Carson Ellis, original artwork for the The Decemberists' The Long and Short of it Tour (detail)
It is no secret that Portland has an impressive music scene nor is a secret that
the art scene is equally robust, what isn't talked about much is how often they
are entwined in each others affairs. The two have grown up alongside and supported eachother. Take for instance one of my favorite local
artists, Carson Ellis
and her work for The Decemberists
Way back in the old days 2001/2002 (before Portland actually believed something
was going on) Ellis got my attention for her sure hand and novel wit. Later,
her ghost ship painting was used for The
Decemberists Castaways and Cutouts
album and the rest is history. Soon she'll
have a show in Chelsea, but till then there is small but wonderful retrospective
of her The Decemberists work at PCC
up for the month of March.
Since those early-aughts she has been the major visual design force behind
a mix of anachronism, sepia & coffee stained tones, wit and
haunted maritime/Russian fairytale edge (ala Baba Yaga). I continue to be a
bigger fan of her than the band, which is exceptional too though it's rarer
for them to be on my MP3 player than to think of Ellis' work.
Original artwork for Decemberists.com
The reasons were simple, Ellis was the first artist to so convincingly blend
the Royal Art Lodge style Canadian laugh-from-dread, Audubon, Japanese Kawaii or "cute"
culture, scrimshaw, maritime tattoos and Russian folk into something that referenced those styles without being derivative.
Poster for the Blackbird 2001
As this show illustrates Ellis' graphic language developed pretty quickly.
Her poster for the Blackbird back in 2001 evokes monumental prison with a Russian
style onion tower and a few people with a car waiting outside. Is it a jailbreak
or a concert? It is interesting and a decent poster but not very distinctive.
One has to remember this was right after September 11 and the country was taking
a dangerous turn towards being a police state. In fact George W. Bush had incredibly
high approval ratings, but Portland is not like the rest of the US
had marches around Pioneer Square decrying these practices. We also had lots
of concert posters that tapped into the zeitgeist.
Carson was definitely channeling that defiance with a dread yearning for change
that was in the air here back then (and even more so now). Later Ellis' focus
on escape would come into full bloom as a more completely engrossing world.
Original artwork for 5 Songs
The artwork for the 5
is a step into a more fully consuming aesthetic. Executed in mostly
blue ink an acrobat who looks a lot like one of Degas' sculptures stands on
top of two folksy figures obviously inspired by the famous folk artist Bill
(perfectly acceptable to borrow as graphic art) but
it's the scrimshaw-style penmanship of words that swirl into a whirlpool that
Like a letter home written during a long voyage there is a
resignation and a romance here.
detail from original artwork for 5 Songs
This scrollwork "full of longing" motif culminates in the seminal
piece of the show, the original drawings for the CD foldout for Her
Original artwork for Her Majesty (detail)
Original artwork for Her Majesty (detail)
Original artwork for Her Majesty and sketch
Consisting of a long series of grim WWI style trenches with
banners proclaiming the song titles, the characters are depicted as huddled
down, reading, drinking and worrying. It is a scene of historical quagmire and
progress at an impasse, perfectly channeling our own times. Ellis manages a
Paul Klee like cartoony feel soaked with dread anachronistic cheer. It conveys
an overarching historical awareness that the human race has made this mistake
before and will again (the Iraq war). The sheer detail puts the viewer in the
trenches and corresponding mood.
Study for Her Majesty (detail)
I consider this a very influential image for 2003 and by 2004 other artists
seemed to traffic in the same militarism without the expansive poetry.
I also found the preparatory sketch illuminating, with what looks like a coffee
stain as a mortar shell exploding above the quagmired combatants
watercolor but could there be a more Portland pigment?
Original artwork for The Crane Wife
Later artwork like that for the Crane
is more ornate and polished. The two dwarves have pleasant, antique
Russian looking bruskness to them and the actual Crane has foreshortened wings
showing Ellis' interest in early photography, Japanese scrolls and John James
Audubon. Things seem to have gotten more serious, even studied and clinical
than the more cartoony work for Her Majesty. That isn't bad but it does hint
at the message the band was trying to send and the mood is more personal.
Artwork for Decemberists.com
Still, the work for the website
T-shirts etc. have a more whimsical tack with walking elephants, old time nudie
films and bearded shirts. The mood is pure PT
Ellis is a very serious artist and though this show mostly amounts to illustration
she's shown herself to be one of the most adept in that field working today.
What I'd love to see is a bigger show of her haunting/funny drawings and paintings.
Till then this small retrospective definitely whets the appetite as few artists
seem to channel the anachronism and desire for a smarter way to live that Ive
seen in Portland (but now present everywhere in some form) over the past 9 years.
is open Monday- Friday 10:00 am-4:00 pm. It is located in Building 3 of the Rock Creek Campus of Portland Community College at 17705 NW Springville Road, Portland.
For more information contact Prudence Roberts at 503-244-6111 x3434