At 91, Ray Ellis has been painting for over eight decades. He still works seven days a week in his spacious, light-filled garage studio at the Edgartown home he shares with his wife, Teddy. Of his work schedule, Mr. Ellis said, “I come up to the studio about 9, work until about 12–12:30, have lunch, come back, take a nap at 4, have a martini at 6.”
Despite what would be a demanding schedule for a much younger man, Mr. Ellis is not only a tireless worker, he can always manage to find time to talk about his craft, his rich and interesting life, and art in general. This Saturday, Sept. 1, the artist will hold court at North Water Gallery in Edgartown for the final Coffee and Conversation event of the summer season.
Gallery director Robin Nagle launched the monthly event last summer in response to popular demand. “The Coffee and Conversations were inspired by Ray,” she said of the gallery’s best-selling artist.
“Last year we started this mainly because I like to talk,” said Mr. Ellis with a laugh. The nonagenarian has an amazing memory, a very engaging manner, and the rare ability to tell stories in a succinct and entertaining manner. He’s had a life rich in experience, accomplishment, and adventure. Mr. Ellis has published 14 books of his paintings – three with narratives by close friend Walter Cronkite.
“The last time I saw him was a couple of months before he died,” said Mr. Ellis of the celebrated journalist. “We sat out on the porch. He said, ‘Ray. What times we had.'” The two friends spent years sailing together while compiling stories and pictures for their collaborative efforts.
Mr. Ellis enjoys successful sales of his work at four galleries. Besides North Water, he is represented by three southern galleries, including the Compass Prints/Ray Ellis Gallery in Savannah, Ga., which he founded in 1984. His work has been exhibited in museums, galleries and international embassies, and his paintings are among the collections of some of the top art collectors in the world. President Clinton commissioned him for three years in a row to create the White House’s holiday cards.
Mr. Ellis has helped raise money for a number of Island organizations through donations of his work. One of his paintings broke the local record for a single item when it fetched $250,000 for the Preservation Trust, an organization for which he has helped raise millions. For 25 years, Mr. Ellis created the painting for the commemorative print of the annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby.
On a recent visit to his studio, Mr. Ellis pulled out a thick book of thumbnail images of his work over the last 20 years – 2,300 paintings in all. “I look at this,” he said, “and I say, ‘How could I have done this?'”
One of the questions he is often asked is, “What’s your favorite painting?” “It’s like asking which is your favorite child,” he replied. However, he leafed through the massive portfolio of images and picked out a few that make up a visual memoir of sorts. He told the story of a sea rescue he participated in during World War II, while pointing to a painting of a tiny boat holding 16 survivors of the last ship sunk by the Nazis during the war and the rescue ship coming to their aid. Another painting, a red barn in a rustic setting, is a 1951 depiction of his first studio in New Jersey.
As well as a remarkable memory for dates and events, Mr. Ellis is blessed with a photographic memory. “I can pass a meadow on the way to West Tisbury, look at it for five minutes, and I can come back and paint it,” he said.
Mr. Ellis recently completed a book with C.K. Wolfson titled “Painting a Life: Ray Ellis, A Visual Biography of his Life.” It is now in the hands of a literary agent in New York City.
The affable Mr. Ellis notes that the Coffee and Conversation events have attracted about 20 to 40 visitors each time. Many of them are young artists. “I used to teach art in England,” he said. “I think this is such a good opportunity to tell young artists that you should never give up.”
“Throughout my life, I kept in mind that I wanted to be a recognized painter,” he said. “After 91 years, it’s worked out.”
Coffee and Conversation with Ray Ellis, Saturday, Sept. 1, 10 to 11:30 am, North Water Gallery, Edgartown. For information, call 508-627-6002, or visit northwatergallery.com.