Ray Ellis’ paintings of fishermen stoically pursuing their passion in cold, gray surf against a backdrop of rocky beaches and steep cliffs or under a full moon mirrored on a tide flooding through Cape Poge Gut were the face of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby for 25 years.
Ellis, who died in 2013 at age 92, told the story of the derby and the anglers who fish it through his iconic paintings, which generated more than $500,000 in print sales for scholarships that helped the island’s students pursue careers in marine sciences.
Gallery: The Paintings of Ray Ellis
“Ray was a really generous man, fun-loving, caring,” says Ed Jerome, president of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby and a longtime friend of the artist. “There was nothing he wouldn’t do for you. He was a wonderful, wonderful friend.”
A talented storyteller, Ellis was much beloved by those who live, work and fish on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, his year-round home with his wife, Teddie, for 22 years and a getaway for at least five years before that. Ellis was a striper fisherman, and he would meander in and out of the coves and inlets along the Vineyard’s coast in a catboat or small boat in search of inspiration and fish.
In 1983 he collaborated with retired CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, one of his Vineyard tennis partners, on South by Southeast. Cronkite wrote about the people and places he encountered while sailing Wyntje, a Westsail 42, from Chesapeake Bay to Key West, and Ellis painted coastal scenes from a 28-foot Bertram. Ellis would work with Cronkite on two more travelogues: North by Northeast, exploring the coast from Cape May, New Jersey, to the Canadian border, and Westward, for which they cruised the West Coast.
A prolific artist with a prodigious work ethic, Ellis continued to paint daily until his death, completing more than 6,000 works on a host of subjects — fishing, sailing, boating, hunting, workboats and watermen, coastal landscapes and seascapes, lighthouses, nocturnal scenes, city streets, run-down houses, baseball (he was an avid Red Sox fan) and golf, even Dutch tulip fields, French farmland and scenes from Antarctica.
“Everything interested him,” says Treesa Germany, director of the Ray Ellis Gallery in Savannah, Georgia. “That’s part of what made him such a fascinating figure — his curiosity. Here in the South, he loved painting life by the marshes, and especially the people that made their living off the coast — the fishermen, oystermen, shrimpers.”
Germany describes Ellis as a realist who moved between realism and natural impressionism. “In some paintings he sharpened the detail, and others he painted very loosely,” she says. “He moved back and forth.”
Born in Philadelphia, Ellis exhibited a talent and passion for art at an early age. “He [used to talk] about getting out of school, hopping on his bike with pad and pencils, and riding to the edge of town, where he’d pick a spot and sit down and draw until dinnertime,” Germany says.
He drew his family, his home, his neighborhood. He became impatient with high school and dropped out while repeating his senior year to attend the Philadelphia Museum School of Art, where he learned from the works of the masters — realists Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and Andrew Wyeth were his principal influences. Ellis left the museum school to serve in the Coast Guard during World War II. He saw duty off Maine and Texas and in the Indian and Pacific oceans, where he became well acquainted with the sea and well regarded for his sketches, paintings, cartoons and illustrations for Coast Guard publications.
After the war, Ellis opened an advertising agency, doing commercial illustration, and in 1969 he set out to be a painter, working first in watercolors and later in watercolors and oils. Living for a time in New Jersey, then in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Savannah and finally Martha’s Vineyard, he never stopped refining his understanding of the places where sea and shore meet, and where anglers hunt their quarry.
“In some ways, all his paintings were studies,” says Germany. “He painted many subjects over and over. He did a series of moonlit surf scenes, maybe 20 or 30 over 20 years. Within that subject he explored the color of night, the relationship between the sky and the horizon, the form of breaking waves, how moonlight cast on the water.
“I think the act of painting fascinated him,” she continues. “It was exploration, the what if, that propelled him to the next painting.”
The way Ellis painted changed over time. “Early on, he would take his watercolors and easel and drive out to the countryside and paint,” Germany says. “Later on in his career he took photographs and returned to the studio to paint.” Sometimes he sketched scenes on-site with watercolors, then painted them in the studio.
Germany says Ellis would take artistic license and add or delete an element to make a composition better, underscoring his view of painting; he wasn’t so much interested in a faithful representation as he was in a good painting, a beautiful painting.
Ellis developed a national following. He published 15 books of his paintings and received invitations to exhibit in museums and galleries, and in U.S. embassies overseas. President Clinton and first lady Hillary commissioned Ellis to do paintings for the White House Christmas cards three years running.
Jerome accompanied Ellis to the White House Christmas party the year the artist painted the Lincoln Room festooned with decorations as the greeting card theme. “It was a lot of laughs, a lot of fun,” Jerome says. “We got to have a few drinks with Santa.”