Picture This: Senior sketching future on artistic endeavors

Ellie Skrzat, a senior in the Schreyer Honors College, is an experienced storyteller — but she tells stories in ways you might not expect.

Give Skrzat the story of Joe Paterno’s life and she’ll create a colorful portrait with pastels that gets hundreds of “likes” on Facebook. Give her one word at the start of an improv show, and within minutes, she’ll produce a monologue that will leave an audience in fits of laughter.

Skrzat, a fine arts major in the College of Arts and Architecture and a senior in the Schreyer Honors College, has concentrations in drawing and painting — skills she has used to produce illustrations for local and national news sites including Onward State and Slate.

“Illustrating is the perfect combination of the right and left parts of my brain,” Skrzat said. “Not only are you showing that you understand how to paint and render an image, but also that you can comprehend a text and give some kind of commentary on it.”

Ghislaine Fremaux, an assistant visiting professor of art at Penn State, has become familiar with Skrzat’s work in her capacity as Skrzat’s thesis adviser.

“Ellie’s art is clearly influenced by the camaraderie that's so present in her own life,” Fremaux said. “She loves, appreciates and marvels at people. There cannot be portraiture of such high order without that. Her art is informed by her wit, her intelligence and articulateness. That seems to have conditioned her articulate handling of paint to match—frank, astute, keenly attentive and descriptive but never verbose.”

Being articulate also comes in handy in Skrzat’s role as president of Penn State’s Full Ammo Improv Troupe, which she has been a member of since her freshman year.

Full Ammo’s shows — which happen twice a month — begin when an audience member gives the troupe a word. That word prompts one troupe member’s opening monologue. After that, the group takes the theme and runs with it for an hour of improv.

“As it is with illustrating, with improv, you start with a story and have the chance to make it your own,” Skrzat said. “It’s all about listening to the people who you’re on stage with and responding to what they’re doing.”

For her honors thesis, Skrzat is combining her passion for painting and performance. She has created an exhibit of animated still lifes of food. The animations, reminiscent of food representation in 90’s pop culture, are projected onto table surfaces in the gallery.

“I want the show to elicit an emotional response from the audience,” Skrzat wrote in her thesis proposal. “My thesis explores the value of food in millennial culture and addresses issues concerning the contortion of something that we need for survival into a fetishized, emotionally charged object. My research traces the representation of food throughout history and is an attempt to uncover the origins of psychological issues about food.

“My goal is to create a surreal experience, filled with brightly colored, constantly moving plates of food. I want the viewer to be confronted by a strange confluence between visual stimulation and appetite stimulation. I want the show to elicit an emotional response from the audience while the pieces themselves remain fun and light. I want to better understand how my generation is attracted to food and how pop culture distorts that attraction.”

The result of all of the painting and the development of the show’s theme is, Skrzat says, just as difficult and time-consuming as the research projects some of her friends have undertaken.

For big projects like this one, Skrzat plugs in her headphones and gets to work in her on-campus studio.

“The moments leading up to putting paint on canvas, I sometimes wonder if I even remember what to do,” Skrzat said. “About a minute into the process, though, I get in the zone. Every brush stroke is a problem in some way, and you become obsessed with continuously fixing the problems until you have an image that you're happy with. When it comes to my art, I’m my own worst critic, and it can be challenging to deal with that pressure of wanting to get it just right.”

But Skrzat also knows how and when to work quickly. When she sketched the drawing of Joe Paterno, it took her less than an hour.

“My friend who also worked for Onward State called to tell me that Joe Paterno was dying and urged me to go draw something right away,” Skrzat said. “I ran home from the dining hall and drew it in half an hour.”

Skrzat ended up selling the drawing and donating all proceeds—$1,075—to the Penn State Dance Marathon.

Last summer, Skrzat continued on her path of combining journalism and art. She had internships in New York City for two well-known national blogs, Slate.com and xojane.com.

At Slate, a daily national news and culture magazine, Skrzat was able to produce a few illustrations in addition to her day-to-day photo editing tasks. For a series about skyjackers — the people who hijacked nearly 160 American flights in the 1960s and 1970s —Skrzat was tasked with finding photos to accompany the stories about each skyjacker. When it was proving difficult to find the rights to certain photos, Skrzat quickly sketched of one of the skyjackers and brought the drawing into her editor’s office.

A few editorial decisions later, those sketches — and the stories they went with — ended up on Slate’s homepage.

“Through Schreyer, I learned that any bit of initiative is enough to get you noticed by people who will appreciate it, and that’s exactly what I did at Slate,” Skrzat said. “I had an idea, and I seized an opportunity to share it.”

After graduating, Skrzat hopes to work at a publication like Slate or xojane.com with the eventual goal of doing freelance illustrations. Though fewer journalism publications are hiring these days, Skrzat said she thinks there will always be a need for illustrators.

“Illustrations provide something that photos don’t because, while they’re technically journalism, they have more of an artistic voice,” Skrzat said. “I think there will always be a place for illustrations.”

And while harnessing her creativity isn’t always easy, Skrzat is confident in her ability to continue to come up with new ways to tell a story — no matter what the medium.

“When I was just getting started, I didn’t think I could rely on myself to constantly generate ideas about how to interpret certain things, whether that’s events or people or images,” Skrzat said. “But I learned to be confident in my ability to consistently be creative. It’s not a skill that’s just going to go away.”

To see more of Skrzat's work and see animations from her thesis exhibit, visit EllieSkrzat.com.

Last Updated April 07, 2014