The Birth of an Artist

Part 4  1962 - 1975

Carmen Castells  - translated by David Magil

October 2004

 

 

Looking for a home: Mallorca, 1962

Ellis arrived in Mallorca on board the Constituci6n, an enormous sh i p that came from New York. Thus he had f u lfi l led h is d ream of flying to the skyscraper city, but only i n transit. J ust three days i n New York. There is no mystery i n the fact that El lis opted for Mallorca, precisely: h is teacher Fred Hocks recommended he visit the island. But El l is' ori gina l intenti on goes no further than tou rism. The artist was not to real ise that Mal lorca, precisely  Mal lorca, would be his home unti l al l  remain­  i ng options were exhausted. El l is travelled to France fi rst. "I was gen uinely obsessed with settling i n La Provence, I always have been. I  feel at home there." He visited Aix-en Provence, cezanne's stud io. But i n spite of h is predilection, he felt strange

there. "Alone, I felt very alone. Even though I don't mind solitude. But I felt isolated there." He sounded out Italy, too. He spent a month near Lake Orta, but that didn't convince him either. There are some places there that are a genuine l uxury for the senses, but the heat is suffocating, and the solitude is tremendous, too."  During that month, Ellis' hand spread colour and calligraphy furiously over papers which could not stand up to the humidity.  Back in Spain, Ellis tried Madrid, where Fred put h i m u p i n h is apartment whilst the painter looked for a stud io.  It was a l l too expensive. And the same i n Barcelona. So fi na l­ ly, Mal lorca was the best option.

 

Too many propitious circumstance converge in Mallorca for Ellis not to decide to stay. The first one was Nan Gardner, a model and , whom he met on the island.  She had not missed her annual visit to the island  since the '50s and was now living on the island.  In those days it was unspoilt, like most of the island. " This landscape would also exercise a special influence on Ellis, as it did on so many visitors armed with pen or paintbrush. The tranquillity the artist seeks, and discovers on the island, is another circumstance. And why deny it,some other, more practical reasons. For example the fact that it was cheap in comparison to the United States.  Here he would be able to settle down with the savings he had accumulated over the prior 6  years, and try to survive whilst devoting himself entirely to his artistic work.

 

 

 

Ellis established his first residence in Genova, near El Terreno where the majority of the Americans who visited the island were congregated.  The atmosphere didn't convince him: "They were people of my age, but many of them were here because they had a state pension, they were Second World War veterans.  They spent their days drinking, getting drunk, plenty of partying, but that isn't my scene." He visited the surrounding villages: Deia, Valldemossa.  In Deia he discovered the power of a place that was "magical it has a kind of other-worldly element, it is a wonder of colour and mystery'; and he also mixed with the         circle of artists who had instal led themselves there. ' He met Robert Graves through Bill Waldren. "The artists and intellectuals who lived in Deia made up a community, they shared a large part of their life and there was great deal of intellectual and creative interchange between them.  But I wanted more

tranquillity, I wanted to be a little more isolated."  He found the happy medium in Genova. He started working there and from there he discovered Mallorca, its landscape, its lifestyle and its people.

''I'm a Mallorcan; I feel totally connected to the island.  It treated me well, very well.  Here everything foreigners have brought in diverse art styles has been received:   Here he found a quality of life that the United States refused him categorically, whether it be in San Diego, New York or Nebraska.  Above all, it is the way people relate to one another. "Several times I have thought about returning to the United States. My friends say that I could make more of a name for myself and I would earn more money. But my son did not recommend it. He says I wouldn't last more than a month, and he's right. Over there you can spend months without meeting anyone you know. Even if you want to see a friend you have to plan the meeting beforehand, some time in advance. That doesn't happen here. I go to the centre of Palma any time and I always meet someone." And the meetings over tablecloths, irreplaceable: "The pleasant times one spends with friends around a table, Spain has that, whether it be Manacor, Alpera or wherever. You meet up to eat and yes, the food is important, but even more so is the conversation. You've barely sat down and you're already planning the next dinner."

 

Art in Mallorca

Although Ellis, on reaching Mallorca, felt terribly uneasy.  The same anxiety that had made himm leave Provence and Italy.  Already, on returning to the United States in 1955, he had showed signs of difficulty in adapting to the new situation: "It was as though I had returned from another planet -a different way of living, of eating, of speaki ng, different people ... It took me many months to adapt again." The pain of this more recent change would be perceived in his work: in the inten­sity, the confusion and the harshness  with which he often expresses solitude and unease of  spirit. Nevertheless, he soon struck up f riendships with other artists who had just arrived, and l ittle by l ittle his soci al ci rcle broadened. The nucleus of these relationshi ps is made u p of four name.s, already very well-known on the art scene - Jim Bird, Steve Afif, John Ulbricht and Ritch Mi ler.

 

With them Jacobson  entered into the island's cultural life and made contact with the different groups that were striv­ing to make a breakthrough in the decadent art that still prevailed in Mallorca at that time.  The artist sti l l  vaguely recal ls the Tago G roup, the f irst of the groups organised i n Pal ma with  a vocation to open u p the pathway towards new plasti c arts i n Mal lorca.29 Doubtless this is so because the activity of the grou p, founded i n 1959, started to remit in 1963, and split up the followi ng year: precisely when El l is Jacobson settled on the island and began to make contact w ith the artisti c ambi­ ence. He does, however, have clear recol lections of Pere Quetglas (Xam), whom he met briefly, nonetheless establ ish i ng a affable relati onsh i p with h i m. And of Mi quel Rivera Bagur, "very narf, and a very good person." Later on it was to be J i m Bird, John Ulbrich and Steve Af if who wou ld attend the meeti ngs of the 'Gru p Di mecres' with Ellis, i n the 1970s. Th is group, organised in Manacor by artists l i ke Miquel Brunet, Llorenc,: Ginard, Joan Riera Ferrari or Bi el Barcelo,io met once a week, but we went on a month ly basi s. "It was night, it was a long way away, and i n the end you a lways arrived hom e really late. I n the begi n n i ng it was very active. A few arti sts met up and we spent ti me chatting, d raw i ng sketches and cari catu res. Later it turned i nto someth ing d ifferent: I  th i nk too many  people went." Ellis

describes his attempts to organ i se a sim ilar meet­ing i n Genova, wh ich failed, however. 

 

Ellis' arrival on the island coincided with the true beginning of the tourist development of Mallorca. "The year 1960 is always taken as the definitive starting point in modern tourist development, characterised by its nature as a phenomenon of the mass­es, the radical transformation of the  islands'  socio-economic  structure and the establishment of a growing tourism model unique in the Mediterranean,   The descri ption Ell is offers of the island he d iscovered on arrivi ng coi ncides with th is vision of a discouragi ng scene for the abstraction  he  had  already  come to know  and  develop i n  extremely i nteresti ng  propos­ als. "Tourism was already underway, although it was just begi nn i ng." Culturally, "Mallorca was very backward. The foreigners and some Spaniards were more advanced.  In fact, at the time there was Mi llares, Tapies, Gui novart ... bri l l iant artists.  But  the Mallorcans carried  on painting landscapes  with  olive trees."

 

Without doubt Ellis succumbed to Malllorca's light and landscape.  That light which "invades everything in a magnifi­cent, gleaming orgy'; that "torrent of light that reverberates across the island, imprisoning it and dominating it complete­ly."" And the landscape: "Malllorca is, first and foremost, landscape.  It is not a landscape created deliberately to be transferred onto canvas, but a landscape that holds the roots of beauty deep down.  The aesthetics of the landscape could be written down just by contemplating the Mallorcan landscape." wrote Sabater, "the very grandeur of this landscape and its very expressive force oblige one to eliminate, to cut out the expressive elements that emerge from it. There can be no doubt that one of the first jobs of the artist who wishes to capture this landscape is that of knowi ng how to distinguish between what is fundamental and what is accessorial, between what is permanent and what is temporary."  In an article entitled "Es Ref ugi" (The Ref uge}, Gu i l!em Frontera revi ews the relationsh i p numerous forei gn arti sts have had with the Mal lorcan landscape.

 

By way of an exam ple of the mysterious power th island holds over artists, he tells John Sargent well-known anecdote: "It is said that, during his stay on Mallorca, when he realised that kind of religious atmosphere the island's landscape gives off was beyond him, he threw up his brushes into the air, exclaiming, 'I'm not J apanese!'." Frontera also tells of the definition the writer George Sand gave in her day: Mal lorca was "the green Helvetia, under the sky of Calabria, with the stillness and silence of the Orient."

 

Ellis, the spiritual Ellis, the intuitive Ellis, must have captured something of this when he settled on the

island.  Not i n va in do we f ind h im engrossed in an a lmost exclusive interest for th ings prim itive, the essentia l natu re of the eart h, for natu re. His abstractions  reflect the deep mark left by the visions of cave pa i nti ngs on h is plastic arts, added to wh i ch there is h i s attraction for the petroglyphs of Cal iforn i a. His i nterest for ori ental, as wel l as spiritual con notations, also entai ls an attraction for basics. Ellis d rew cal l igraph ies, looked for parchment-l i ke textures. He pai nted  colou r landscapes, stim u lat­ ed by Rothko's f ields. ''That was t he beginn ing of my series dedicated to archaeo logy and the Earth." The Earth with a cap­ ita l 'E', Mother Earth, the origi n of so much. Nature. Frontera writes, "If Mal lorca had attracted so many pai nters with its landscape, it was logical i n a way that, as landscape pai nti ng decl i ned, w ith the blind i ng explosion of abstracti on, the i sland was no longer of i nterest to the arti sts who had joi ned the avant-gardes. [...] And yet, here we have the great f igure of J oan Mir6, lead ing a small army of artists'; amongst whom he cites Ellis J acobson, obviously. And Ritch Miller. And John Ulbricht. And Steve Afif and Jim Bird.

 

On a creative level, the decade of the '60s made for continuity of the work Ellis had been producing in  San Diego.  Nevertheless, in the works he embarked on in his house on the hilltop town of Genova, and from 1964 on in his castle home in La Bonanova - his defini­tive home, where he could still be found at the time of the writing of this biography, drinking tea, surrounded by papers, records, books, rocks and cardboard  - certain par­ticularities begin to appear. Like the confusion we spoke of above: vital, intimate confusion, which is projected into plastic tension.  The work from this decade is not calm work.  Ellis says, "I would say that this was one of my best periods." His eagerness to experiment led him to inaugurate a new

technique in his paintings: "I stuck thick card onto the board, then I would wet it and tear off pieces of the card, I peeled it off. By doi ng so I achieved an interesting texture."  There was much of the creative automatism of Pollock in h is activity.  Much of his creative fury, and artistic compulsion.  There were also walks in the country, near-obsessive searching for tree bark.  In those tree barks, Ellis found pieces of abstraction that were a gift from nature. Ellis found the mystery of plasticarts in organic things.

 

The Mallorca was an island of dohcotomies and inherent in that juxtapositons the well heeled and the penniless expats, from all walks of life, trying to find themeselves or lose themselves - often in the bottom of a bottle.   As the Colonies crubled the expats of the British Empire escaped back to Britain and quickly found they did not belong, rebounding to palces like Mallorca where they coudl stretch their pounds under the warmth of the mediterranean sun.  American's, writers, actors, artist, trust fund babies all came to Mallorca some it is said where never sober enough to leave al were taken by the beuaty of the island and the in a europe that was quickly catching back up to the rest of the developed world Spain and Mallorca were still backwards and remote, the subcultires formed, layer upon layer, there were those like Ellis who lived in three different worlds.

 

The list of people that one could encounter at any given day in El Terreno or on Jaime III in Palma was long and varied, each with theri own fascinating background and unique reason for living on the Island:

Faye Emerson, Joan Miro, Ruthven Todd, Charles Boyer, Robert Graves, Mark McShane,

 

 

The arrival of someone back from teh UK or the States inevitaby menat that there woudl be ne Newsweeks or Time Magazines passed  from house to house.

 

Ellis worked away in his studio with the Voice of America and BBC Workd Serviceas his constant companions. 

 

 

 

 

 

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