I met painter Ellen Altfest at artist Will Cotton’s annual bake-off. Wondering who was the reigning champion, someone pointed to Ellen, wearing a vintage silk blouse with illustrated bacon eggs up and down her billowy sleeves. Last year, she adapted a recipe from the Alice B. Toklas cookbook, and her celebrated cake hit all of the criteria with a winning mix of cultural significance, artful presentation, and superior taste. Over plates brimming with experimental confections, Ellen described her cake as an attempt, “to bring people back to an earlier time.” One week later, I was standing in her bright yellow, retro kitchen, lined with 50s salt and pepper shakers and needlepoint, Ellen wearing a dress from her collection of vintage Marimekko designs. That impulse towards time travel revealed itself as a larger theme.
Ellen Altfest only makes one painting a year. That might seem like a long time to complete a single work, but take a close look at any one of Ellen’s paintings, and it makes sense. Her subjects are the natural world and male anatomy, and she meticulously renders every single hair or blade of grass within each unabashedly detailed work. Ellen works by the light of the sun, using live models or painting detailed slices of nature en plein air, which means she must reckon with forces larger than herself — available sunlight, the schedules and commitment of her figure models, and the changing of the seasons. So the recent blizzard was a rare window of salad-making opportunity, too dark and stormy for the light to stream into her studio windows, and possibly the only way I could pry her from her work to cook with me at home.
I trudged through the snow to Ellen’s upper east side apartment. The moment she opened the door, a shadow of terror wafted over her face. Ellen had assumed I was bringing the salad, and I had assumed she had it all planned out. We had no choice but to suit-up and brave the elements again, this time, in the form of the East 86th street Fairway market. We paced the aisles, Ellen divulging, “I am really more of a baker than a cook. To be honest, I don’t cook much at all! Ha!” She requested a “lifeline” and called a friend, praying she would answer the phone and guide her through what had suddenly become a daunting task. She tried her husband, writer Rob Colvin, but both calls were cruelly directed to voicemail. Modern communication failing her, Ellen had to look within.
We took a moment, staring blankly before the wall of vegetables. Ellen channeled that which occupies 90% of her brain space — her most recent painting, entirely green in color, with a central green circle. It reminded her of a recipe in the Monet cookbook, one of many in her collection of artist’s cookbooks. “Monet made his own birthday cake out of spinach. I think of it as a real painter’s cake, concerned with color more anything else. My salad will be an all green salad, like Monet’s green birthday cake. It will connect to my painting in nature…I guess I’m really elevating the salad now, ha!” Letting loose her boisterous, intensely lovable, cackle, Ellen grabbed every green thing she could find — peas, brussel sprouts, frisée, romanesco. I suggested a walnut pesto dressing, and a newly inspired Ellen is unstoppable.
What might appear to be a distracting detour, was actually the most appropriate introduction to Ellen herself. She’s the most serious painter I’ve ever met, who, delightfully, does not take herself too seriously. As we tried and light the pilot on her stove (a testament to how often she cooks), she added, “Once, when I was cooking at my in-law’s house, I lit one of my favorite shirts on fire! Ha!” Listening to the recording of our time together, I can barely make out the sound of our voices amidst the crashes and jangles of Ellen digging through what seem to be unfamiliar kitchen drawers, filled with antique tools and stylish hand towels. It took five hours for us to finally “make a salad,” I if I had it all to do over again, I wouldn’t speed it up one bit.