JoAnn Crisp-Ellert gazes off into space. She is thinking of an old stone house nearly 600 miles away, in upstate New York. The house, built in 1803, overlooks the mighty St. Lawrence River toward Canada.
The house is inhabited by ghosts. Not unfriendly ghosts, you understand, but the ghosts of an aristocratic French family that lived there nearly two centuries ago, playing harpsichord or violin in "la chambre de la musique," entertaining visiting royalty from across the sea, strolling through the stately gardens on sunny summer afternoons.
Imagine: the lazy blue bottles buzzing, the crunch of gravel as a horse-drawn carriage pulls up at the front gate, the coquettish ladies in their bustled finery, all so long ago.
"I'm attempting to recreate a past," says Crisp-Ellert of "The Stone House: Fans & Phantoms," her new installation at Gallery 10 through May 18. "I'm trying to tell the viewer that I paint in a place that affects my work. I had in mind the broad vista of the St. Lawrence from the Stone House grounds. Until she and her husband Bob bought it, it was neglected for years. I've used artifacts from the house in the work."
These artifacts -- period chairs, ornately carved stools, stone and iron candle holders, an old arched window frame -- are juxtaposed with flamboyant, abstract wooden cutouts, painted in bright blues, lime greens, roses and purples. It would seem an impossible, jarring combination, but it works.
"The abstract forms reveal the starkness," says Crisp-Ellert, an associate professor of fine arts at the University of Virginia and an art specialist with the Arlington County School System. "When you're there sometimes it feels so stark, lonely. There are times when it's frightening, and times when it's joyous.
"I've felt presences there -- in the music room, for example. I think it was one of the places the family used to gather together a lot.
"The spiky abstract forms are, to me, very organic. But I'm also trying to get this sunburst feeling, like fire or flowers. I want the viewer to feel a sense of this place, from room to room. When I'm there, I'm always aware of the fact that I can't possibly ever bring the old place back to what it once was, a really grand house. So I want to get a sense of the past."
Walking through the various rooms of the gallery, on Connecticut Avenue at Dupont Circle, one does get a sense of the past. As incongruous as these misplaced objects seem initially, they have been carefully chosen to represent various rooms in the Stone House, and their arrangement becomes clear.
"I used to paint a lot of flowers, and do portraits," says Crisp-Ellert, "and even now, I'm not entirely away from naturalism. But I've gotten to the point where I've pushed color very far. The concept here is to have jarring colors . . .
"I planned the palette out in the beginning and used it all the way. The purple which is the predominant color in the show stands for royalty. Some of Napoleon's relatives used to stay at the Stone House. In fact, it was built for him if he ever made it to America. The French aristocracy still visits there occasionally.
"I like the bright purples and greens sitting next to each other. It may look a bit strange to some people, but I think you can do it."
The gay colors in this show, behind and around the old objects, evoke a childlike feeling, enhancing the implicit nostalgia of the installation. Without understanding what prompted the work, the viewer may have difficulty understanding what Crisp-Ellert is driving at, but her arrangements command attention. And once one views the work in the context explained in the catalogue, one discovers that these arrangements, like old Flemish still lifes, possess a naive charm.
"I always work better if I have a theme," she says.