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Captured: Artist Ted Ellis Documents and Preserves 400 Years of African American History

New Orleans-born artist Ted Ellis has captured and created over 5,000 paintings of the life of African Americans for more than 25 years. Each painting unravels a mystery, tells a story, illustrates hidden meaning, or pays homage to forebearers by placing Black experiences front and center. Ellis captures scents from Southern churches, courtrooms, families, and everyday life over Black America’s 400-year journey. Ellis, 56, sat down with The Informer to discuss his craft, the support of God and his loving wife Erania Ellis, and his artistic dreams as a historical artist to ensure Black history remains vibrant.

Washington Informer: Your work has helped shape the past by documenting the everyday experiences of Black Americans. Of all the subjects and areas of interests, you could have gravitated towards, what inspires you to chronicle Black life on American shores?

Ted Ellis: I feel it is important that when you have a gift it should be used with purpose and with good intentions. One of the gifts I’ve been blessed with is to paint. It is a passion of mine to tell stories of my history, culture and lifestyle. My paint gives me the opportunity to inform and educate. A visual narrative African American history is timeless. For more than 30 years I have been unapologetic in documenting the story of African Americans than span over 400 years in America. I paint who I am and where I have come from, a story, a journey of triumph over struggle. To provide a visual of our resiliency as a people compels me to paint.

Ted Ellis paintings continue to explore the grit and resilience of Africans in America from enslavement and self-identity formation to the present. (Courtesy of Ted Ellis Art)
Ted Ellis paintings continue to explore the grit and resilience of Africans in America from enslavement and self-identity formation to the present. (Courtesy of Ted Ellis Art)

WI: Would you consider yourself a visual historian?

TE: Yes, I do. I am a creative visual historian. One who researches and interprets through images. An artist who is a scribe, creating paintings that convey an important historical account of activities of African Americans over a period of time.

WI: Some of your most visually arresting works involve scenes from the rural South and those of the Black Church. How important has it been for you to honor the cultural traditions of both?

TE: I was born in the South, the city of New Orleans, La. I grew up there, stimulated by its unique culture, I was also introduced to the baptist church at and early age, the Black Church influenced much of who I am today. I learned that all life is sacred, and that being a christian is to care for humanity. I’ve experience the struggles of the South,both poverty and racism. I knew my belief in God, having faith, and a desire for excellence through education and work would provide me opportunity to be better and to do better.

WI: This year marks the 400th anniversary of Africans arriving on Virginia shores and you have had an amazing place in its commemoration. Discuss what taking part in that commemoration has been like for you and what how your artwork informs it.

TE: As one of the federally appointed commissioners by the Dept. of Interior for the 400 Years African American History Commission my greatest since of purpose has been in developing plans and programs commemorating African Americans for the 50 contiguous states. I am proud of two major important outcomes, one of which I was the oversight Chair for our 400 Legislative program Let’s Talk about Our Dream, held at the Congressional auditorium in Washington, DC on June 12, 2019. In the audience were 250 high school students. Secondly, suggesting and implementing the 400 Distinguished Service Award. This award was given to individuals during the 400th Anniversary 0f 1619-2019 in Hampton, VA, at Fort Monroe. I was also honored to create both the official seal and the official commemorative poster for the 400 Years of African American Commission. These activities will become part of the U.S. National Archives. History will recognize that for the first time an African American artist serve as a federal commission for the sole purpose of commemorating African-American history. That is making history.

Ted Ellis paintings continue to explore the grit and resilience of Africans in America from enslavement and self-identity formation to the present. (Courtesy of Ted Ellis Art)
Ted Ellis paintings continue to explore the grit and resilience of Africans in America from enslavement and self-identity formation to the present. (Courtesy of Ted Ellis Art)

WI: How important is it for Black people to see themselves framed within the history of this nation in high art?

TE: It is critically importance, the art acts as an agent in preserving the history and culture of Black people, it is a visual document. When Black folk see constructive images of themselves it reinforces their value of worth, builds self-esteem and empowers. The art becomes a national treasure that is shared and provides enlightenment.

WI: In the same way that a picture speaks 1,000 words — a painting can yield unlimited words, especially when viewed by children. Tell me a bit about the impact your work has as educational art.

TE: Educating through art is what I’ve been doing full-time for past 25 years. I continue to visit schools, K-12, colleges and university because students respond more aggressively to images, and engage in discussions about what they see and what they interpret from the art. It is a great stimulus for learning, the art gets the brain to start thinking. Schools and museums are two of the best places where students participate in visual learning. My graduate Studies in Museums demonstrate the best way to gain students attention is through art, objects and artifacts.

WI: What do you want people to know about Ted Ellis and Ted Ellis Art.

TE: That I, Ted T. Ellis believe in myself, that I have a passion for humanity, That I realize the importance of education, history and culture and how that impacts our lives. I want the next generation of influencers, historians, educators and politicians in our community to realize the valuable role that visual artists play in preserving our culture. We need to place a higher value our visual artists, as much value as we place on actors, entertainers, and professional athletes.

For more about Ted Ellis, go to www.tellisfineart.com. Follow him on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/tellisfineart/?hl=en) and on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/TEllisFineArt). Website: http://tellisfineart.com.

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