IN­SPIRED BY AN ISLAND

PAINTER RAY EL­LIS CAP­TURED THE MANY MOODS OF FISH­ING OFF MARTHA’S VINE­YARD

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - BY JIM FLAN­NERY

With his brush­strokes, artist Ray El­lis cap­tured the sights and sounds and magic of the month-long Martha’s Vine­yard Striped Bass and Blue­fish Derby. By JIM FLAN­NERY

RRay El­lis’ paint­ings of fish­er­men sto­ically pur­su­ing their pas­sion in cold, gray surf against a back­drop of rocky beaches and steep cliffs or un­der a full moon mir­rored on a tide flood­ing through Cape Poge Gut were the face of the Martha’s Vine­yard Striped Bass and Blue­fish Derby for 25 years.

El­lis, who died in 2013 at age 92, told the story of the derby and the an­glers who fish it through his iconic paint­ings, which gen­er­ated more than $500,000 in print sales for schol­ar­ships that helped the island’s stu­dents pur­sue ca­reers in ma­rine sci­ences.

“Ray was a re­ally gen­er­ous man, fun-lov­ing, car­ing,” says Ed Jerome, president of the Martha’s Vine­yard Striped

Bass and Blue­fish Derby and a long­time friend of the artist. “There was noth­ing he wouldn’t do for you. He was a won­der­ful, won­der­ful friend.”

A tal­ented sto­ry­teller, El­lis was much beloved by those who live, work and fish on Martha’s Vine­yard, Mas­sachusetts, his year-round home with his wife, Ted­die, for 22 years and a get­away for at least five years be­fore that. El­lis was a striper fish­er­man, and he would me­an­der in and out of the coves and in­lets along the Vine­yard’s coast in a cat­boat or small boat in search of in­spi­ra­tion and fish.

In 1983 he col­lab­o­rated with re­tired CBS news an­chor Wal­ter Cronkite, one of his Vine­yard ten­nis part­ners, on South by South­east. Cronkite wrote about the peo­ple and places he en­coun­tered while sail­ing Wyn­tje, a West­sail 42, from Ch­e­sa­peake Bay to Key West, and El­lis painted coastal scenes from a 28-foot Ber­tram. El­lis would work with Cronkite on two more trav­el­ogues: North by North­east, ex­plor­ing the coast from Cape May, New Jersey, to the Canadian bor­der, and West­ward, for which they cruised the West Coast.

A pro­lific artist with a prodi­gious work ethic, El­lis con­tin­ued to paint daily un­til his death, com­plet­ing more than 6,000 works on a host of sub­jects — fish­ing, sail­ing, boat­ing, hunt­ing, work­boats and wa­ter­men, coastal land­scapes and seascapes, light­houses, noc­tur­nal scenes, city streets, run­down houses, base­ball (he was an avid Red Sox fan) and golf, even Dutch tulip fields, French farm­land and scenes from Antarc­tica.

“Ev­ery­thing in­ter­ested him,” says Treesa Ger­many, di­rec­tor of the Ray El­lis Gallery in Sa­van­nah, Ge­or­gia. “That’s part of what made him such a fas­ci­nat­ing fig­ure — his cu­rios­ity. Here in the South, he loved paint­ing life by the marshes, and es­pe­cially the peo­ple that made their liv­ing off the coast — the fish­er­men, oys­ter­men, shrimpers.”

Ger­many de­scribes El­lis as a re­al­ist who moved be­tween re­al­ism and nat­u­ral im­pres­sion­ism. “In some paint­ings he sharp­ened the de­tail, and oth­ers he painted very loosely,” she says. “He moved back and forth.”

Born in Philadel­phia, El­lis ex­hib­ited a tal­ent and pas­sion for art at an early

age. “He [used to talk] about get­ting out of school, hop­ping on his bike with pad and pen­cils, and rid­ing to the edge of town, where he’d pick a spot and sit down and draw un­til din­ner­time,” Ger­many says.

He drew his fam­ily, his home, his neigh­bor­hood. He be­came im­pa­tient with high school and dropped out while re­peat­ing his se­nior year to at­tend the Philadel­phia Mu­seum School of Art, where he learned from the works of the masters — re­al­ists Winslow Homer, John Singer Sar­gent and Andrew Wyeth were his prin­ci­pal in­flu­ences. El­lis left the mu­seum school to serve in the Coast Guard dur­ing World War II. He saw duty off Maine and Texas and in the In­dian and Pa­cific oceans, where he be­came well ac­quainted with the sea and well re­garded for his sketches, paint­ings, car­toons and il­lus­tra­tions for Coast Guard pub­li­ca­tions.

Af­ter the war, El­lis opened an ad­ver­tis­ing agency, do­ing com­mer­cial il­lus­tra­tion, and in 1969 he set out to be a painter, work­ing first in wa­ter­col­ors and later in wa­ter­col­ors and oils. Liv­ing for a time in New Jersey, then in Hil­ton Head, South Carolina, and Sa­van­nah and fi­nally Martha’s Vine­yard, he never stopped re­fin­ing his un­der­stand­ing of the places where sea and shore meet, and where an­glers hunt their quarry.

“In some ways, all his paint­ings were stud­ies,” says Ger­many. “He painted many sub­jects over and over. He did a se­ries of moon­lit surf scenes, maybe 20 or 30 over 20 years. Within that sub­ject he ex­plored the color of night, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the sky and the hori­zon, the form of break­ing waves, how moonlight cast on the wa­ter.

“I think the act of paint­ing fas­ci­nated him,” she con­tin­ues. “It was ex­plo­ration, the what if, that pro­pelled him to the next paint­ing.”

The way El­lis painted changed over time. “Early on, he would take his wa­ter­col­ors and easel and drive out to the coun­try­side and paint,” Ger­many says. “Later on in his ca­reer he took pho­to­graphs and re­turned to the stu­dio to paint.” Some­times he sketched scenes on-site with wa­ter­col­ors, then painted them in the stu­dio.

Ger­many says El­lis would take artis­tic li­cense and add or delete an el­e­ment to make a com­po­si­tion bet­ter, un­der­scor­ing his view of paint­ing; he wasn’t so much in­ter­ested in a faith­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tion as he was in a good paint­ing, a beau­ti­ful paint­ing.

El­lis de­vel­oped a na­tional fol­low­ing. He pub­lished 15 books of his paint­ings and re­ceived in­vi­ta­tions to ex­hibit in mu­se­ums and gal­leries, and in U.S. em­bassies over­seas. President Clin­ton and first lady Hil­lary com­mis­sioned El­lis to do paint­ings for the White House Christ­mas cards three years run­ning.

Jerome ac­com­pa­nied El­lis to the White House Christ­mas party the year the artist painted the Lin­coln Room fes­tooned with dec­o­ra­tions as the greet­ing card theme. “It was a lot of laughs, a lot of fun,” Jerome says. “We got to have a few drinks with Santa.”

Rac­ing the Squall

Morn­ing at Men­emsha

Fish­ing the Break­wa­ter

Fish­ing the Gut

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