Artist Ray Ellis in the comfort of his studio. Photo by Nis Kildegaard
Artist Ray Ellis in the comfort of his studio.

"I can't imagine not painting"

Story and photos by Nis Kildegaard - August 10, 2006

Most of the time, Edgartown artist Ray Ellis is a man more celebrated on the national stage than in his home community. This is about to change, at least for a weekend, as the Old Sculpin Gallery showcases three decades of Vineyard paintings by Mr. Ellis with a retrospective exhibition this Friday and Saturday, August 11 and 12.

The Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust, which last year added the Old Sculpin building to the historic Island landmarks in its care, has organized a fund-raising dinner and reception for tonight. According to Chris Scott, executive director of the trust, this event will raise the bulk of the estimated $150,000 needed to restore the gallery building to a healthy condition.

After the party, to celebrate the new relationship between the trust and the building's tenant, the Martha's Vineyard Art Association, the show of some 40 paintings by Mr. Ellis will be opened for two days to the Island public at no charge.

"Three Schooners," a bright oil painting by Ray Ellis, in 1998.
"Three Schooners," a bright oil painting by Mr. Ellis, in 1998.

Wrapping their fund-raising plans around this show is a perfect fit for both the art association and the trust. Mr. Ellis is not only an artist of international renown, but a huge supporter of charities in the Island community that has been his year-round home since 1991.

"The thing about Ray," Mr. Scott said this week, "is that he has been extraordinarily generous - and not just to us." Over the years, Mr. Ellis has donated paintings and prints to support organizations from the Island hospital to the historical society, from the boys' and girls' club to the fall fishing derby, from the Farm Institute to Sheriff's Meadow Foundation.

This weekend's event is far from the first time Ray Ellis has lent his name in support of the Preservation Trust. He's been a fixture of Taste of the Vineyard auctions for years, famously covering Martha, a full-sized fiberglass cow, with a dozen of his paintings in 2001. (The high bidder, at $37,000, was a group of board members who gave the cow back to the trust for display at the Flying Horses Carousel in Oak Bluffs; for this show, Martha has moved into the main room of the Old Sculpin Gallery.)

Ray Ellis' oil painting of the Old Sculpin Gallery, where his exhibition is this weekend.
Ray Ellis' oil painting of the Old Sculpin Gallery, where his exhibition is this weekend.

Interviewed this week in his light-filled studio beside his home at Planting Field Woods, Mr. Ellis admits that he is delighted at all the attention. "It's always a thrill for me to walk into a room full of my paintings," he says. "This is going to be fun."

Mr. Ellis, who turned 85 in April, says that being introduced to the Vineyard was one of the few good things that came out of a brief and unhappy second marriage many years ago. The low point in his career, he says, came in 1981 when that marriage had imploded and his admittedly undisciplined ways with money had caught up with him.

"Twenty-five years ago," he says, "I was flat broke." But Ray Ellis had his talent, a gift for painting that he'd nurtured for more than two decades. And when opportunity came, he was ready to seize it.

The Oxmoor House publishing company approached Mr. Ellis, asking if he'd illustrate a book on sailing the coastal waterways of the American Southeast. The publishers weren't sure who they wanted to write the text, but Mr. Ellis thought he could enlist his tennis buddy, Walter Cronkite, who had recently retired from the anchor desk at CBS Evening News.

Mr. Cronkite wasn't sure at first, but Mr. Ellis persisted. "Finally I said to him, 'Walter, you could cruise the coast and write your boat off. And wouldn't you rather be known as an old salt than a commentator?' That did it - he took it on, and of course the book was tremendously successful.

"After being broke for several years, South by Southeast changed my life. The first royalty check I got was for $194,000."

Success led to success for Mr. Ellis. And one of his luckiest connections was to meet Theodora "Teddie" Axtell, now his wife of more than 20 years, whose financial acumen rivals his skill with the brush.

(Listening in on the interview, Teddie observes wryly that when she met him, her husband had only two problems with money: "He spent too much, and he never wrote anything down." With her help, he has since progressed from what he laughingly calls cigar-box bookkeeping to working with advisors from Morgan Stanley.)

Another fortunate connection for Ray Ellis has been the Edgartown Art Gallery, which has represented him now for 35 years. Gallery managers Tim and Polly Conover are handling the logistics of this retrospective show, and have overseen production of the commemorative catalogue which will be for sale at the Old Sculpin this weekend.

"Over the years," Mr. Ellis says, "the Conovers have sold nearly $2 million worth of my paintings." That's a big number, but only one among many: New York Graphics has sold 130,000 of Mr. Ellis's prints. His trilogy of books with Mr. Cronkite has brought in close to $14 million, and after that success, the book offers have continued to pour in - Mr. Ellis has illustrated 14 to date.

So the advisors at Morgan Stanley may have a great retirement plan for Ray Ellis, but one small problem: The artist doesn't plan to retire. He declares, "I can't imagine not painting." And he jokes that someday, the doctors will likely have to slap him to life just long enough to sign his last painting.

For his part, Chris Scott, director of the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust is delighted to count Ray Ellis as a friend, and can't imagine the Island scene without him around. "We've worked closely together," he says, "and we're part of a group of guys who get together Thursdays for lunch. And I've always felt a sense of the privilege of knowing Ray - it's almost like living in the village where Monet lived. You walk down the street, and you say, 'Bonjour, Monsieur Monet!'"

Ray Ellis Retrospective, Friday, Aug. 11, 10 am to 8 pm, and Saturday, Aug. 12, 10 am to 4 pm, Old Sculpin Gallery, Dock Street, Edgartown. Free admission.

Nis Kildegaard lives in Edgartown. He is a writer and editor, and the former long-time news editor of the Vineyard Gazette. He is a frequent contributor to The Times.