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Ellen Harvey, an international conceptual artist with degrees from Harvard College and Yale Law School, recently conceived a pair of professional titles for herself — titles surely unique in the world of New York law firm associates. She is “a friend” at Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, said Harvey recently while at the site of her latest exhibition of witty paintings, “A Whitney for the Whitney at Altria.” “And I suppose that I’m also the black sheep of the firm,” she added. “I quit in my third year, back in ’96. But Cleary puts up with me. In ’98, I started working during the summers.” Born in Britain to English and German parents, raised in Wisconsin, fluent in German and French and Portuguese, Harvey seemed just the right young lawyer to handle securities matters for Cleary clients at the Frankfurt office. The 35-year-old artist with sometimes spotty income was happy to oblige. “Like most people, I had a hard time imagining how I’d live as an artist,” she said. “And after an expensive education, my parents felt I should do something respectable. They were right. But I kept painting, of course, and I had shows while I was [full-time] at Cleary. “But it became apparent that it had to be one thing or the other.” It was equally apparent to Cleary that the Frankfurt, Germany office had special staffing problems. “There aren’t that many German speakers in the firm, and Ellen is a very talented lawyer,” said Michael L. Ryan, a New York partner who handles mergers and acquisitions and securities offerings. “For her, the opportunity to spend two months going back to the legal grind and making enough to support herself for the rest of the year was appealing. For us, it was impossible to pass up the opportunity and convenience of having someone of Ellen’s talents.” Ryan has invented his own Cleary title for Harvey: “Incredibly valued associate alumnus and valuable member of the community.” The gulf between doing deals for Cleary and painting pictures to build her increasingly solid niche in the world of art is not so great as people might first think, Harvey said. “A lot of my pieces are about problem solving, it’s concept-driven,” said Harvey of her art. “I like fitting pieces of a puzzle together — making implicit desires explicit. “That’s like being a lawyer — getting what your client wants, even if he doesn’t know what he wants.” It is one thing to be an artist in attorney’s drag, but now that Harvey is pretty much a full-time painter — with commissions stacked up through next year, in New York and Warsaw and Berlin — just what does Harvey’s arty friends think of her lawyerly past? “They’re surprised,” she said. “Then they start asking me questions about their leases.” Artists might be well counseled to take Harvey’s example by going to law school and then working at a firm such as Cleary. “What I got from Cleary is this: I worked very, very hard, and I work harder now as a result,” she said. “To be an artist — or a lawyer — requires organization, and, of course, the willingness to work hard. “It is so hard to make a living as an artist. It’s not lucrative, it’s not stable,” she said. “I say to myself all the time — Oh, now I’m rich, now I’m poor, now I’m rich again.” CURRENT EXHIBIT With her current exhibit — on view at the Whitney Altria, East 42nd Street at Park Avenue, through early April — Harvey is well on her way to at least critical wealth. Ken Johnson, art critic for The New York Times, said of Harvey’s five-month effort at duplicating virtually the entire uptown Whitney collection on postcard-size copies for the midtown Altria display “an ambitious exercise in institutional critique … that calls museums and other art organizations to task for compliance with socially regressive tendencies.” Prior to the Whitney Altria exhibit, Harvey garnered a flurry of favorable press notices for her “New York Beautification Project,” in which she painted copies of classic dreamy landscapes over graffiti-scarred Dumpsters and doorways of the Bronx and Queens. Because she is preparing to exhibit at the Museum for Contemporary Art later this year in Warsaw, Harvey said, “I’m learning Polish. I like languages.” Ryan and others at Cleary like her pluck. “Many of us have followed her career, and purchased her art,” said Ryan. “But it’s always with a sense of schizophrenia. Once she sells her pieces for $200,000 a pop, it’s going to be hard to lure her back to Frankfurt in humid August.”

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