Portrait of the artist in full: The magical life of Ray Ellis

Portrait of the artist in full: The magical life of Ray Ellis

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Painting A Life, Ray Ellis: An Artist Seen Through His Work, 192 pages, 159 paintings, Compass Prints, Savannah, Georgia, 2014

Before his death in 2013, the painter Ray Ellis had resided full-time on Martha’s Vineyard for more than three decades, and as a public symbol he is as recognizable as Gay Head Light and the gingerbread cottages.

We observed him as a genial and gentle man, a nationally recognized artist, and so generous a donor of his valuable work to Island fundraising causes that he became one of our community’s largest contributors. Fewer of us knew Mr. Ellis’s backstory and his ferocious instinct for survival as an artist and as a man in the social and artistic turbulence of America in the 20th century.

For that perspective, we are indebted to Island writer CK Wolfson, who has given us a gem, a complete story, based on careful research and extensive, candid conversations with Mr. Ellis before his death.

What we get in “Painting A Life” is a boisterous saga of a man who persevered, falling and getting up again and again through The Great Depression, World War II, and enough death, disillusionment, and financial setbacks for two lifetimes. We learn that it took Mr. Ellis almost two-thirds of his life to achieve his simple goal: to paint without distraction.

Coffee table books typically deserve their reputation as the Chinese food of really expensive literature. Accompanying text often is as glossy as the pages. “Painting A Life” is not one of those. For one thing, it only costs $45, the in-season equivalent of two cheeseburgers and a couple sodas.

For another, the book is a valuable reading experience. While it appears to be a definitive collection of Mr. Ellis’s work — with more than 175 sketches, cartoons, portraits, and still lifes from way stops in his much-traveled life — this is a story of life lived to the fullest in pursuit of conviction.

Not that there weren’t pitfalls and distractions, including service in World War II, the death of his first wife after a long struggle with alcoholism, raising four children, and the siren song of business success that led to bankruptcy.

Mr. Ellis kept on painting, developing his style regardless of the period’s art fashion from Art Deco, Modernism, and the flinging of paint on blank canvasses. And it worked. Six thousand paintings worth that hang in galleries, museums, and in private collections all over the world.

If you are an artistic knuckle-dragger, as I am, you will be amazed before you are halfway through reading “Painting A Life.”

As a result of the honest narrative and paralleling selections of work for each period of Mr. Ellis’s life, you will begin to know the man and see his struggles and successes right there on the canvasses. Very cool experience. Ms. Wolfson and Treesa Germany, director of Compass Point and the Ray Ellis Gallery, have done a great service to Mr. Ellis. He and they have provided readers with a spate of clear and useful life lessons and cautionary tales in the unvarnished telling of his tale.

We learn that Mr. Ellis was not your reclusive artist swathed in angst but very much a man of the world. He spent much of his life in the advertising business to generate coin for the family. If you’ve been in that business — or watched Mad Men — you know that the advertising agency business is not a breeding ground for high principles, loyalty, and the like. It almost got him, but he kept on painting.

Mr. Ellis completed his work on the book before his death. He is much-quoted and his words, offered with pure candor about the business of living, have an Olympian cast today, barely a year later.

Here’s my favorite. “It isn’t the circumstances that control the results. It’s what goes on inside your head, despite what’s going on outside.” The book is replete with these gems, polished and buffed hard after 92 years of living.

It seems to me that Ray Ellis’s life is his gift to us as much as his art is. Read his story.

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