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Career
summer 2021

Every Picture Tells A History

Ted Ellis’s Art Celebrates the Journey of ‘Struggle, Resilience, Perseverance and Triumph'
Written by: Ken Walker

You may not automatically recognize the name Ted Ellis, but it’s likely you know his work. Especially Obama, the 44th President, a multi-hued acrylic intending to portray him uniting people across color and culture. On loan to the Houston Museum of African American Culture, the original earned Ellis an invitation to a national gala at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. Prints of that portrait sold nationwide.


That’s a common element of Ellis’s story: while he’s sold some pieces for $30,000, others are available for far less. Some 1.75 million prints of his paintings hang everywhere, whether in museums, corporate lobbies, or average folks’ living rooms.


Over his 30-year career, Ellis has created 5,000-plus impressionistic paintings brimming with significance. Guide Me Over portrays a river baptismal service. The Colored Man mixes deep blue, bright yellow and red to accentuate a deeply-furrowed face. A vibrant blend of colors fairly shouts in The Music Consumes Me, accentuating a hatted pianist’s arms stretched over nearly the keyboard’s width.


Naturally, the portrait of the nation’s 44th president is a favorite. But Ellis is also fond of On the Auction Block and Free At Last, which he says capture his ancestors’ strength. Sunday Worship is “a very important image” for the way it “speaks to the spiritual strength and renewed-ness in us,” he says. “It shows a community that stays together. It’s a place of comfort, a place of safety, where we can call on a higher power to sustain us and keep us going.”


Inspire and lift
Like many artists, Ellis’s story includes stomach-churning doubts in his early days when he would approach dozens of galleries to get accepted by two. After incorporating his business in 1991, it took five years to break from his salary as an environmental chemist. Today his wife, Erania, manages T. Ellis Art, Inc., with moral support coming from their daughter, Chaney, and son, Tanner.


While he’s had art commissioned by such familiar corporate names as Walt Disney, ExxonMobil, and State Farm Insurance, an early career break came after he offered a proposal to Avon and later moved 42,000 prints through a company publication. Today his works are in the permanent collections of African American history museums like the DuSable in Chicago, Charles H. Wright in Detroit, and a trio in New Orleans, including Tulane University.


Famous individuals are purchasers too: attorney (the late) Johnnie Cochran, actress Angela Bassett, broadcaster Bryant Gumbel, and movie producer Spike Lee. Actor Brad Pitt’s purchase of one on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina touched off a media frenzy. Others have welcomed him for speaking engagements or art exhibitions, such as the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Society of Black Engineers, and various schools and conferences.


Equally important are thousands outside the public eye.


“Folks reach out and support you,” says Ellis, a native of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward who now lives in the Houston area. “They see something coming through your art that’s mindful of their experiences as a person. They see something in your art that relates to them, and we make a way for them to engage.


“That’s why I think you have to have works that are affordable, that will inspire and lift people. It’s equivalent to going to a museum and seeing priceless treasures on the wall, and you’re able to go to the gift shop and find something you can afford to take home.”


Resilience and strength
This desire to advocate for the African American community by telling stories received a critical boost when a U.S. Army officer’s remark during Ellis’s military service inspired him to dig deeper into his ancestral history. His search led to fascinating people and places like the Nubia (an early civilization in northeast Africa), the Kerma culture of Sudan, hieroglyphics pre-dating Egypt, and Black Asiatics.


These post-graduate studies led to him discovering the richness of his roots that stretched back before the 20-some slaves who arrived in Virginia in 1619. Evaluating their part in language, the written word, theology, physics, and philosophy, Ellis concluded Africans were a major contributor to these disciplines.


“You see the remnants of your ancestry, even separated by language and geography when you’re in that new land, and you have to write and build a new history,” says Ellis, who at 56 earned a master’s degree in museum studies. “So you hold fast to your iconography, imagery, religion, and spirituality. That becomes a part of a new you in a new land. A lot of our resilience and strength comes from our ancestry, our heritage. That’s what I try to say in my work.”


Those creations were showcased in a recent three-month exhibition at Old Dominion University, where he is scholar-in-residence. Ellis hopes to soon replace pandemic-era Zoom and Google Meets with in-person interaction at the Norfolk, Virginia campus.


Slated to soon start traveling nationally, the exhibit chronicles 400 years of Black struggles in America. It encompasses 95 paintings, including about 35 by Ellis. The saga examines such issues as slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights era and aims to promote laws and policies creating racial equality.


“We know (with) paddy wagons policing our community, it moves from one level to the next and where the senselessness of losing life is a possibility,” Ellis says. “My art speaks honestly to that—to struggle, resilience, perseverance, and triumph. It will travel the United States, and we will have community discussions around that.”


Passion and joy
This interplay between artist and audience characterizes Ellis’s life. Growing up, he drew on such waymakers as the painters he peppered with questions in the French Quarter’s arts district, and Anna Torengo, his art teacher at Alfred Lawless Jr. High. She was so important that he returned for chats in high school.


While still pursuing art as an avocation, Ellis learned from figures like Arthello Beck, whose gallery became a centerpiece of the Dallas art scene. And, such talented artists as Albert Shaw, John Outterbridge, and Margaret Burroughs, the founder of the DuSable Museum who died in 2010 at the age of 95.


“I was there, and (Burroughs) asked, ‘What’s your legacy going to be, young man?’” he recalls of that long-ago meeting. “She asked, ‘What are you going to do? How are you going to impact others?’ I’ve watched that Chicago arts renaissance continue to grow. Harlem wasn’t the only (place). You see that, and the spirit of passion and joy ignites you and makes you want to do better.”


It also creates a desire to pass along lessons, which comes through mentoring and partnerships with museums, schools, and cultural institutions. One fond memory is a two-hour session in Houston with students with learning disabilities (many autistic), when he spread out a canvas and told them to paint, have fun, and tell a story.
He tells students foundational principles he learned in chemistry apply to art, such as analyzing, observing, and looking at the model that’s working. He advises young artists to find their passion, have a purpose in it, and help others with it.

Art is my magic carpet. It takes me places and gives me opportunities that sometimes I don’t even plan for.

TED ELLIS


“Build as you go,” Ellis says. “You don’t have to wait until you’re a success to do it, but it sharpens you and makes you a better person in that journey. We all have goals we want to attain, but often along the way there’s other wonderful gifts that come about that you didn’t expect. I always say art is my magic carpet. It takes me places and gives me opportunities that sometimes I don’t even plan for.”


Ken Walker is a freelance writer and book editor from Huntington, West Virginia, who has profiled numerous spiritual leaders, business persons, and professional athletes during his career. He has more than 4,000 article bylines and has co-authored, edited, or contributed to more than 80 books.