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The Birth of an Artist

Part 3  1956 - 1961

Carme Castells  - translated by David Magil

October 2004


Return to San Diego: bulls and aeroplanes


Having returned to San Diego, not by choice rather out of necessity, the same restlessness that had taken hold of Ellis in earlier periods, when any job was good for saving money and at the same time deriving some creative benefit from it, reappeared now with unusual strength.  For years Ellis would take on numer­ous jobs and combine them with frenetic artistic activity.  He didn't rest for a moment "The pace was exhausting, I wouldn't be capable of doing it now.  I was young, and tireless.  I worked eight hours a day in the factory.  I started early and finished at late in the afternoon.  I arrived home, ate and went to the studio to work, paint, draw, and then eight, or ten, or midnight would come around. And just then I was at the best point, and I  knew I would have to get up at six in the morning, but I didn't want to stop.  That's what you do when you're young, and you want to achieve things.  If you want to, you can do it, you find the strength."


Convair, San Diego, 1956

"The factory" Ellis mentions is the Convair aeroplane factory, where he started working shortly after returning to the USA.  Other artists had made precisely the same choice, and he met them again in the graphic design department "The biggest planes in the world were built at Convair in those days.  Later on I worked at another division of the same company, Astronautics, which manufactured space rockets. They were the most advanced factories in America." 

Ellis was somewhat contented in the facto­ries,  because of the atmosphere, he says: over 400 people working, drawing details of aeroplanes, plans and graphics non-stop.  Drawing, at the end of the day.  Of course it had nothing to do with his drawing.   "You had to schematise a lot, long theories that had to be reduced down to graphics."

 "This taught me the ability to synthesise, to reduce something complex to graphic simplicity."  A capacity for abstraction, in a way.  Nevertheless, the restless Ellis, who can barely control his creative drive,  is still present.  Just as he secretly worked on comics and caricatures in his communications post on San Clemente Island, now he is at his desk, in front of a large corkboard that hangs from the wall.  The artist stands up and pins a drawing up there. A caricature. A cartoon picture. The sketch of a figure in movement, like Flash Gordon. Or a swiftly-drawn bull "Bulls, bulls, bulls...! I was obsessed with bulls.  I went down to Tijuana every Sunday to see the bullfights.  I don't like them now, and even then I felt sorry that so much beauty should have that bloody, pained face, and for the way the animal was tortured.  But I was engrossed by bulls.  Although the bullfights weren't very good there.  Great bullfighters came, but fighting in front of Americans isn't the same as fighting in front of an expert audience, and logically the bullfighters didn't risk their lives in Tijuana. "All these trips to Tijuana enabled Ellis to get to know the owner of the bullring, who then allowed him to go to the corrals in the morning, when the bulls were placid.  Ellis stood behind the barrier with his pad and spent hours drawing bulls. The shadow of Picasso, perhaps? Perhaps.  Or maybe the indescribable magnetism of these animals.  "The bull is a very powerful mythological symbol, and it has incredible beauty, strength.

I learned a lot about bulls and bulllfights: I read books, I met bullfighters.  I even had a good collection of old bullfight posters, from the early 20th century, that were real works of art.  Bullfighting affects me much more now, I couldn't watch it live.  I do not agree with this fiesta, we should do away with it.  What does impress me is the bull, the animal."

Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego 1957/58

So Ellis spends his time with his head bent over his desk, where more than plans, we find bulls and other shapes from his gallery of obsessions.  "Once the boss caught me. 'Ellis, I'm sick of your bulls'. And what do you want me to do? Draw aeroplanes. But I don't know anything about planes, I'm not interested in them!!."

Jacobson Cartoon School, San Diego, 1957

Ellis spent one year at Convair and then a year and a half at Astronautics.  "There was always overtime available, and I volunteered.  I wanted to go back to Europe, so I tried to save all the money I could."

Between the factories he also worked in advertising agencies, on extremely varied projects as a freelancer, and he started the Jacobson Cartoon School in one of the Jacobson Signs' buildings.  He worked for the La Jolla Playhouse creating caricatures of the many actors who performed there,  this provided him with some prominence as they were often featured in San Diego Point Magazine.  Ellis knew what he could do well and he tirelessly exploited it with the goal of raising the necessary fund to head back to Europe. 

Mell Ferrer play, La Jolla Playhouse, 1959

Jacobson and Mell Ferrer, La Jolla Playhouse, 1959

But more than anything Ellis concentrated on his art, which still followed in the powerful wake of Picasso and Braque.  Ellis rented a studio in the country, far away from all noise.  When he had to leave it he installed himself in the garage of the Jacobson family home, the same garage that had been the setting of his childhood movie house 30 years earlier.  Now "Picasso, Braque and Fred Hocks con­tinued to be a constant feature, but   he was beginning to find the influence of many, many famous American painters in my work.  I tried a lot of things.  If there's something I regret now, it is not having gone to New York.  I wanted to go to the school of a great German painter called Hans Hofmann: a dynamic painter, who used bright colours, lots of paint on his canvases.  He was fantas­tic, I wanted to learn from him, but I fell ill.  I think that unconsciously it was fear, although I don't know why.



"The role of the artist, of course, has always been that of image-maker. Different times require different images. Today, when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality. To my mind certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all.  On the contrary, it is the realism of our time."

Adolph Gottlieb, 1947




New York


For one reason or another, the yearned-for trip to New York did not happen.  In San Diego, Ellis delved deeper into the work of other painters, many of whom were completely consolidated in their own style.  He was linked to them by a somewhat spiritual relationship, "I was influenced by their attitude.  I cannot deny that I am American, and therefore I was sensitive to that moment of American art, for me one of the best moments in the history of art "  This attitude, which in one way Fred Hocks had already put Ellis Jacobson in contact with, refers to the acceptance of a series of beliefs, processes and elements influencing the New York artists, which we can recognize in Ellis' abstract work.  From then on and for decades. "Anyone who finds references to, or influences of, a certain American abstract expressionism could well be right, and anyone looking for references to, or influences of, the oriental world may also be partly right'; writes Catalina Serra in an article on Jacobson in Brisas.   These are, however, influences that are channeled into the same tradition, that of the expressionists who stimulate Ellis' creatively, because he finds answers in them to many of the questions his own stance towards art continues to pose.

Starting with Arshile Gorky, who had also found a true reference point in the work of Miro, Picasso, Braque and Gris.  The ill-fated Gorky had taken his first steps in the approaches to abstract impressionism, then leaning towards the influence of Cezanne.  Later he was to drink from the bio-morphological compositions of Miro.  His language, many echoes of which we recognise in Jacobson's abstractions, "was characterised by the independence of the drawing with regard to the patches of colour that appear by way of irregular areas.  The tonalities are evanescent and changeable, and at times they have somewhat transpar­ent qualities.  In his

peculiar abstractions, Gorky mixes elements from nature with other, imagined ones, and manages to create an entirely personal world."  Ellis recognizes his influence fully, "I tried to capture what Gorky was doing.  He was influenced by Picasso and Miro, without them I don't know what he would have done.  To start with he was a conventional artist, like De Koening. They both switched from marvelous drawing to abstract drawing."


Another marked influence is that of Mark Rothko: his horizontal strips that "are always landscapes, our subconscious leads us to interpret it like that"; says Ellis. Although he started off on the borderline between surrealism and abstraction, Rothko's work had favoured total abstraction in the mid '40s. 

Oil on board, San Diego, 1959

He preserved a pronounced sense of composition and interest for primitive cultures, both of which are pronounced aspects of Jacobson's work, too.  From 1948 and until his death in 1970, Markus Rothkowitz devoted himself to painting fields of colour, distributed in strips or blocks that did not obey fixed geometric structures.  He was pursuing the capture of a wide range of sensations and emo­tions. And Ellis responds in the same way when he is asked about the motives or concepts underlying abstraction: "None. Abstraction in itself.  Whatever appears, appears."   Drawing as a constant feature, underlying the pictorial aspect.  The seduction of the primitive.  Composition as a focus of interest. The influence of oriental art, which we find to be one of the bases of the work of Mark Tobey, and consti­tuting one of the essential bases of Jacobson's vital thought, with the obvious derivations it has in his artistic conception.

Jacobson garage studio, San Diego, 1961

  These are some of the characteristics which provide the setting for the work of Jacobson along the lines of North American Abstract Expressionism. And there is yet another factor, doubtless a consistent one, present both in the expres­sionist master and in Ellis: action painting. Ellis describes it in almost mystic terms, linking automatism to a very Zen-like spirituality. "Being a painter is a real privilege. It enables you to meditate whilst you paint. In the end you have to be sat­isfied with what you've done, but you always have to give thanks. Your hand is there to express something more, that gift, that 'something' God gives us: to paint you have to let yourself go, express. And believe in what you do, be a realist.  Neither arrogance nor false modesty. I know I'm a good painter, but not a genius."

In an interview with Matias Valles the painter also said "I don't know where I go when I paint.  Past and future do not exist, and whatever there is in my studio I didn't paint it.  Another entity did, maybe God.  Matisse used to say, 'When I draw I'm not me.' And Picasso said, 'when I enter my studio I leave my head outside.' No creator can boast, because being a genius -which I am not, of course - only implies the responsibility of being on a par with your gift." And he finished up by saying, "After finishing a work, all I can do is give thanks to God, who has enabled me to express something." Even though it is impregnated with other religious connotations, Ellis' approach is not so far removed from that which led Jackson Pollock to dripping as a basic technique in Action Paintings: "Pollock placed large canvases on the floor of the studio and poured paint onto them drop by drop, using buckets he had perforated before­ hand. The feverish gesticulation of his arm, which made the most diverse swinging movements, gave the result of a dense network of lines, displaying great freedom.  "Less density and ritual, but the same determination to leave the execution of the work in the hands of another, superior entity, one always linked to the subconscious (Carl Jung's thinking in partic­ular interested Pollock, as it did other

Oil on canvas, San Diego, 1959

contemporaries). And related, too, to oriental thinking, as Pollock "aspired to the creation of a universal art in which the characteristics of both the Western and the Oriental world would be united, founded on the belief that a universal religion exists. This belief connected up with his great interest for esoterism and occultism.  " No need here to reiterate the spiritual depth Jacobson displays, recorded from the beginning of this text.  Thus, the executing hand of Jacobson (guided by that superior entity, whether we call it soul, God, freedom or subconscious) does not delight in compulsive scrawling on a large canvas so much as letting himself go with ease.

With the agility that comes with more than 30 years dedication to drawing, already at the end of the '50s.  And with the lack of inhibition of a way of thinking that aspires to reaching supremacy of expressive freedom.  Catalina Serra writes that "Jacobson's abstract paintings have an element of synthesis that combines the profound knowledge of tradition with the spontaneity of the moment " This is the spontaneity Ellis refers to as well, the spontaneity of expressive freedom, free from external or internal constraints.  The artist, through­out his training, has demanded liberty of movement.  He was soon to discover that, often, the firmest impositions come from oneself, "Spontaneity, the innocence of the beginning, is very important.  When you start drawing, the first ones will be fan­tastic, but as you carry on they lose something.  After the first one in the series there is a tendency to repeat that you can­ not control, and you get worse."


Rothko-style fields of colour also correspond to this period. The artist is interested in landscape, as a consequence he manifests all those desires to "make a film about nature." Without realising it, he is painting the colours of California.  "There are many aspects of my work I do not realise are there. Once someone saw one of my pictures, and without knowing anything at all he said to me, 'This looks like

California'. He said it because of the colour.  I find it curi­ous, especially if I think of Spain, which has a special, intense light, and yet the painting, until recently, has always been dark, black.  I guess there are a  lot of valid answers: the Franco regime, the oppression of the Church .." Although black, that erratic, faded, in lost, steadily engraved or floating links, does not necessarily have the gloomy connotations that one  identifies with grey Spanish art. "Braque discovered that black is a colour, that it contains thousands of colours.  It's beautiful .."


Finally in 1961 Jacobson had raised the funds to return to Europe, he did not know how long this trip would last, but he knew Europe was where he needed to be, the logistics of where and for how long would fall into place along the way.   He set sail from New York - after a three day layover from Los Angeles - his plan, such as it was, was to collect a large trunk he had stored with some friends in Torremolinos.  The friends had moved to the island of Mallorca and taken the trunk with them, so Mallorca became his first goal, from there he planned to travel to Provennce and maybe back to Paris.

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