A wood stove belches ash into a shotgun space that once housed the carriage belonging to Nuestra Senora de los Dolores’ Padre Tehane.
Artist Alex Ellis stokes the fire, a shelf of stacked paintings to his left, exposed layered stone behind him. The paintings almost whisper, almost shimmer, their layers of rich color deposited on old wood, on marcasite panel. The scent of melting beeswax mingles with the rising heat. Ellis stands. His close-cropped beard and simple knit cap echo his spartan surroundings — a man in holy communion with his art.
“I was meeting a lot of people who were trying to find their way.” Ellis reflects on his experiences meeting other artists. “The number of directions you can come from in making an image from blew my mind. I always thought everyone was trying to be another Picasso or Da Vinci. Your goal is to make masterpieces, right? And at some point you fall flat on your face with that idea, there’s nothing new you can do. I discovered it’s more difficult to make something that’s true, that’s honest. That’s where I’m at.”
Ellis moved to Las Vegas with his husband, Kevin Tracy, six months ago, after facing the cruel gray cover of Seattle skies one winter too many. They bought the old Old Lady of Sorrows Parsonage, a compound of several dark stone buildings that was once church office and home to the two parish priests.
“This place feels really human,” says Ellis. “I can feel where the people that used to live here had some good times. There was struggle, too. It’s a good place to live and work as an artist. This property has been here for so long, that the city has evolved around it. The university has encroached on both sides, so in a way there’s also unresolved tension, a missing sense of placement.”
The son of a physicist and a social worker, Ellis studied fine arts and theatre at Evergreen University in Washington State, a progressive school where the student builds his own curriculum and degree program.
Ellis left when his money ran out, but he continued to interact with his fellow students, spending time in the school art studios and becoming part of the growing underground music and arts community.
“All I did was performance art and painting. A lot of theater. I went completely in the opposite direction from the technical. It was a light switch for me, liberating.” Ellis grinned as he described his first steps as a professional artist. “I was drawing, I figured if I did four a day, I would have over 1,000 at the end of the year, and some might be good. I had this whole disciplined thing going on. That’s where my process started.”
Today Ellis works in an artistic medium called encaustic painting. His stove groans with the weight of a heavy metal tray filled with melting beeswax and tree resin. He mixes the two with pigments collected from pastels, from oil paints, from natural sources, and spreads the mixture on wood, on canvas, on pressed flat panels. The colors seep into the surface, creating layers of light, a three-dimensional expression that can then be scored and carved with special tools.
His works invite the viewer to meditate, to contemplate the complex emotions of alienation, love, birth. In one painting, a strutting peacock dances for a standing mouse, a seated deer. The mouse nearly escapes the canvas, his body alive, white, in a sea of pressed dirt.
Being a new artist in an old town can be scary, explains Ellis, but the Las Vegas community has made him and his husband feel welcome.
“We’ve very much felt welcomed here. When you move to a place like this, you feel like you have a big sign on your head that says “outsider.” And in terms of the language and the cultural history, I am an outsider. It’s been very easy to be here. The people have been very kind.”
Ellis plans to integrate his art into the community in public and unusual ways, but always being mindful of his personal promise to hold the integrity of his art. He hopes to show at a local gallery in 2008.
“I would like to put my art up and around, decorate the town with it. My thing is to do an honest job, and actually make the painting that I see in my mind. After that, it’s entirely up to other people to enjoy or dismiss it. I really have to stay out of the territory of judgment. My job is to do an honest job, and to make it accessible to people. It has to be visible.”
Alex Ellis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.