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Insights of an Eco Artist

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In conversation: Lee Ellis

Insights of an Eco Artist

Lee Ellis is an American contemporary artist currently based in the south of France whose works reinforce the ethos of the strength of community by giving the audience a glimpse at the overwhelming power we have together.

11 April 2023

Lee Ellis is an American contemporary artist currently based in the south of France. Started working primarily as a chalk muralist, Ellis transitioned to create a less public art practice around 2020 where he found himself drawn to smaller works. After being forced inside during Quarantine Ellis started creating a series of works where he put hundreds of post it notes with individual drawings onto canvas. He has participated in multiple group shows with Curators from New York to Chongqing, China.

Who are we without others? As individuals we can only accomplish so much, there comes a point when we understand the importance of community. An excellent example comes from the global pandemic, where the world understood how much better we are together. Why does it take tremendous tragedy for us to realize the significance of the collective? Within his work, Lee Ellis attempts to reinforce this ethos by giving the audience a glimpse at the overwhelming power we have together.

To begin, can you tell us about your background and studies, and what inspired you to become an artist?

I grew up as an only child in a pretty quiet household. I always had a larger backyard than most, but I always found myself inside. I would say my first attraction to art came from Japanese Manga, I would constantly attempt to recreate certain panels and draw my favorite characters. This community of manga-style art was reinforced by friends I made at school and even some teachers I had. I never considered myself an “artist” because I would only be recreating others' work. As time passed I became drawn more to the art of dance, I felt that at the time that was the best way to express who I was. I attended Columbia College Chicago and after a knee injury, I began teaching more than performing. Summers when I wasn’t teaching I had a job working at the pool of a country club where I used their leftover sidewalk chalk to create murals for the members to enjoy. Throughout my life, I feel that I’ve had an opportunity to use some of my artistic ability, and I’m very thankful for that.

Around 2020, you transitioned from primarily working as a chalk muralist to creating smaller works. What caused this shift?

Honestly what caused this shift was my feelings while creating the murals. I wasn’t feeling the same love I had for it, I began to almost view it as a chore more than something that I really enjoyed. Around this time Covid-19 came, and there were fewer opportunities for me to present my work. However, this actually helped to elevate my artistic practice. I had the idea to start a project showing the smiles that were always covered by masks. The smaller works for me felt intimate and more personal, each piece takes time to make but each piece has the purpose to create something larger.

Most Black Kings Create a Legacy by Lee Ellis. Image courtesy of Lee Ellis

Can you talk to us about your post-it note series and the process behind creating them?

When I look back at many jobs I’ve had, somehow I always found myself “doodling” on Post-it notes. It’s a material that is rarely seen as valuable, however, for me, it's something that I’ve always viewed as small pieces to a larger puzzle. Each piece features hundreds of Post-It notes that have individual pieces on them. Each note is only a small piece to the overarching theme of each piece.

Your work emphasizes the importance of community and the collective. Can you elaborate on this concept and how it manifests itself in your art?

We all are individuals, we have our own hopes, dreams, and fears but we are also all human. Many times we attempt to “stand out” and we find ourselves standing alone. We become so focused on creating something with our own two hands that we forget we are not alone. There is so much more power when we are able to set aside what makes us different to fight for what brings us together. My art gives me the perfect balance of both individualism and a collective message. Each Post-It can represent a personal ideal while the entire piece brings that idea to a larger scale.

You have participated in multiple group shows with curators from various parts of the world. How has exposure to different cultures and artistic styles influenced your work?

I’ve been very blessed to share my work around the world and this has really helped me to broaden the way I view what I can do with my practice. Instead of just having an “American” view of the messages I wanted to convey I began to look at things from a “human” point of view. How does this make us all feel? How do we deal with uncertainty and anger? Being part of these group shows has fueled my practice as well. I create the work that I feel needs to be made, however, there’s no better feeling than when others feel that more people need to see my work. It's almost like small steps of validation in creating a lasting art career.

Le fleur de personne by Lee Ellis. Image courtesy of Lee Ellis.

What effect has living in the south of France had on your art and creative process?

To be honest it was like a smack in the mouth. All at once my entire way of life changed in a place that was unfamiliar to me. I became a husband around the same time and I feel that it took me a while to understand what I was feeling about my situation. All these emotions and thoughts in my head put my creative mind at a halt. At the same time, it also gave me an image of a series of work I needed to make called “Pesonne”. These pieces struggle with identity, who are we when we strip away our material possessions, job titles, and families? How do we try to assimilate in a place where we feel we don’t belong? Being in the south of France has truly opened a whole new way of life and thinking that if I had always stayed in America I’m unsure if I could ever convey it the correct way.

Can you tell us about a piece of art that you found particularly difficult to create and why?

For me “The New Normal” may have been the piece that started my current series of works but it was also the most difficult. At the time I was very uncertain about how I would present the idea I had in my head. Finding the best way to place the Post-it notes on canvas without completely distorting each image was quite a challenge. With each piece that is completed, I learn a bit more about what works and how I can push to extend my practice into other areas of art.

The New Normal by Lee Ellis. Image courtesy of Lee Ellis

How do you know when a work is complete? Do you have a specific process for deciding when to stop working on a piece?

When I started this series of work the pieces were done when I felt that I had made enough Post-it notes to convey the message that I needed to. Now I start to have a plan on what the end result will look like so I have a number of Post-it notes I know I need to make. I think this type of planning helps to keep me moving forward when I see that there is an end goal. As with everything in life it's easier to continue if you know where you’re going.

What do you hope people take away from experiencing your art?

I have no expectations for people who see my work. In my mind I know why the work was created however I love when others are able to draw their own conclusions. If there is one thing I hope my audience can do when they see my work is they are able to let their eyes “dance” across the work. I hope that my work captures their eyes enough to make them pause for a few minutes. I hope my work brings more than just a glance but a pause.

Lastly, what message would you like to leave for our readers?

I’ll leave everyone with a quote that has helped me through much of my thinking while creating work from Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson,

“Sometimes you get obsessed with how, and then you sort of lose sight of why you’re doing it. What influenced me was maybe the fact that what I did not necessarily have to be successful in order to be quality.”

What’s on your mind?

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