Ray Ellis: The Art of Living


“The older I get, the better things are,” says celebrated artist Ray Ellis. “I’ll be 90 next April and it’s amazing how things are coming together. The thrills keep coming.”

The most recent thrill came at this year’s Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust auction on June 19th when his painting “Silver Moon Rising” sold to Island visitor Scott Earl for a record-breaking bid of quarter-of-a-million dollars.

Auctioneer “Trip” Barnes says, “When the gavel came down, there was anything but silence. Thunderous applause and jubilant cries filled the air. Mr. Ellis’s wife Teddie was in tears.”

“I just kept shaking my head in amazement,” Mr. Ellis recalls. When asked how it might affect his future work, the artist just smiles, scratches his head, and says, “Well, it can’t hurt it.”

It is fitting that the record-breaking painting is a moonscape. Not only does it frequently appear in the thousands of his paintings, but it’s the name and focus of the 16th book of his collected paintings, “By the Light of the Moon, the Paintings of Ray Ellis.”

“I remember when I was about 9 or 10 years old, I got inspired by the science fiction comics of Buck Rogers. I filled huge scrapbooks with pictures and drawings of rocket ships going to the moon.”

Years later he would meet and befriend astronaut Buzz Aldrich. While Mr.Ellis admits he didn’t have the academics to be an astronaut, he learned early in life that he did have the talent to be an artist.

“I sold my first painting in 1936 when I was 15,” he says. “We lived in Glenside, Pennsylvania in a house on the edge of a dairy farm. I looked at that scene every morning and finally did a watercolor of it which I sold to my neighbor for $300.”

Watercolor became his sole medium for the next 30 years. “I was strictly plein air. My idea of painting was getting outside with a sheet of paper taped to a board on an easel,” he says. “I got totally absorbed.”

By the looks of the artist’s thousands of watercolors, the medium appears effortless. Not so. “It is the most challenging medium,” he explains, “because once you put a stroke down on paper, you can’t change it… as a youth trying to do watercolor, I was frustrated and determined to master it.”

His advice to the Vineyard art students he has mentored over the years was “Never give up,” and “Be ready to read the blessings in disguise; you never know where they’re going to take you.”

Mr. Ellis has followed his own advice. After two years of training at the Philadelphia Museum School, he was pulled away by World War ll, and in the Coast Guard stationed off the coast of Maine. “I had the opportunity to closely study the coasts and the moonscapes,” he says.

Ironically, some 30 years later when he was lecturing in Washington, D.C. about the celebrated coastal books he did with Walter Cronkite, the artist recalls meeting a woman who told him they’d been freshman together at the Museum School. “She said she remembered that when students were asked what we wanted to do in life, my response was to get a boat and sail the coasts of America.”

But after the war, he had a family to raise, and among other things, he started an ad agency that eventually failed. Another disguised blessing, he says, as it permitted him to launch a full time painting career as a watercolorist and illustrator. It was a pivotal event when he first came to live on the Vineyard in 1979 and met the iconic television journalist Walter Cronkite.

“I was asked to paint the watercolors for a series of books on the South, North, and Western coasts of America, and I convinced Cronkite to write the texts. I told him that he would be able to write off his sailboat, and that did it.”

They shared their love of the sea and tennis, and their success in the book collaboration. Fittingly, the first Walter Cronkite Award will be presented to Ray Ellis at the Sail Martha’s Vineyard benefit on July 10th.

At 89, Ray Ellis continues to exude his wonder and joy of life through art. As his friend, Vineyard artist Allen Whiting says, “Ray is fun to watch. He succeeds in what he loves to do and that is a model for all of us.”

What Mr. Ellis loves to do most is paint Martha’s Vineyard. “I’ve traveled the world, but this place has everything I need; all of nature’s secrets in her shores, farmland, meadows, harbors and people.”

Each morning the veteran artist goes to his studio over the garage in his Edgartown home to paint. “I always have a canvas on my easel and watercolor paper laid down on my drawing table, ready to go. Whichever one I work on, I say to myself, ‘This will be the best painting I’ve ever done.'”