Her evergreen just had to be blue

There is nary a splotch of forest green or holly berry red to be found in this corner of Odetta, an art gallery in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, N.Y. Instead, it is awash in blues, from the artwork on the walls to a patchwork of painted patterns on the concrete floor. Amid it all sits a Christmas tree fashioned out of black wrought-iron easels, covered in a rich, matte layer of ultramarine paint.

In the waning light of day, something interesting is happening. A color that seemingly should be receding into the shadows is, instead, casting a bit of a white glow. Remember the great online dress debate earlier this year — white-and-gold or blue-and-black? It’s a little like that. At times, given a person’s ocular physiology and conditions of background illumination, viewers can see white when they should be seeing blue.

It’s different from feeling blue, of course, though Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” partly inspires Ellen Hackl Fagan’s holiday celebrations at her home in Greenwich. The artist, who opened Odetta about a year ago, goes with all blue lights for her tree and outdoor decorations. “I love those old bulbous color ones, but I can’t seem to find them.”

On this afternoon, she is sharing her latest creation, the tree she created for S Magazine’s holiday issue. With two easels forming the triangular base, she has fashioned a star from the supports of several easels. It takes center stage in the space she uses as a studio and office. “There was nowhere else for me to go,” she says of the impetus behind the design. A tree meant to embody the spirit of Fagan’s art just had to be blue.

Back in 1981, she had experienced how cobalt blue at dawn and twilight could appear white. Through a painting she had done in college, Fagan had been trying to depict sound through image. Discovering there was more to learn, she was convinced to continue her work.

For more than 30 years, Fagan has attempted to visualize sound through color in her pieces — deep, saturated colors that she uses in paintings, photography and interactive projects, including the Reverse Color Organ and ColorSoundGrammar Game, that call on viewers to explore the aural element of color. She and her collaborators are looking for a color/sound grammar that resonates with people, seeking patterns in how colors are matched with musical notes. While all color resonates, last year she decided to go back to the source — the color that started it all. “Seeking the Sound of Cobalt Blue” is a series that began with small works on paper and has grown to large installations of watercolor and pigments.

She trusted that the ultramarine paint, deeper and warmer than cobalt, would do its job, giving the Christmas tree structure a bit of an inner light with no other lights needed.

“I’m at the age now that I totally trust my materials and consider myself a co-conspirator or facilitator. It’s an egoless process. I feel like I am a jazz musician. … I am playing off my friend and it just happens to be color.

“See that painting in the corner, the one that looks like it’s 3-D,” she says, pointing to a large-scale work past the left point of the star. “I had put paper on the floor over there, over paint and ink. So that was just air, air did that. You can’t replicate that. You can create the scenario again, but never duplicate it. It is a very organic thing.”

The tree holds a simple and elegant charm, devoid of decoration, but rich in color and form. “I thought these were very lyrical shapes,” Fagan says, pointing out the curved hooks that were intended for canvases and sketchpads. “It’s very Dr. Seussian to me. If Cindy Lou Who had a tree, those would be the branches.”

As to other influences, it’s a “tree” that would be right at home in a grove of Scandinavian mid-century modern structures or a stand of spare ironworks. But will it be in the Fagan home for the holidays?

“I told my (three grown) sons that it might be a minimal blue tree this year.”

chennessy@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @xtinahennessy

Christina Hennessy