have thought.
MBM: You mentioned to me in an earlier conversation that you found that these songs are helpful in processing a range of human experiences. Tell me more about that.

EG: There’s macro trauma and micro trauma. We can think of these songs culturally, in terms of what they mean, but on the small level what I like to think about is the intimacy of what inspired people to write these songs early on as individuals. I’m trying to imagine the unknown, unnamed Pollys, Omies, Ellen Smiths. The songs live on and the songs carry their name, but there’s something about her voice that’s not there.
It’s almost like I have a desire to make the murder ballads deeper by infusing them with my own angster narrative that sort of makes them real again. They’re a great place to analyze and get a bit of distance from the personal angst. There’s something that causes us to want to get in there deeper. It’s trying to tell these stories of our own lives, or having permission through these songs to talk about the horrible or traumatic things that have happened to us.
When I was eighteen, my best friend was murdered by her boyfriend. When I hear a murder ballad, it automatically has a weight to it that helps me process that trauma. That’s stuff you have to work through your whole life about. And now, being a mother of girls—girls who are going to be teenagers, who are going to have lovers, and boyfriends, and husbands. It gives me permission to process some of that.
Art or blogging or music is the filter that allows us to look at painful things. You pick up so much static from the world, and you have to discharge it somehow. I’m a sensory emotional sponge. Every glove is a piece of me that I don’t have to keep inside me once it’s done.
MBM: What are some of your favorites?
EG: “Banks of the Ohio” – Joan Baez. The way she sings that song is particularly poignant, without her having to do anything different. She gives it a lot of space and breath. A lot of these songs are sung front to back. There’s a lot of space in her phrasing. It’s really gorgeous.
There’s a version of “Poor Ellen Smith” by Jimmy Smith—with a preamble. In the preamble, he explains that this is his audition song, and that “ it made my career.” He makesno acknowledgment of the content of the song. He just sings “Poor Ellen Smith” front to back. I love that aspect of that one. Hilarious.
I have Pete Seeger’s version of “Delia’s Gone,” and I like it better than Johnny Cash’s version. I don’t like that machine gun aspect (lyric). I’m probably going to get scolded by your readers for that one.(His version is a definitive version for quite a few murder ballad/cash fans)
All of my artists fall within the time period of 1900-1960s. It’s all historically framed in that time period. Most of my interest falls in that time period. Those were good years.
I love the Everly Brothers’ “DitWG.” Songs our daddy taught us. It’s so sweet, it’s got beautiful harmonies. (But also so innocent- like two little choir boys are singing)
The Louvin Brothers’ version of “Knoxville Girl.” (This was the song I was thinking of with the harmony!)
I try to stick with what I like. What can I stand to listen to over and over again while I paint these murder ballad gloves.
I try to pick out what can hang together as a playlist. I didn’t want them all to be neutered versions that take out the tough old stuff.
I’ll throw in two modern—Molten Light by Chad Van Galen. One of the best modern ones, especially of female revenge.
“The Ghost Who Walks” Karen Elson (ex-wife of Jack White). She did this album The Ghost Who Walks. It has all the classic things in there. Her version is definitely empassioned. You can tell that she was going through heartache when she was writing and recording this song.
“Pretty Polly” by John Hammond. That’s a hard one to listen to. It’s…
“Pearl Brian” by Bradley Kincaid.

Interview with Murder Ballad Monday Pod Cast. (click here to read)