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Unlocking the art of creative living for one Brantford resident

Community ProfileUnlocking the art of creative living for one Brantford resident

As a fourth-generation artist, Dean Ellis has been surrounded by the world of creative expression since he was born.

When he was just a young child, his mother, a talented oil painter, encouraged him to pick up a paintbrush as a means to entertain himself.

“I did my first oil on canvas when I was four, using one of my mother’s canvas boards and paints as well as some of my grandmother’s brushes,” he said. “I think they had gotten tired of me pestering them to go out and play, so they said ‘here, why don’t you try this.’”

Whether it was oil painting, the occasional watercolour or sketching the neighbours beloved Great Dane, from that moment on, he continued to try his hand at art.

Dean Ellis poses for a photo in his home workspace on Saturday, December 30, 2023.

Now 68-years-old, the multimedia artist knows that he couldn’t live a life without it.

Ellis was born in London, Ontario, and raised in both Burlington and Toronto. In 1969, his family moved back to his father’s hometown in Brantford just as he was about to start high school.

It was at Pauline Johnson where he continued to navigate and hone his artistic skills, testing the waters with stone carving, large dot art, acrylic painting, sketching, and more.

To this day, he still has one of his stone carvings made in his grade nine art class, which was showcased at the Glenhyrst Art Gallery, displayed in his “cabinet of curiosities” at his home.

During that time, he also began experimenting with the art of photography.

“I became friends with a couple people who were really into photography, and they had their own darkroom. We started up a camera club and that’s how I really got involved,” he said. “One summer before school started, my friend John and I went to Toronto and we hit up all the pawnshops and I got my first 35mm camera which was a Zenit-E that cost me $29.99 for a camera bag, camera body, three lenses, a flash and a ten pack of black and white film.”

Dean Ellis poses with his “cabinet of curiosities” at his home on Saturday, December 30, 2023.

After finishing high school, Ellis went on to attend Guelph University where he completed his Bachelor of Art in Fine Art with a double major in Art History.

“I had gone to university with the intention of getting my degree and then going and getting my BEd (Bachelor of Education) because I really wanted to be a high school art teacher. From the time I was in grade nine when I first met my own art teacher, I knew I wanted to do what he did,” he said. “But, during my second year of university, the province laid off 2600 secondary school teachers across the province, so that got crossed off the list. Then I thought I would get a job at an art gallery, but they’re harder to get than pulling your own teeth.”

It was at university where Ellis continued to widen his artistic horizon.

“It was phenomenal because they only had about five or six permanent professors but the studio teachers, they would come in for maybe a semester or two, and they were all recognized artists and you got to learn so many different things from each of them. From metal sculpture to casting, welding, stone carving, wood carving, just about every form of sculpture you can think of, there was such a range of studio art that was taught,” he said. “I learned every form of printmaking, as well as painting that you can think of, right up to frescos where you’re literally using the same painting method that Michelangelo used. It was great because a lot of the time, what you learn in one medium, some of it can be applied to another.”

One of Dean Ellis’ mental health inspired multimedia works feature antlers, woodwork, stonework, guitar strings all in one.

Ellis’ credits his mother and his grandmother for his passion of expanding his artwork.

“A big part of my artistic life is not just doing one thing,” Ellis said. “They drilled into me from the get-go that I should never settle and do just one thing. It was always ‘if you get good at something, that’s wonderful and you can stay with it, but try something else and always keep trying something else.’”

When Ellis graduated in 1978, he soon got a job selling insurance, however his boss saw something more for him and set him up with an interview at Screenprint (later Storeimage Programs Inc.).

While Ellis tried to give his two weeks’ notice with the insurance company, his boss insisted that he should start right away.

“George was like that, he never expected anybody to stay with selling life insurance as long as he did. So, I took the job and started on August 1, 1979, and I was with them until September 20, 2010,” he said. “I started in the graphics department stripping film, and then eventually I landed somewhere between the arts department and the graphics department because I was doing work for both, I also had my own process camera to do all my camera and film work. I was also the secretary of the union but eventually, I got downsized out of my job and I moved into working in the warehouse where I stayed until the last day the shop was open.”

Dean Ellis’ grade nine stone carving “Peter” sits on display in his “cabinet of curiosities” on Saturday, December 30, 2023.

Despite the loss of his job, Ellis didn’t stop creating and his artwork is now displayed all across Canada, the United States, South America and Europe.

While Ellis doesn’t paint as often as he used to, he finds himself spending most of his time creating pen and ink works as it reminds him of his time in graphic design.

“For the most part, my biggest medium is, and has been for the last 20 years, pen and ink,” he said. “That’s why I like black and white, and black keyline with colour inside. It’s like a print that you would do graphically.”

Ellis’ work is often intricate with hundreds of detailed elements.

“I refer to my artwork as Horror Vacui (a latin-derived term), which means the fear of open spaces. It’s the idea of filling an entire space and so… I overfill it,” he chuckled. “A lot of people and gallery owners have told me that they like to sit down and read my artwork before they put it up on the wall because well, I don’t do big work, but I do intense.”

Ellis’ work is often only 11” x 14” or 8” x 10” in size, but one of the larger pieces he’s been working on is a 16” x 20” pen and ink piece of work that is inspired by Boudica, a Celtic queen who led a revolt against Roman rule in ancient Britain. He’s been working on it for over 125 hours and the artist isn’t done yet.

“I’ve set it aside because I want to add colour but I just don’t know how or where yet,” he said.

When it comes to his process, Ellis can often spend months drawing and perfecting a design before he graphite’s the back of the drawing and then transfers it to a board and begins to dot in the details.

“I’ll work things out on paper over and over again and then sometimes I’ll scan it and put it on the computer and try something on there,” he said.

Not only does the artist express himself on paper, but he still uses photography as well.

“I’m an opportunistic photographer and extremely eclectic,” he said. “I’ll photograph anything as long as its legal and I’m able to. I like to shoot the community of Brantford, the downtown specifically, but I’m not doing it for fine art necessarily or anything else other than just to record the history and show how it was.”

Dean Ellis adds details to one of his many pieces at his desk on Saturday, December 30, 2023.

As the photographer for the Brantford Symphony Orchestra, Ellis also finds himself photographing different events around the city.

“The event photography started in 2013 at the Station Gallery Café. They had a comedy night every Thursday night and I noticed there were all these amateur, semi-pro comedians coming in and doing their thing and they really didn’t have anything to show it off,” he said. “So I started photographing the comedians and sending pictures of them on stage so they could have good pictures they could utilize. It really took off from there.”

When it comes to finding inspiration, Ellis notes there isn’t much he is not inspired by.

“It’s more or less, what don’t I get inspiration from? Which, is a very short list. My art often starts with just one image or idea and then I end up adding things I like and then it just keeps growing and growing,” Ellis said. “I’m not going to portray anything that I don’t find at least some aspects that I like. I have never done artwork for the masses. My artwork is not commercial, it’s personal, you know?”

He says without art, he would be lost.

“It’s just so ingrained in me, and it’s become something that I have to do,” he said. “I don’t do it for people, it’s always been for myself to make for others, but not in a commercial sense, you know? I do it the hope that someone will look at something and say ‘neat, I like that.’”

Overall, Ellis, says he’s happy with where both him and his art have come.

“There was a long time that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do because I had to do things for somebody else, but I’m where I want to be and doing what I want to do.”

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