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A look at how one Kentucky artist found comfort and her voice through painting

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Cheri Lawson
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The banner out front at the Headley Whitney Museum advertising the exhibit Intertwined, features Ellen Skidmore's painting named Winner's Circle. That painting is also on this spring's Keeneland Magazine cover.

Making art is not only fun but can be healing and therapeutic. One Kentucky woman shares how art has been healing for her and her audience.

Ellen Skidmore has been painting since she was a child. Her work has been featured at the United Nations, at the Markey Cancer Center, on the cover of this spring’s Keeneland Magazine, and in private collections around the world. Now more than 100 of her paintings are included in an exhibit called ‘Intertwined’ at the Headley Whitney Museum of Art in Lexington. Skidmore said her art has been therapeutic.

“If ever I’m trying to deal with something, either externally, bad news or internally, something’s going on in my life, I work though it painting. I don’t like paint that topic but I paint and somehow just the act of painting is therapy,” explained Skidmore.

The Ellen Skidmore 30 Year Retrospective begins in a room at the museum filled with paintings done mostly in Skidmore’s twenties. She points to one of her large oil- on- canvas paintings called Free Fall. The 58- year- old said when she started this piece, she was feeling sad. But as the painting came together, the brilliant blue sky and image of herself became one of her favorites.

“Because it was very transformative. You can see how these were kind of muted colors and then you’re like bam, it’s like very blue sky, green grass, flowers. It was a very ‘letting go’ painting. And you can see, she’s just falling. She is just letting go and there’s nothing holding her to the earth,” reported Skidmore.

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Cheri Lawson
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Ellen Skidmore stands near one of her favorite paintings called Free Fall. It's part of the exhibit Intertwined.

Paintings in the next room tell a story through Ellen’s art and in text that hangs on the wall side by side. The words belong to Skidmore’s children’s book called, Ellen the Little Girl Who Found Her Voice. Ellen said the book details her life growing up with a speech impediment.”

”So the book starts here and it begins, ”Once upon a time there was a girl named Ellen. She was a sweet and beautiful little girl, but she had a problem, a big problem for such a sweet little girl. For some bizarre reason when Ellen began to talk the words got all jumbled up and stuck in her throat. She couldn’t get them to come out right. Sometimes they wouldn’t come out at all,” read Skidmore.
From the time she could speak, Ellen Skidmore said she stuttered, and it was a huge challenge. She discovered that painting was one way she could express herself.

”And when I was little, I stuttered really badly, I mean really badly. And the paintings, you can see, the bigger, the more space, it was just so freeing to be able to speak. To just speak this way,” said Skidmore.

Music and animals, especially horses were also comforting and therapeutic for her and are themes in her paintings. She said she’s not sure how her work would have been expressed if she didn’t have the challenge of the speech impediment. When she’s invited to read her book to groups of children, at first the kids are shocked and giggling but by the end, they are all paying attention and interacting.

“They kind of like raise their hand and say I can’t say my ‘r’s’ right or I can’t do this right. Adults, children, we all think we have to be perfect and that we’re never enough. So, the story speaks to all ages and all problems,” said Skidmore.

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Cheri Lawson
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At the Headley Whitney Museum, artist and writer Ellen Skidmore shows some of the paintings that tell the story of her book, Ellen the Little Girl Who Found Her Voice

When families visit the exhibit, children will sometimes read the words of the book out loud. Christina Bell is the Executive Director of the Headley Whitney Museum. She said Ellen’s work has had an impact. She calls it magical realism and says visitors have commented on the power of the work.

“Her message is very powerful. It comes through in her work. You might at first view it as it’s beautiful and whimsical. But when you really look at it closely or feel it. I think that is the part that is very powerful for people,” said Bell.

Bell said she thinks a lot of Skidmore’s message is in her book.

“We all have things to consider about ourselves and how we relate to others and I think that we all have a voice. And some of us have louder voices than others. But there are ways to speak without using words sometimes,” said Bell.

Ellen Skidmore said she’s grateful that her art and writing have been an inspiration to others. “I feel like it’s been a total gift and I feel like I’m always totally honored that it makes people happy.”

Skidmore will do a book signing at the Headley Whitney Museum on June 12. The exhibit Intertwined is on display until June 19th.

Cheri is a broadcast producer, anchor, reporter, announcer and talk show host with over 25 years of experience. For three years, she was the local host of Morning Edition on WMUB-FM at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Cheri produced and hosted local talk shows and news stories for the station for nine years. Prior to that, she produced and co-hosted a local talk show on WVXU, Cincinnati for nearly 15 years. Cheri has won numerous awards from the Public Radio News Directors Association, the Ohio and Kentucky Associated Press, and both the Cincinnati and Ohio chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists.
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