Raymond George Ellis of Edgartown died at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital on October 4 of complications from a stroke. He was 92.
A nationally recognized artist whose paintings are in the permanent collection at The White House and museums around the country, Ray Ellis sought out beauty in everything. He was an unwavering optimist and a romantic who imagined the best possible reality and then stepped inside and lived it.
Born in Philadelphia on April 24, 1921, Ray grew up on Lismore Avenue in Glenside, Pennsylvania. He began painting as a child. He spent his life celebrating each day — both on canvas and in the world he shared with Theodora (Teddie) Axtell, his wife of 28 years.
He attended the Philadelphia Museum School of Art, and in 1947 at the age of 26, Ray had his first one-man show at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
He was elected to the American Watercolor Society and in 1968, to the Salmagundi Club in New York, the oldest established professional art association in the country. Other New York memberships included The Century Association, the Artists’ Fellowship, and The Lotos Club.
After serving four years in the Coast Guard during World War II, he married Elizabeth Ketcham, with whom he had four children. Elizabeth died in 1972.
Ray pursued watercolor painting while working in advertising to support his family, eventually founding his own advertising agency with offices in New Jersey and New York. But from 1969 on, Ray worked exclusively as an artist.
During a brief second marriage, he moved from New Jersey to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and then to Savannah, Georgia.
Ray felt his life became truly charmed during the 1980s when he and Teddie built their summer home on Martha’s Vineyard, eventually making it their year-round residence.
In the 1980s, Ray and the late television journalist Walter Cronkite collaborated on a series of three books depicting America’s coastlines in word and image: “South by Southeast,” “North by Northeast,” and “Westwind.” There are 15 other books exclusively devoted to Ray’s paintings. His biography will be published in the spring of 2014.
In 1986, Ray founded Compass Prints and The Ray Ellis Gallery in Savannah, Georgia, which continues as his headquarters. His work is also displayed at the North Water Gallery in Edgartown and The Cheryl Newby Gallery on Pawleys Island, South Carolina.
For three consecutive years beginning in 1998, he was commissioned by President and Ms. Clinton to paint scenes of the White House to be reproduced as their official holiday greeting card.
Ray painted on all seven continents. His works have been exhibited in United States embassies around the world and are in the permanent collection of the White House as well as in museums around the country. In 2004, the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah created a major traveling exhibition of his paintings. He was awarded the Salmagundi Club’s Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts in 2004.
Until the time of his illness, encouraged and supported by Teddie, Ray’s daily routine included at least five matches of backgammon with Teddie at the table in his studio and then several hours of painting at his easel. He was an enthusiastic tennis player, golfer, and fisherman as well as being an active member of The Edgartown Reading Room and an honorary member the Vineyard Golf Club.
Ray raised more than $1 million for the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust over two decades. For 25 years, he was commissioned by the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby to paint yearly Vineyard fishing scenes from which commemorative limited edition prints were made to benefit the Derby Scholarship Fund. He also donated prints for auction to numerous charities on the Island and in Savannah. In an effort to support young artists who aspire to duplicate his own path as a fulltime artist, Ray established the Ray Ellis Foundation, which provides funds for those wanting to pursue a career in the visual arts.
Ray grew up surrounded by relatives and had a deep respect for his heritage. His maternal grandfather, William Trapier, was a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. His paternal grandfather, George Wilson Ellis, a blacksmith, served two terms in the Pennsylvania State Legislature in the late 1800s.
Ray’s father, Raymond Grant Ellis (named for Ulysses S. Grant), of Welsh and Irish descent, studied art at Drexel Institute, eventually becoming advertising manager for the Exide Battery Company in Philadelphia. His mother, Helen Trapier, an aspiring watercolorist, was a French Huguenot with an ancestry that traced back to plantation life outside Georgetown, South Carolina.
Ray is survived by his wife, Teddie, his four children, George, Andrew, Margaret, and Elizabeth, and their spouses, nine grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and numerous nieces and nephews. He also leaves behind his sister, Margaret Dando, brother Richard Ellis, and legions of friends around the world.
Burial services were private. Friends are invited to a celebration of Ray’s long, wonderful life at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown on Sunday, November 3, at 2 pm.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to The Ray Ellis Foundation, P.O. Box 8456, Savannah, GA 31412, or Artists’ Fellowship, Inc., 47 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10003.