Carson Ellis: a classy hippie

When I die I’d like for someone to say: she really followed her instincts.
From "Under Wildwood"

If you think you don’t know Carson Ellis, you might be wrong. She illustrated the Wildwood Chronicles. She does all of the art for The Decemberists. She has had editorial illustrations in The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review. She painted that rad mural in St. Johns. I’m a big fan. It was bizarre to stand in her driveway and talk about how Beyoncé is overrated. 

Carson’s work captures what Portland feels like better than anything else I’ve seen. And I don’t mean quirky Portland, or in her words, “twee and precious” Portland, like art you might see at a street fair or in New Seasons, but natural Portland. The trees. Our type of cloud. And something harder to pinpoint. Something energetic. If you want to know what it feels like to be in Portland, flip through Wildwood. It’s so special I could cry. 

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Illustrations from the Wildwood Chronicles. Written by Colin Meloy and illustrated by Carson Ellis.

Carson grew up on the grounds of a dilapidated estate called Dellwood in upstate New York. “The actual mansion was in ruins,” she said. “There was a caretaker’s house with a grumpy old man who lived there. We lived in the carriage house, which was sort of like a barn. But my parents were hippies and it was a super tricked out hippie pad.” The place is gone now. Bought by developers and dozed for condos that were never completed. But the experience meant so much to her that she emails with a local historian. (I imagine she’ll make a book about it someday.) Carson spent a lot of time chasing the pony across the street, and a lot of time drawing. “I had an art practice from the time I was an elementary school kid, but I do think that I was sort of a crappy artist most of that time,” she said. 

She studied oil painting at the University of Montana. She wanted to study illustration, but it wasn’t offered. College was where she met her husband, Colin Meloy. She worked on xerox flyers for his band, and they were roommates. When she graduated she moved around, waitressing and making art. “I know now looking back at my post-college portfolio that I was unhireable,” Carson said. 

Mural designed for the St. Johns neighborhood in Portland

She ended up in San Francisco. She was super into the street art and graffiti culture. She drew with sharpies and paint pens. She said, “I just wanted to do something that was novel and unique. So I think what I was seeking out with these really exaggerated, stylized sharpie-drawn depictions, graffiti-influenced depictions of people, was a way to set myself apart. At some point I just stopped doing that. I saw that the art I loved was setting itself apart in ways that were a lot more nuanced.” 

In 2001 Carson moved up to Portland, and she and Colin started dating. They collaborated on promotional materials for his new band, The Decemberists. Carson was still drawing everything with sharpie, but she was unsatisfied. She said they were both really into comic books at that point. (She mentioned Meat Cake and Eightball.) She googled “what do cartoonists draw with?” The answer was brush and ink. So she went to the art store, bought a nib pen, nibs, an ink well, and ink. She said, “I dipped that pen in that ink well and it was like the heavens opened up, and I was like, this is it! It just changed everything about what I was doing. And I think it allowed the art to be sophisticated in a way that it hadn’t been before.” 

"The Littlest Hockey Fight" (my favorite)
I just want to be known for making good art. Being an artist is a journey. You have to always be checking in with your inner compass to make sure you’re doing the stuff you want to do. Evolving the way you want to evolve, rather than following the money, or the easy route because you don’t have time to do it the hard way. Or following the direction people want you to follow.

Carson uses words like, “psychedelic,” and “grotesque,” and “macabre.” She said, “I’m a huge fan of anything you find if you turn over a log.” In college she painted portraits of her friends where she tried to make them look ugly. She said, “I’m still interested in finding ways to make people look expressive. But I think I do it in a much more subtle way.” 

She’s also really into Russia. She took a trip there in 2001 that she says has “literally informed every single thing I’ve done creatively since then.” She explains that “there’s something that appeals to me so much about how incredibly intellectual and elevated and sometimes very politically progressive Russia has been over the years, and also how tumultuous, how backwards at times...the constant tumult of that country. I feel like I am defending it a lot to people.” 

She claims that she doesn’t do anything unique. That she can look at any illustration and name the ten influences that amalgamated in her brain to create it. But she’s also glad that the internet wasn’t such a presence when she started. “I’m really grateful that I didn’t have all of that potential influence coming from every which way,” she said. “And also that I didn’t have that awareness of how much great stuff was being made in the world, because that’s daunting. If you’re making art in a bubble, then you have no reason to think you should stop.” 

wild dogs from "Wildwood Imperium"

Carson lives on a farm outside Portland with her husband and their two boys - Hank and Milo. (Milo's middle name is Cannonball!) They've got all kinds of pets - llamas, chickens, goats, a cat. And there's a horse next door. It's a dreamy place. Just trying to find her studio I wandered into two crazy buildings - a sort of tractor barn filled with guitars, and a silo. She has vague plans to fill her farm with giant folk art, but for now she's working on another picture book she wrote, and some unnamed projects with Colin. "I don't think I have anything coming up that's any better than what I've had going on, but I think I've had it good," she said. 

pictures of Carson's property from her Instagram
pictures of Carson's studio that I took at the interview

More Carson: 

website -  www.carsonellis.com        Instagram - @carsonellis         twitter - @cfellis

Books: 

Home written by Carson Ellis | Wildwood written by Colin Meloy | Under Wildwood written by Colin Meloy | Wildwood Imperium written by Colin Meloy | Dillweed's Revenge, written by Florence Parry Heide | Stagecoach Sal, written by Deborah Hopkinson | The Beautiful Stories of Life, written by Cynthia Rylant | The Composer Is Dead, written by Lemony Snicket | The Mysterious Benedict Society, written by Trenton Lee Stewart