by Sara Hollis/New Orleans Tribune Contributor

Ted Ellis has shown his paintings in museums, galleries, conferences, and other public spaces.  And he has become an important scholarly voice in the discussion of the history and current state of African American life and culture. This Q&A interview is a snapshot of the varied and exciting career of artist and scholar Ted Ellis.

It All Started Here, Giclee On Canvas.

Ted Ellis has shown his paintings in museums, galleries, conferences, and other public spaces.  And he has become an important scholarly voice in the discussion of the history and current state of African American life and culture. This Q&A interview is a snapshot of the varied and exciting career of artist and scholar Ted Ellis.

SARA HOLLIS: Two of your most recent projects are your work with the 400 Years Commission and your Scholar-in-Residence appointment at Old Dominion University. Can you share with us your duties as a federally appointed commissioner for 400 Years of African American History Commission? 

TED ELLIS: As one of the 15 commissioners, we are responsible for carrying out PL115-102, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of 20 enslaved Africans in Point Comfort, Va., and recognizing the contributions of African Americans for over 400 years. I serve as vice-chair of the commission. You can visit the commission’s website to learn more.

HOLLIS: Old Dominion University has recently appointed you “Scholar-in-Residence”, can you tell us what your responsibilities are?

ELLIS: Old Dominion University has a student population of over 20,000 students. My responsibility is to share and engage the students, faculty and community with art exhibitions, programs and discussions about racial equality, justice, and equity through visual art. My exhibition, “The Chronicling of African American Struggle, Resiliency, Perseverance and Triumph from 1619 to 2019”, is indicative of illustrating how visual images can be an effective platform for dialogue and conversation about social justice.

HOLLIS: You grew up in New Orleans. How did that impact your early years as you developed your artistic abilities and mindset?

ELLIS: New Orleans is a natural incubator for developing creative expression. As an inquisitive young student, my visits to the French Quarter, and spending time with the artists in Jackson Square helped me tremendously. I would approach them with questions about their inspiration and their approach to painting. I saw how the artists engaged the public…I was fascinated! I would also visit the public library on Loyola Avenue, reading and checking out books on art and history. I also attended after school programs provided at Alfred Lawless School taught by Mrs. Anna Torregano. I attended a summer arts program given by New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, (NOCCA). The city has an abundance of young artistic talent. At Francis T. Nicholls High School, we formed a student arts club and created murals throughout the school. These formative years were rewarding and invaluable. The city that gave me birth, New Orleans, provided the nourishment for my growth and development as an artist.

HOLLIS:  You completed your graduate studies at Southern University at New Orleans, (SUNO). What motivated you to pursue a Master of Art in museum studies?

ELLIS: After 21 years of being out of school and now working as a full-time professional artist, I decided to go back to school and focus my attention on my pure desires to advance myself in the field of the arts. After an eight-year recruitment effort by you, I decided to enroll in the Museum Studies graduate program at Southern University at New Orleans because of the program’s commitment to community education. The master of arts in museum studies Program is equally competitive with any in the United States. It was a great decision. 

HOLLIS: As a self-taught artist, what compelled you to pursue art as a career after graduating from Dillard with a degree in chemistry?

ELLIS: I loved art since I was in kindergarten. I was always doodling and sketching. My interest in art grew as I got older. 

HOLLIS: I know you have been living between Houston and New Orleans for a while and you have a big fan following in both areas, would you please comment on this.

ELLIS: Yes, my family has lived between both cities for most of our entire life. We have property in each. My artistic development began in New Orleans, but grew, evolved, and continues to mature in Texas. At some point, in the near future, our plans are to move back and create gallery space for community artists in New Orleans and help them be successful and gain national exposure. I’d also like to help develop SUNO’s new museum.

HOLLIS:  How did you get the idea to offer reproductions of your paintings?  And where does this fit into your career as an artist?

ELLIS: I printed my first black and white prints when I was living in San Jose, CA. I sold the prints at an outdoor festival in Oakland, CA. When I moved to Grand Prairie, Texas, I met Arthello Beck Jr., a great artist and mentor. He advised me to reproduce my original art as prints. I learned so much from my friend and mentor. I miss him to this day. He was a phenomenal artist and person, and he always encouraged all the young artists to reproduce their art and sell prints. He knew that affordable art prints made it easier to have people purchase your art and build your reputation as an artist. I have built an extraordinarily successful art business 30 years later from his advice. It has helped me procure contracts with Avon Products, Inc, ExxonMobil, Walt Disney, Merck, Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, State Farm and many others.

HOLLIS: Your art has a primary focus on African American history. Why?

ELLIS: My history is critically important, particularly, being from descendants of enslaved Africans—my sense of being and identity, knowing that my ancestors were forcibly taken away. I want to provide a visual narrative of my history. I want to show in the art that I create, the struggle, resiliency, perseverance, and triumphant spirit that resides in me through my artistic expression.

HOLLIS: When people study your paintings, what do you want them to feel and take away from the experience?

ELLIS: I want them to sense my passion, love, and purpose of my painting. I want them to see the beauty, but the message is equally important. If the viewer learns something from my art, if they are enlightened, I have accomplished my goal.

HOLLIS: Who are the artists who have influenced and inspired you over your artistic career and why? 

ELLIS: There are many. I will mention a few who have made a strong impact on my growth and direction. Mrs. Anna Torregano, was my teacher at Alfred Lawless Junior High School. Richard Thomas, a great artist, mentored other young artists in New Orleans. Dr. Margaret Burroughs and Dr. Samella Lewis, both established cultural centers and African American museums. Arthello Beck Jr., a dedicated painter that captured the history and lifestyle of African Americans, particularly in the South. I was awfully close to Mrs. Anna Torregano and Arthello Beck Jr.  I met Richard Thomas and Samella Lewis and I personally exhibited with Dr. Burroughs at Gallery Guichard in Chicago, IL. The remaining three artists are Dr. John Biggers, Jacob Lawrence, and Henry O. Tanner, each was extremely committed to the preservation of history and artistic expression, activism, and excellence.

HOLLIS: How did Covid-19 affect your creative process and art?

ELLIS: I was impacted with a feeling of isolation and confinement. As an artist, I’m familiar with working in a closed environment. My home has always been my trusted space, and now I just spend more meaningful time with my family. We talk more, conversations about the multiple pandemics of health, race, and economics.  I then begin to start painting, speaking through my art.

HOLLIS: With all the civil and social unrest, how do you see the future of society in America? 

ELLIS: Yes, change comes with action. People of all colors and ethnicities are uniting with one voice for a common purpose and action and that is to end police brutality, police murdering of African Americans, mass incarceration, racial policies and laws that have continually discriminated and disadvantaged African Americans and people of color from having a quality of life that others in a country that is supposed to be offered in the land of opportunity. Americans must stand up together and demand justice for all, and put an end to racism. So that dreams of equality are fulfilled and that there is no threat of law enforcement choking the life out of people of color in broad daylight on the streets and avenues of America. When that change happens, it will be better for all.

HOLLIS: What kind of advice would you give to young aspiring artists?

ELLIS: Let your passion ignite your creativity, as well as joy. Define what your goals are and create a plan for your vision and mission as an artist. Be purposed about your art. Hold fast to your dream, and do not be afraid. Do the work and enjoy the journey. Make your life rewarding and share it with the world!!!

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