Ted Ellis lives a rich and artful life
As a child growing up in New Orleans, Ted Ellis spent weekends in the French Quarter studying artists as they plied their trades on busy streets.
He witnessed their rejections and successes and the most subtle details of their work, down to the nuances of their brush strokes. He watched how people responded to their paintings. And he asked questions — a lot of questions.
“I spent a lot of weekends in the French Quarter bugging the artists,” Ellis said. “I was the kid with a thousand questions.”
After hours of observing the artists, Ellis would get back on public transit and return to his home in the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood before the streetlights came on for the night. When he wasn’t watching artists at work, he was at the library or studying books about art and various mediums.
“I never knew I was poor,” said Ellis, who now lives with his family in Friendswood. But rich and poor didn’t matter anyway, he said. Art, for Ellis, was a universal language that transcended class.
Ellis went on to become an environmental chemist. But what he really wanted, even as a child, was to educate through art. And that’s exactly what he did.
He’s best known for a commissioned portrait of President Barack Obama, which he unveiled at the 2009 National Black Chamber of Commerce and the National Newspaper Publishers Foundation Inaugural Gala at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C.
“When I was asked to paint it, I wanted something that represented America with multi-colors for diversity,” Ellis said.
It was unforgettable time in what has been an extraordinary career.
“It was almost surreal,” Ellis said. “This shows the importance of art for documentation and visual literacy. When you have something that historical of the only African-American president, and it catches people’s attention, it is a major accomplishment. I was on NPR and all the television stations. My mother was very proud.”
The painting will travel in exhibits around the country, ending in Galveston for Juneteenth, a U.S. holiday that commemorates the announcement in Texas of the abolition of slavery. The last of slaves living in the South were freed on June 19, 1865, after General Order No. 3 was read in Galveston. This year marks the 150-year anniversary, and there are plans for major celebrations on the island.
His work, which focuses on African-American history and culture, has hung in numerous galleries.
“I do landscapes, seascapes and still life,” Ellis said. “But I am passionate about telling stories about the African-American experience; that is what I love, and that is mostly what I paint.”
Ellis’ work often is connected with significant historic events. After quitting his job in 1996 to pursue art full time, Ellis, competing against 500 others artists, won a 1998 Walt Disney Studios commission for art in honor of Black History Month. The piece was used in the 1999 celebration at Epcot Center and appeared on T-shirts, souvenir-mugs and posters.
Ellis, 52, is working on a commission by the city of Selma to produce paintings on the March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On March 7, 1965 — now known as “Bloody Sunday” — about 600 civil rights marchers were beaten back by police officers equipped with tear gas and billy clubs as they tried to cross the bridge. Two days later, Martin Luther King Jr. led a “symbolic” march to the bridge showing the desire of African-American citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote.
“The paintings are taken from archive photos and my impressions embellishing on that,” Ellis said. “It will be historically accurate. Representing African-American culture from antiquity to the present, it goes from Egypt through slavery to contributions of inventions by African Americans, along with other symbolism and imagery of the history.”
As proud as he is of his accomplishments, it’s his love of working with children to which he is devoted. He recently worked on a living museum in the Ninth Ward to document Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. Working with children from the Ninth Ward, Ellis guided them as they helped him paint the mural.
“The kids are an integral part of what I do; art is so rewarding,” Ellis said. “Even the most disabled students can express themselves through art.
His goal is to one day have a center of arts by partnering with a school.
“I want children to learn to appreciate art, to learn how to be entrepreneurial; I want to show them how to use their art for healing and for profit,” Ellis said.
Through partnerships with schools, he’s been able to work with children and inspire them to appreciate art.
His theory was put to the test.
Ellis worked with a group of severely disabled students, who were both physically and mentally challenged. He had the opportunity to participate in a production guided by students from the Theatre Under the Stars School in Houston. Many of the children had never danced or performed in any way. A few students continued to just stand around, not responding to the music at all.
“I put up a blank canvas, gave them each paints, had them come up one at a time and paint a few strokes,’’ Ellis said. “Then I would turn the canvas around after each student painted a little. The point was to show them that there is no right or wrong in art, that we are all artists.”
It was then that Ellis knew art could make a difference in the lives of children, he said.
“Everyone was so moved,” Ellis said. “That day it was the children who taught the teacher.’’
Ellis has established himself as an artist. And he wants to pass it on as a mentor and teacher, he said.
“I’ve still got the zest and zeal to dream” he said. “It’s a beautiful way to live your life, and if you’re living what you love, you’re not hating anybody. It’s infectious.”
Editor Laura Elder contributed to this report.