St. Petersburg artist Jack Ellis built “mysterious worlds” in ink

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The way to Jack Ellis’ studio was through his Lakewood Estates backyard, which might have felt like a jungle to visitors, with the plants and trees he and his wife let grow wild. Once inside, the artist would often sprinkle peanuts on the back porch, leaving the door open for blue jays, squirrels, a woodpecker, a crow, and several generations of raccoons to visit throughout the day.

It was a sacred place where he worked for hours creating intricate new worlds out of canvas, crow’s feather and ink.

“He always said his head was full of pictures,” said Ellis’ wife Judy Ellis. “He used to say, ‘I don’t think I’ll live long enough to do anything I put my mind to.'”

The images in Ellis’ mind vanished in the summer of 2020 when his heart began to fail. But decades earlier, he created and photographed large-scale artworks that won awards, acclaim, and captivating viewers.

Ellis died of heart failure on September 17.

His journey to St. Petersburg began near Dayton, Ohio, where he grew up, and passed through New York City. Judy Ellis was an editor at a book publisher and on the day the artistic director announced that she had hired two men and one of them looked like a Beatle, Judy Ellis said: ‘Put the Beatle next to me, I’m getting married him.’ She did and I did.”

The two married in 1966 and moved back and forth between New York and Greece for five years, bringing their son Morgan with them for the final trip. In 1980, the Ellis family moved to Florida to be closer to family.

The couple quickly found that unlike New York City, outdoor art exhibitions here were for serious artists.

In St. Petersburg, Judy Ellis put a biography and five slides of her husband’s work in an envelope and handed it in at the reception of the St. Petersburg Times. Charles Benbow, art critic at the time, soon visited and Ellis’s work was featured in the newspaper.

His techniques created “mysterious worlds,” wrote Benbow in 1980, “simultaneously intriguing and unsettling, but with an inexplicable believability all their own.”

After convincing the art critic, Ellis began work on the outdoor art exhibitions.

For his first, the Mainsail Art Festival, he and his wife hung together three used doors, covered them with burlap and hung Ellis’ work in Stroud Park. People crowded the stand all day, Judy Ellis said.

Ellis won first place and then won first place at the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts.

From 1981 to 2005, Ellis won more than 100 awards for his work and was represented by galleries in New York and throughout Florida.

“Florida’s arts festivals are really some of the best because the judges they hire often come from big museums,” said Catherine Bergmann, curatorial director of the Dunedin Fine Arts Center, which featured Ellis’ work in a 2019 exhibition. “To receive an award at a festival in Florida is no small honor.”

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Looking at his work, which included watercolors and collages, is “like a process of discovery,” Bergmann said, “and one could stand before them in inquiry and meditation.” You could be incredibly busy and always discover something new.”

“You just lose yourself in your work when you see it up close,” said fellow artist and friend Denis Gaston, who met Ellis at the festivals and discovered in him a keen sense of humor and natural positivity.

“He just made you feel at home,” Gaston said.

The artist himself was most at home in his backyard, his wife said, contemplating the wildlife he tended or poring over the images he pulled from his head.

Here are some of them.

When he moved to St. Petersburg from New York City, Jack Ellis' work began winning awards at outdoor art festivals.
When he moved to St. Petersburg from New York City, Jack Ellis’ work began winning awards at outdoor art festivals. [ Courtesy Catherine Bergmann ]
In Jack Ellis' portraits he or a friend stands, sits or lolls surrounded by ornate patterns, wild juxtapositions of objects, foliage and crawling creatures.
In Jack Ellis’ portraits he or a friend stands, sits or lolls surrounded by ornate patterns, wild juxtapositions of objects, foliage and crawling creatures. [ 1980 | Tampa Bay Times ]
Jack Ellis' work often included self-portraits amidst the elaborate worlds he created.
Jack Ellis’ work often included self-portraits amidst the elaborate worlds he created. [ 1980 | Tampa Bay Times ]
St. Petersburg artist Jack Ellis posed with his self-portrait in 1993, which is typical of his intricate style.
St. Petersburg artist Jack Ellis posed with his self-portrait in 1993, which is typical of his intricate style. [ 1993 | Tampa Bay Times ]
The left drawing by St. Petersburg artist Jack Ellis was exhibited at the 2004 Palm Harbor Chamber of Commerce Fine Arts & Crafts Festival in downtown Palm Harbor.
The left drawing by St. Petersburg artist Jack Ellis was exhibited at the 2004 Palm Harbor Chamber of Commerce Fine Arts & Crafts Festival in downtown Palm Harbor. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Jack Ellis created art that was "incredibly detailed," said Catherine Bergmann of the Dunedin Fine Art Center.
Jack Ellis created art that was “incredibly detailed,” said Catherine Bergmann of the Dunedin Fine Art Center. [ Courtesy Catherine Bergmann ]
Artist Jack Ellis and his wife Judy lived intermittently in Greece early in their marriage.  Her favorite piece of his art is a watercolor he made of the 100 year old farmhouse where they lived in Greece.
Artist Jack Ellis and his wife Judy lived intermittently in Greece early in their marriage. Her favorite piece of his art is a watercolor he made of the 100 year old farmhouse where they lived in Greece. [ Courtesy Judy Ellis ]

Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

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