Ely Kish

Recreating A Vanished World

By Dr. Sean Costello

(reprinted with permission)

The big woman stands hunched before the vast blank canvas, head cocked forward on shoulders as strong as any man’s. A stray lock of hair hangs unheeded over a brow that is furrowed with concentration, and long, knowing fingers guide a brush that is not yet there. The prodigious canvas is the most intimidating she has faced in a lifelong career, and the most compelling. To those milling purposefully about her, it is a seamless white wall, worthy of only the most cursory scrutiny. But to the feisty, rugged woman who now stands dwarfed before it, all manner of wonder has begun to stir within its boundaries.

Briny ocean water seeps in from an unseen corner, flooding the canvas and giving it depth. Life begins to appear, sleek and aquatic, arrowing up from the shaded fathoms. The species seem at first familiar, scaled and gilled, wall-eyed and unremarkable. But gradually, impossible shapes begin to congeal in the misted depths, beasts of alarming proportion and long-extinct grace, creatures of a godless age about to be resurrected. Not content merely to visualize them, she propels them about the canvas, creating a blood battle here or a feeding frenzy there, imbuing these brutes with a life no human has ever witnessed. Slowly, methodically, she choreographs this forgotten assemblage, until the images burn in her memory.

For Ely Kish, artist, creation begins like this, a ghostly birth through squinted eyes. What follows is a lengthy period of preparation. The artist will create upwards of twenty meticulously detailed carvings of the various prehistoric sea creatures her 14 by 150 foot canvas will include. That done, she will go on to produce a series of scale drawings in pencil, followed by a panoramic series of oils, also done to scale. Of the two years this venture is slated to take, this preparatory phase will consume the lion’s share.

Entitled “Life in the Ancient Seas” this landmark mural will grace the celebrated galleries of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in Washington. Chosen from a competing group of internationally acclaimed artists, Ely is already hard to work on this immense undertaking. Its completion will mark the highpoint of a career which began a lifetime ago, in a small Newark farmhouse in New Jersey. Born in 1924, Ely Kish has moved single-mindedly toward this accomplishment, a voyage that began the first time her chubby child’s hand pushed a new Crayola across an unmarked page.

From New Jersey, where she spent her formative years, Ely described a nomadic course through the United States, drawing, painting and building for a living. While it was often a lean, hand-to-mouth existence, Ely rarely lost heart. “When I need it, it comes,” she says of the funds upon which she subsists. This dauntless belief in an essentially kind Fate has seen her a long way. From the States, where she exhibited at the Cleveland Museum of Art, she dipped south to Mexico. Here her native works were displayed in the Museo de Allende. The late fifties found her an entire continent away, in Canada, where her talents were fast to flourish. Employing her uncanny eye, in conjunction with an inborn sense of physical laws, she constructed as much as she designed, wielding hammer and saw with the same easy mastery as the trained professional. “If I can watch it being done, I can do it.” Bold words, but proven time after time. As her reputation in the Ottawa area burgeoned, Ely was able to lean more toward the finer arts, where her true love lay. Gradually, her works found their way into galleries of local prestige, Gallery Five, and Wallach’s Gallery in Ottawa.

But the real turning point for this prolific artist came in 1974, when she was invited to paint a “Thanksgiving Mural” for the reopening of the National Museum of Man in Ottawa. It was during the completion of this work that Ely met a man whose tireless ambition would soon change her life. A paleobiologist attached to the museum, Dr. Dale Russell saw in Ely’s art the perfect medium for the illustration of his dreams. Thus began her immersion into the world of prehistory. The ten paintings which sprang from this union have been reproduced in Russell’s book, A Vanished World: The Dinosaurs of Western Canada, and are currently part of a ten-year travelling exhibit, which will end with the decade and span the entire country. The impact of these paintings led to a commission from the Smithsonian Institution for another four, all of which appear in The American Land, published by the same institution. In addition, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History provided an enormous, 37 by 40 foot canvas for Ely’s genius; in return, Ely created a towering, sun-drenched vista of unimaginable lifeforms. Her list of accomplishments mushrooms outward from here: dozens of plates taken from her paintings and employed in a half-dozen major hardcover publications; television productions ranging as far afield as the BBC in London and including a feature spot on The Nature of Things, hosted by David Suzuki; illustrated articles in almost a dozen magazines, including such notable titles as Equinox and Horizon: The Magazine of the Arts. The commission which perhaps best illustrates Ely’s growing international appeal is the oil on canvas she recently completed for the National Museum of Natural Science in Taiwan.

And the list goes on.

But there is much more to Ely Kish than mastodons and murals. If magic exists, its lines of force impinge on this woman. Something eerie takes place when Ely settles her eye on a prospective subject, be it a misty landscape or a lounging nude, a fidgeting child or a strutting white goose. Some mystic process is brought into play. “Its like I’m not controlling it,” the artist will tell you in a dreamy whisper, her eyes aglitter with awe . . . and perhaps a little fear. “Its like its flowing through me, from the outside.” And to watch her work is to witness this process. With each sure stroke of pencil or brush the veneer of her subject is pared away. Ely Kish can sit you down and look straight into your secret heart, composing on paper an image which may unsettle you with its telling accuracy, but which most assuredly will please and astound you. What she creates is more than art. It is a moment in time, preparing to shift, about to give voice to the thought or whim which just a heartbeat before had held it in thrall. She is intimately linked to both the physical and spiritual worlds, fascinated by the myriad machinations of the human mind, sensitive to the suffering of others. No medium is closed to her. In her mind there reside masterpieces as yet unrealized, works which will embody all of mankind that has outraged her, and all that has given her cause to rejoice. She is one of the great masters, and in time the world will revere her.



Born March 17, 1924 in Newark, New Jersey under the name of Kiss, changed to Kish in 1973, daughter of Eugene Kiss (painter, decorator & actor) and Teresa Bittman (mother of seven children)


Essex county vocational school in productive art 1942; Institute of Fine Art, 4 years; Fine Art in California with Ejnar Hansen and Julian Ritter; San Miguel de Allende 1949 to 1951.

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