Ray Ellis: Artist Takes Retrospective on the Road

By C.K. WOLFSON

Ray Ellis is quietly celebrating. The artist, who these days wears the smile of a man whose life has exceeded his expectations, is embarking on a year of extraordinary professional tribute to the body of work that defines him.

On March 10, a year-long retrospective exhibition of 50 years of Mr. Ellis's watercolor and oil paintings will open at the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Ga., then travel to the Butler Institute of American Art in Ohio, and finally to the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Ga.

"To have five decades of work exhibited in three museums in one year is something that most artists don't live to see," Mr. Ellis says. The youthful, 83-year-old Edgartown resident exudes the charm of a raconteur. As accessible and welcoming as the subjects he paints, he fluctuates between exuberance and awe as he describes seeing room after room of his paintings.

"I remember when I was just a little boy standing in the museum, looking at paintings, and I'd get pulled back by the guard. I'd say, 'I can do that, I can do that.'.

The retrospective will contain 82 impressionist paintings, still lifes, nautical scenes and cityscapes of destinations around the world, but the collection focuses most on the tender depictions of the artist's homes: the Vineyard and the Lowcountry, the old plantation country along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Mr. Ellis's canvases offer reverent, detailed renderings of sky and water, marshes, dunes and sea grass in which the air has colors, and the captured moment, temperature and mood.

"I picture places as they should be, as they have appeared for decades and for centuries, instead of making them look clinical," Mr. Ellis says, gently lamenting what he sees as the Island's bartering of its character - the charm of the ramshackled - for gloss.

"I've always felt that romanticism, any of that type of painting, has been looked down on. It's so unusual for museums to have a show like this." Sounding relaxed, he explains that his traditional style is less competitive in the art world where more dramatic abstractions and installations are better received: "shock value art," the Philadelphia native calls it.

"When I was going to art school the modern era was just coming in: Mondrian and Rothko, DeKooning, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg. We all felt we had to throw eggs on a canvas, you know, or do something crazy to be successful. And I was asked, 'When are you going to try abstract?' Well, I've done abstract..

He pauses to explain how he begins his paintings with an abstract design, arranging the verticals and horizontals. "Abstract is mostly composition. If you look at a landscape you see abstract. To me, it's the beginning. To other people, it's the end..

Some of Mr. Ellis's paintings recall artists such as Claude Monet, Edward Hopper and Winslow Homer. While he believes the worst thing one artist can do is to imitate another, he has formulated his own "funnel theory." He explains: "I go to a museum and I see Homer. I think, 'Look at the way he did that cloud.' Sargent - I say, 'God, the way he painted those hands.' So unconsciously, I'm part of Homer, Sargent, Wyeth - but it all comes out Ray Ellis..

Listening to Mr. Ellis, glazed with happiness, declaring that painting is like breathing, and just as necessary for his survival, one suspects he would paint as he does with or without the remarkable recognition he has engendered. Success to Mr. Ellis seems an accessory.

The White House commissioned him to create three consecutive Christmas cards (1998-2000). In addition to being exhibited in museums around the country, there is a Ray Ellis Gallery in Savannah, and on the Vineyard, for 32 years and counting, his work has been shown exclusively at the Edgartown Art Gallery, part of the Charlotte Inn. Mr. Ellis has produced 12 books, including Lowcountry; Fishing the Vineyard with Ed Jerome; Martha's Vineyard, An Affectionate Memoir with Ralph Graves.

In 1983, Mr. Ellis produced paintings for the first of a series of three books with Walter Cronkite: South by Southeast, North by Northeast, and Westwind, earning close to $14 million.

"All of a sudden my life changed," Mr. Ellis says. His first royalty check was for $200,000.

It's a story he enjoys recounting: A publisher from Oxmoor House noticed Mr. Ellis's painting of Savannah Harbor on the cover of a Travel Host magazine, got the idea for a book picturing the southeast coast and contacted him. Pat Conroy or William Buckley were the publisher's choices to write the text, but Mr. Ellis preferred his tennis partner, who he first had to convince to write it. He smiles broadly remembering the conversation with his friend Walter Cronkite: "Just think, you could write your boat off," and the clincher, "Wouldn't you rather be known as an old salt than a commentator?.

From earliest childhood Mr. Ellis had no doubts that he would be an artist. He was an artist while selling air conditioners, an artist while serving in 1942 on the Coast Guard cutter Kickapoo along the Maine Coast and later on the Corpus Christi in the Pacific. He was an artist while working for 20 years in advertising ("It honed my instincts to be aware of opportunities"), an artist when he and his wife Elizabeth (Bets) Ketchum married in 1946 (she died in 1972), and as they raised their four children.

"It's not an easy journey," he says matter of factly, but I always had great support..

As though he'd rubbed a bottle and made a wish, mentors seemed to appear when Mr. Ellis needed them most - framers in Philadelphia and Savannah who offered their craft at no initial charge, museum directors and art critics in Philadelphia and in Portland who championed his work and arranged for him to have shows.

When his request for a five-dollar-a-week raise was turned down, his wife, pregnant with their first child, told him to quit his job in advertising. He did. "I haven't worked for anybody since 1954," he says proudly.

Most of Mr. Ellis's history, which he is generous about sharing, has been well chronicled.

He founded his own successful advertising company in Chatham, New Jersey, Ray Ellis Advertising, which he left in 1969 after opening three offices, because he realized he could finally survive painting full time.

His second, turbulent marriage to Elizabeth (Libby) Wallace in 1973: "I thought I was in love, but marriage was doomed from the start. I never knew quite where I stood. I'm the type who can't stand to have anyone mad at me..

When they separated in 1980, after traveling around the world and maintaining a privileged life that included summers on the Vineyard (he first came in 1972), he moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Savannah, with $300 to his name. "I started painting like mad because I figured I either paint or I die..

However timely preparation had met opportunity - one of his a favorite sayings - before, it reached its apex in the 1980s. Mr. Ellis's paintings began being exhibited at galleries and museums across the country. In his first show in Savannah that year, he sold close to $25,000 worth of paintings.

And then, the same year he met his third wife Theodora (Teddie) Axtell, he collaborated with Mr. Cronkite, and life became as finely and serenely resolved as one of his landscapes.

Mr. Ellis and Ms. Axtell moved to Edgartown to live year-round in 1991. "I'll never run out of subject matter on the Vineyard," Mr. Ellis declares, looking around the spacious and comfortable studio behind his house. Were it not for his easels and drafting tables, his neatly arranged cans of brushes and paint, the bright, tastefully appointed room could be mistaken for a stylish living room.

His studio - "my dream studio" - is a creative sanctuary filled with personal touches, classic jazz on the disc player, nautical flags, memorabilia, books, plaques, awards, a handwritten note from former President George Bush, photos taken in the oval office and with celebrities such as Ted Williams, Cy Young, winning pitcher Jim Lonborg and Wally Schirra.

Among the books on the chest in front of the couch is Ray Ellis: In Retrospect, A Painter's Journey. It is the glossy companion to his retrospective exhibition; 168 pages of his history, chronology and paintings. With full page details of selected paintings, the artist's mastery of brush and composition becomes apparent.

When asked when he feels he produced his best work, he doesn't hesitate: Right now, he declares.

As he leaves his studio he pauses to survey his three-car garage, in-ground-pool world, all of which was made possible because of his success as an artist - a success, he says, that "frees me, gives me the incredible luxury of going to the next step and doing the best paintings I've ever done, maybe different subjects that I never would have tried. I can take risks. I find myself now. Every time I do a canvas or a watercolor, I'm doing it more boldly..

On the wall next to the extrance to his studio there hangs a small framed poem written by his daughter Libby Ellis for his 80th birthday: "How great it must be to be Ray Ellis. Everyone else must be so jealous."