The trek to Jack Ellis’ studio led through his Lakewood Estates backyard, which might have felt like a jungle to visitors, with the plants and trees he and his wife left to grow wild. Once inside, the artist often scattered peanuts on the back porch and left the door open to the blue jays, squirrels, a woodpecker, a crow and several generations of raccoons who’d visit throughout the day.
It was a sacred space where he’d work for hours building intricate new worlds out of canvas, crow quill pen and ink.
“He always used to say that his head was full of images,” said Ellis’ wife, Judy Ellis. “He used to say, ‘I don’t think I’ll live long enough to execute all that I have in my head.’”
The images in Ellis’ head disappeared in the summer of 2020 as his heart began to fail. But for decades before that, he created and captured large-scale works of art that won awards, recognition and captivated onlookers.
Ellis died Sept. 17 of congestive heart failure.
His journey to St. Petersburg began near Dayton, Ohio, where he grew up, and went through New York City. Judy Ellis worked as an editor at a book publisher, and on the day the art director announced she had hired two men and one of them looked like a Beatle, Judy Ellis said, “‘Put the Beatle next to me, I’ll marry him.’ She did and I did.”
The two married in 1966 and moved back and forth between New York and Greece for five years, bringing their son, Morgan, with them for the final trip. In 1980, the Ellis family moved to Florida to be closer to family.
The couple quickly discovered that, unlike in New York City, outdoor art shows here were for serious artists.
In St. Petersburg, Judy Ellis put a biography and five slides with her husband’s work into an envelope and dropped it off at the front desk of the St. Petersburg Times. Then-art critic Charles Benbow soon came by to visit, and Ellis’ work was featured in the newspaper.
His techniques created “mysterious worlds,” Benbow wrote in 1980, “at once fascinating and disconcerting, but with an inexplicable credibility all their own.”
After he won over the art critic, Ellis started working on the outdoor art shows.
For his first, Mainsail Art Festival, he and his wife hinged together three used doors, covered them in burlap and hung Ellis’ work up in Straub Park. All day long, people packed tightly around the booth, Judy Ellis said.
Ellis won first place, and then went on to win first place at the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts.
From 1981 through 2005, Ellis won more than 100 awards for his work and was represented by galleries in New York and across Florida.
“The art festivals in Florida are really among the best because the jurors that they hire are oftentimes from major museums,” said Catherine Bergmann, curatorial director at Dunedin Fine Arts Center, which featured Ellis’ work in a 2019 show. “To receive an award at a Florida festival, it’s no small honor.”
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Looking at his work, which included watercolor and collage, was “like a process of discovery,” Bergmann said, “and you could stand in investigation and meditation before them. You could be incredibly occupied and always find something new.”
“You just kind of get lost in his work when you see it right up close,” said fellow artist and friend Denis Gaston, who got to know Ellis at the festivals and found in him a sharp sense of humor and natural positivity.
“He just made you feel at home,” Gaston said.
The artist himself was most at home in his backyard, his wife said, fussing over the wildlife he tended to or bent over the images he pulled from his mind.
Here are a few of them.
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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