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Excerpt from: Ray Ellis in Retrospect
From the time I was a small boy, I knew I wanted to be an artist. I have always wondered what ignited this fierce desire at such an early age, was it something in my genes, or was it nurture, something that was transmitted to me from my parents love of art? I still don’t know the answer, but I do know that painting has always been as essential to my life as drawing my next breath. I have to do it in order to survive.
By all accounts, my birth in Philadelphia on April 24, 1921, was totally unremarkable. I was taken home to Lismore Avenue in Glenside, Pennsylvania, to meet my two sisters, Peg and Jeanne, and eight other members of the Ellis family, all residents of the same street. At one point, twentytwo Ellises lived on Lismore Avenue. This extended family granted me an enormous amount of security and blessed me with the happiest childhood imaginable.
My mother, Helen Trapier, was of French Huguenot descent, her ancestors having left Grenoble to settle on a rice plantation in South Carolina. She was the daughter of William Windham Trapier, who took up civil engineering in Philadelphia, where he met my grandmother, Roberta Roberts, an oil painter. My fathers family was of Welsh and Irish heritage. George Wilson Ellis, my grandfather, was born in Pennsylvania, where he married Annie Mary Light and went into business for himself as a blacksmith. Later involved in local politics, he eventually served two terms in the Pennsylvania legislature. My father, Raymond Grant Ellis, named after Ulysses S. Grant, briefly taught school before securing a job at the Philadelphia Bulletin and starting night art classes at Drexel Institute under the illustrator Howard Pyle. It was there he met my mother, an aspiring watercolorist.
On many Sundays after church&nmdash;and on all holidayswe would walk up the street to my grandparent’s house, headquarters for all the family on the block. If we didn’t go there, the whole family would walk out to the fields around Glenside to sketch or take the streetcar to visit museums in Philadelphia. My favorites were the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. My father would lecture us on values, composition, and the use of color as we walked around looking at the masterpieces. Even at that age, I was captivated by such painters as Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Childe Hassam, and Daniel Garber, the way they achieved richness of color and their apparent ease of execution. The year 1929 brought both the Great Depression and the birth of my brother Dick. The latter was a joyous event. The depression, however, was very somber for everyone. Somehow my parents found the money to send me on several occasions to camp near Shawnee on the Delaware River. I especially remember a counselor who encouraged me to do at least one sketch a day. I returned home with a whole portfolio.
In school, I got good marks, but as time went on my grades suffered more and more. All I wanted to do was draw and paint. Mrs. Hartman, my art teacher, was a great source of encouragement and inspiration. I drew all the posters for school events, painted backdrops for plays, and even took a night course in political cartooning at Temple University. On my second attempt to graduate from high school in 1939, the guidance counselor recommended that I take my portfolio and apply to art school. That year, I was accepted at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art.
The teaching at the Museum School was very traditional, especially the first year. We began by doing charcoal drawings from plaster casts of classical Greek sculptures. The training I receivedthe history of art, perspective, color theory, and so onwas, in retrospect, essential for a painter of any technique. We learned anatomy from one of the textbooks used by medical students and in the second half of freshman year drew from live models. For an inexperienced eighteenyearold, life class was quite an epiphany! Two elderly professors, Frank Copeland and John Dull, taught us watercolor in the traditional manner. The execution was tedious and tight, with light washes, and we were not allowed to use gouache or white paint. I realized then how difficult a medium watercolor was to control. Ironically, it was watercolor I chose to use for thirty years, even though I studied oil painting in my second year and found it easier and more forgiving. I had to make some money to help pay for school, so I got a night job in the art department of the Philadelphia Evening Ledger. I would finish classes about three o’clock, run back to my room, study for two hours, eat dinner, and dash to the Ledger. At two in the morning I would run home, catch a few winks, and head back to classes. The guys on the night shift did various mundane tasks, such as masking out halftones, but once in a while we would be given the glamorous job of coloring the Sunday comics.
By the end of the summer of 1941, my friends and I felt great pressure to do something for the war effort. Even though I was only halfway through the Museum School, I left and took a job at a defense plant, fully intending to return when the war was over. Then came Pearl Harbor, and all our lives changed. My friends quickly joined every branch of the armed forces; my love of water pointed me toward the U.S. Coast Guard. I signed up in March 1942 and began my tour of duty in Portland that fall, where we patrolled the harbor for German saboteurs. While stationed there, I managed to spend some time at the Portland Museum of Art, where I was introduced to the director, Alexander Bauer, a wellknown Maine painter. Despite the difference in our ages, we became great friends. He encouraged me to continue my painting, gave me a studio in exchange for teaching a life class at night, and asked me to enter one of my paintings in an exhibition. Boats in Winter, a watercolor of sailboats in dry dock in Portland Harbor, was the first painting I had ever shown in a museum.
I soon got my rating as quartermaster and was assigned to the cutter Kickapoo. With Rockland as our home port, we sailed all over Casco, Penobscot, and Blue Hill Bays alongside the magnificent, rugged beauty of the Maine coast. I continued painting, and though I never excelled in watercolor in school it became my medium shipboard, since all I needed was a small palette, paper, and a few brushes.
After a year and a half, the Kickapoo was ordered to Provincetown, Massachusetts. We returned to port each night, which allowed me to meet some of the local people. An older couple, the Freelands, took me under their wing and gave me studio space in their barn. One of my favorite painters of the sea, Frederick Waugh, had lived in Provincetown. Although he had died a few years earlier, his studio was still intact. There I met his widow, surrounded by his magnificent seascapes.
Waughs' approach to painting fascinated me. He evidently would sit on the rocks by the hour, with no paints, simply studying the sea, the way it came in and the way it rushed out. Afterward, he would go back to his studio and paint a huge seascape. That impressed me a great deal. In the same way, I spent a lot of my free time on the Kickapoo and later in the South Pacific just studying the water and committing what I saw to memory.
In 1944, I requested a transfer to the Pacific and soon found myself on a troop train bound for California. The "Coasties" were placed aboard the USS Corpus Christi, and in May we departed for Cairns, Australia. When we reached the Great Barrier Reef, I began sketching the cliffs and terrain as much as time allowed.
A week after the armistice, the Corpus Christi sailed to San Francisco. I was flown back east and discharged in October 1945. I had originally intended to go back to art school, but like most men on my ship, I was eager to make up for lost time. My dream was to paint and find a wife. I got a job as an art director at an advertising agency in Philadelphia, where the owner assured me that I would "learn more in six months than in two years of art school." I now had a job and the freedom to paint nights and weekends. I fulfilled the second part of my shipboard dream when I married Elizabeth (Bets) Ketchum in June 1946. Our honeymoon took me back to Maine and Cape Cod, where I again painted voraciously.
It was Bets who suggested that I quit my job and start painting for a living. So that’s what I did, supplementing my income with freelance art for ad agencies. In 1948 I had a show of fifty watercolors at the Pennsylvania Academy. I will never forget the thrill of seeing the banner proclaiming "Ray Ellis Watercolors" hanging outside the academy and having a show on the very walls where I had admired paintings on family trips in my youth.
Bets was expecting our first child, George, and it became very obvious that I could not support a family on the fickle sales of paintings. I took a fulltime position with a firm that supplied art for ads and publications. The job kept me in touch with the art field and allowed me to continue painting after work in my makeshift studio on the sunporch. On weekends I would drive out to places like nearby Bucks County and immerse myself in plein air painting.
The next six years saw the births of three more children&mndash;Andy, Peggy, and Libbyand several changes in jobs and residences. In 1954 I formed my own ad business. We bought a house in Avalon on the Jersey shore, and I spent my vacations and weekends painting the picturesque villages from there to Cape May. I also purchased a thirtyfoot boat, which allowed me to do subjects from the water. Strike, the first painting I had accepted at the American Watercolor Society show at the National Academy, was painted aboard the Wishin.
In 1964, I became a member the Salmagundi Club in New York, the oldest art club in America. I loved stopping by for lunch or dinner and joining the round table of artists who gathered there. Ogden Pleissner, Everett Raymond Kinstler, Henry Nordhausen, and Ranulph Bye became mentors as well as good friends. A powerful influence on me in the late 1960s was Norman Kent, a painter and editor of American Artist magazine who became a close friend and adviser. He asked me why I didn’t try oils after doing watercolors exclusively for thirty years. I explained that I found oils a heavy medium and that I felt I couldn’t get the same looseness as in watercolor. He suggested handling oils as I did watercolor, using turpentine rather than water as the carrier for the medium. I tried his suggestion, found it worked, and have been using the technique ever since. I now do at least halfand maybe moreof my paintings in oil, thanks to Norman.
In 1969 I closed my business. Fortyeight years old, I was able to paint fulltime again. Three years later, Bets died very suddenly. I sold our houses and moved with my daughter Libby to Morristown so she could finish high school. That summer I was introduced to Elizabeth (Libby) Wallace. We traveled all over the world, to Europe, Africa, and the Far East. I always carried my watercolor supplies on these trips and painted extensively. Some of the ones I did of African animals and tribesmen are among my favorites. We began to spend summers in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard and bought a beach house on Hilton Head Island just prior to our marriage in 1974.
The time I spent on Hilton Head was extremely rewarding. I met many accomplished artists who were living and working on the islandRalph Ballantine, Joe Bowler, Joe DeMers, Elizabeth Grant, Walter Greer, Marge Parker, George Plante, and Coby Whitmoreand every Thursday the whole group gathered at the Red Piano, where we discussed anything and everything related to painting. I also painted often in my studio at the Edgartown house. The view of the lighthouse, boats, and harbor from my picture window was a constant source of inspiration.
I am often asked how I developed my style, and I explain what I call my "funnel theory." I have always kept a large library of art books on painters I admireHomer, Sargent, Pleissner, Claude Monet, N.C. and Andrew Wyeth, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, and so onand pore through these volumes on an almost daily basis, pulling out things I especially like and putting them in my head. What comes out in my brushwork is a synthesis of all of these influences, sifted from my head into my hands to become my own individual style. My paintings form a visual diary, reflecting all I’ve seen, been, and experienced. Reviewing one of my exhibitions, the New York Times critic David L. Shirey noted the sense of being at the scene that I want my works to convey: "In each of his watercolors, we can almost judge where the sun or the moon is in the sky. We can tell whether the wet is from a recent or an older rain. Snow is defined in its thickness and in its frailty, while fog can be as thick as the most tumultuous of heavy seas. The houses show their scars as victims of time and the thrashings of weather.”
This period of my life came to a close in January 1980, when Libby and I separated. I left the Hilton Head house with my art supplies, a few clothes, and my yellownaped Amazon parrot, Rama. Several months later I moved to Savannah, Georgia.
I loved living in Savannah. It is such a unique city, with beautiful architecture, squares full of oak trees draped in Spanish moss, AfricanAmericans playing checkers with bottle caps, and huge container ships plying the Savannah Riverall fabulous subjects to paint. People were extremely warm and friendly, and the more I reached out, the more I began to feel at home. Perhaps it was my southern Trapier blood surfacing!
In the fall of 1981, I received a call from John Logue of Oxmoor House, who had gotten the idea of doing a book on the Southeast coast after seeing one of my paintings. The author was not yet chosen, so I suggested Walter Cronkite, recently retired, whom I knew from Edgartown. I called to explain the project, and after some thought on his part and some persuasion on mine, he agreed to come on board.
Walters job was to write about the people and places along the coast; mine was to paint them. Over the next year we sailed the Southeast coast from Key West to the Chesapeake. I also covered this expanse by car, painting some of the little villages and outoftheway places that were unreachable by water. South by Southeast became the first in a trilogy we would do togetherNorth by Northeast covered the Northeast from the Chesapeake to Maine, Westwind, the West Coast.
In 1983, the same year South by Southeast came out, I met my wife, Theodora (Teddie) Axtell. We married in September 1985 in Savannah. I was eager to have a summer studio on the Northeast coast, and Martha’s Vineyard was the logical choice. We bought property in Edgartown and began building a Bow House, complete with a spacious, private studio. With large north windows, walls of bookcases, and space for both oil and watercolor setups, it became the studio of my dreams. Every June we would head for Martha’s Vineyard, reversing the trip each fall. As time passed, we began to spend more and more time in Edgartown and less in Savannah. With mixed feelings, we sold our Savannah home and moved fulltime to the Vineyard in 1992.
Since that time, we have traveled even more, especially in Europe. In 1994 Teddie and I were invited as guests on a voyage to Antarctica. I had painted six of the continents and leaped at the chance to paint on all seven. Walking among the penguins and seals, witnessing the exquisite blues of the huge icebergs, and riding Zodiaks through the ice floes made this one of the great experiences of our lives. We have visited Provence, long a place I wanted to paint, and sailed on barges throughout France, Holland, and Germany. As always, I can be found painting away on each trip
I have often been accused of looking at the world through rosecolored glasses, both in my painting and in my life. If I am painting a scene with an ugly telephone pole, I simply remove it. That’s artistic license! I once heard an old Chinese proverb about the three keys to happiness: something to do; someone to love; and something to look forward to. I am a happy man indeed, because I have all three in abundance.
When I was a little boy, my dream was to be an artist. I have seen that dream come true. This retrospective exhibition is the culmination of all of my yesterdays, todays, and hopes for tomorrow. My life has been one long, fantastic balloon ride, with ups and downs, highs and lows, sideshifts and turns, and panoramic, hopefilled vistas. Nothing can ever equal that first flight. But I’m still looking forward to eightythree more years at my easel!