Ellen Frank: Moved to Create Art for Peace

Artist Ellen Frank. Dawn Watson photo.
Artist Ellen Frank. Dawn Watson photo.

By Dawn Watson

In 1999, Ellen Frank took a trip that would change her life.

The artist, scholar and writer was visiting Jerusalem and having a difficult time in her travels.

“Yerevan: To Know Wisdom" by Ellen Frank.
“Yerevan: To Know Wisdom” by Ellen Frank. Courtesy of Ellen Frank. 

“It was the tensest city I had ever been in,” she recalled during an interview at her home near Three Mile Harbor in East Hampton last week. “The tension I was feeling was so real, I wasn’t able to enjoy myself.”

Nine hundred years after the slaughter of thousands of Jews, Muslims and Orthodox Christians, the ancient city—settled in the fourth millennium and destroyed, besieged, attacked and captured and recaptured dozens of times since—was full pain. The pervasive sadness and fear that still existed there so affected Dr. Frank, she asked herself what she could do, given her history and background, to make things even a little bit better. Harnessing those palpable feelings of strife, the creative professor set out to strike a chord of peace in the best way she knew how.

“The concept became ‘how do I present an alternative to military solutions?’ she says.

“Jerusalem, A Painting Toward Peace” was the result. The artwork, completed in 2004, was inspired by the scenic view upon the approach to the city and includes references to the old city wall, the Golden Gate, King David’s Gate and the Dome of the Rock. The 69-inch-by-104-inch piece is illuminated by four different types of 22-karat gold leaf, mica and egg tempera on Belgian linen, and combines images of an historic Islamic floral motif and the Star of David to represent peace.

From the beginning, creating the art was both cathartic and inspiring for Ms. Frank. As she was still painting “Jerusalem,” the seeds of a plan to tell the stories of other war-torn cities, including Sarajevo, Monrovia, Hiroshima, Lhasa, Baghdad, and New York, were sewn. Traveling to those places and gathering the information she needed left a permanent imprint and the need to do whatever she could to further peace.

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“Visiting these places of destruction knocked me to my knees,” says Dr. Frank. “I knew that moving forward was needed.”

In 2005, approximately a year after completing the “Jerusalem” painting she opened the doors to her atelier and created the Ellen Frank Illumination Arts Foundation and the Cities of Peace arts initiative in East Hampton. The idea was to visualize the creation of artwork representing cities that have survived conflict and trauma by honoring the history and culture of the lands, ultimately using hopeful energy to celebrate the best of the human spirit and transforming anguish into beauty, says Ms. Frank. Inviting intern artists from all over the world to study with her, the award-winning artist and academic (she’s been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts honor, a Ford Foundation Fellowship, Pollock-Krasner Award in Painting, etc.) has built a non-profit global initiative dedicated to the transformative power of art to build a culture of understanding and, hopefully, eventual peace.

During the last decade, the artwork from Cities of Peace, which later included the additions of paintings representing Kabul and Beijing, travelled the world. But this past year marked a turning point, reports Dr. Frank.


In January, pieces from the exhibit traveled to the 70th Commemoration of the Liberation of Auschwitz in Poland and a “The House of Silence” roundtable of Polish artists in Auschwitz. And for the final three months of 2015, Dr. Frank was invited by former Armenian Prime Minister Armen Darbinyan to his home country to create her tenth Cities of Peace painting, “Yerevan: To Know Wisdom,” onsite with a group of two dozen Armenian artists. It was unveiled in December at the National Gallery of Armenia to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

“I was impressed by the philosophy of the concept, its depth and high esthetic value,” says Mr. Darbinyan of Cities of Peace. “This was a year commemorating the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide, to which I had a great inner call to contribute personally … ‘Yerevan: To Know Wisdom’ is a unique tribute to the Armenian history and culture, our hard-won but great heritage.”

Accompanied by Dalia Lane, the wife of the former Prime Minister, and an historian, Dr. Frank traveled to monasteries, temples and museums during her visit to Armenia. During her time gathering information, she was struck by two things: the beauty of the spirit of the people and the need for them to heal.

Travelling to Armenia and collaborating with local artists was invigorating, she says. Never before had the artist and academic experienced such an opportunity to live and create side-by-side with an indigenous population highlighted by Cities of Peace. The entire process symbolized “rapprochement,” she adds. Working with a multi-national group of artists—including more than 20 Armenians, an Israeli living in Berlin and a pair of Slovenians—on a canvas of donated Belgian linen with gold leaf donated from Italy and paint donated from the United States, was momentous.

“This was to be a transformative painting,” she says of “Yerevan.” “It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.”

The painting, which employs five different types of gold, is a celebration of Armenia’s ancient history and multilayered culture. It includes representation of Armenia’s capital cities, a circa-1865 map of Yerevan and symbols representing the Tree of Life and features the sacred letters of the Armenian alphabet (conceived in 405 A.D. by Mesrop Mashtots as birds and their “the wings for the nation to fly into the future”) and the first sentence ever written in it—“To know wisdom and guidance; to perceive the words of insight, from the Book of Proverbs in The Bible—which is repeated on 42 lines.

The success of the tenth Cities of Peace painting has opened more doors for future creations, reports Dr. Frank. In April, she’s planning on a large European tour. And she’s already in progress for the next two pieces of artwork—Berlin and Auschwitz. The dream, she says, is to show the paintings next to one another.

“Yes, there was a time for artwork to show the horrors of war, but now it’s time to celebrate beauty and open up the gateways of peace,” she says, wiping tears from her eyes. “By acknowledging the greatness, we inspire hope and we start to build a world that doesn’t want to engage in violence any more.”