Q+A with Illustrator and ICON8 Poster Artist Carson Ellis
Wherein Carson Ellis lets you in on a few Portland secrets, where to sit for the best views from The Shining, collaboration in work and love, and cleaning out the llama stalls.
Mark Kaufman: Have you attended ICON before?
Carson Ellis: Nope.
MK: Well then, glad to have you! What are you looking forward to most?
CS: I’m looking forward to seeing illustrator friends from elsewhere and to meeting people I admire. And I’m looking forward to talking shop, something I rarely get a chance to do in person as I’m typically holed up in the boonies working away in isolation.
MK: You’ve lived all over the US and Canada, what brought you to Portland originally?
CS: My husband, Colin - back when he was my friend that I had a crush on – moved here after college, along with a bunch of other college friends. We went to school in Missoula, Montana and lots of people migrate to Portland from there post-graduation. This was 12 or 13 years ago. I would drive up to visit from San Francisco, which was such an expensive place to live and where I was so broke I could barely feed myself, and life just seemed easier here. I met lots of friendly artists and musicians. I liked Colin a lot. He talked me into spending a month here and I never went back to the Bay Area.
MK: As a Portland resident can you give attendees who haven’t yet ventured to the Pacific Northwest what you love about it and a few must things to do in Portland.
CE: It’s a sleepy, pretty place. The weather is typically perfect in the summer. The food is great.
Everyone ought to visit Powell’s, of course, and then they ought to visit Reading Frenzy, a small, well-curated bookstore devoted to small press, comics, zines, and other illustrated books. It just moved to Mississippi, which is a fun neighborhood to shop and eat and drink in. Visit Nationale for fine art and sundries. Definitely take a walk in Forest Park, a 5,000 acre woodland on the west end of the city.
MK: Favorite day trip out of Portland in the Summer?
CE: There’s a beautiful hike on Mt. Hood called Ramona Falls that I’d recommend. Bring a picnic or drive to Timberline Lodge afterwards for lunch or dinner or drinks. It’s right on Mt. Hood and is Oregon’s most epic WPA project. Also, the exterior shots of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining were filmed there. If you do make it, be sure to sit in the bar, not the restaurant. The views are better.
MK: In addition to your Portland to do list can you tell people what the Portland creative community is all about?
CE: That’s a good question! The thing that initially drew me here, other than my crush on Colin, was how welcoming and collaborative I found Portland artists to be and how easy it was to fall in with a bunch of creative people. That was many years ago and the city feels a lot bigger to me now and, like I said, I’m kind of a hermit, but I’d like to assume the same is true of the younger generation of artists here now. I’d also describe a lot of the art made here – visual, literary, cinematic and musical – as really stellar, especially for such a small city. Lots of people doing terrific, nationally-acclaimed work choose to make Portland their home. It’s a pretty awesome cultural scene.
MK: We are excited to be able to hold ICON8 at The Portland Art Museum, and I was curious about your connection to the Museum. You teach a 12-week drawing workshop for teenagers there don’t you? Is that fun? Hard work? Or both?
CE: Sadly, PAM discontinued the workshop this year. It was bittersweet. On the one hand, I was passionate about teaching that workshop and about my students. On the other, I have a new baby and a farm in the country in need of some work, along with the usual deadlines, so I wasn’t sure how I was going to swing it this year anyway.
But to answer your question: yes, it was incredibly fun. The students in the workshop had to apply to get in – the class size was limited to about 8 kids. They were all pretty serious, self-motivated teenage artists from in and around Portland who were developing their own creative practices, much like I was when I was that age. So they were really inspired and formed a tight knit little community that stayed together over the years I taught the workshop, as they were able to keep coming back until they aged out of the class. And yes, it was also hard work. We organized a group show at the art museum at the end of each 12 week workshop so we had to make, critique, curate, frame and hang 40 or 50 pieces of art, along with the other organizational and promotional stuff that goes into putting together an art opening (albeit a pretty scrappy one). The openings were incredibly fun but the days leading up to them were always exhausting. And teenagers - even serious artist teenagers - are hard to wrangle.
I should add that despite having cancelled my workshop, I love PAM. It’s a top notch art museum, especially for a small city, and everyone coming to town for ICON should spend some time in its galleries. I saw an exhibition of samarai armor there last week that was amazing.
MK: Speaking of amazing, people are absolutely loving your poster for ICON8. Can you talk about how the commission came about?
CE: Oh good! I’m glad to hear that. I drew it in a fog of postpartum sleepiness, when my baby, Milo, was a month or two old. While I was working on it I liked it a lot, but a few months later I couldn’t tell if it was any good. I lost perspective because I had made it in a spacey delirium while Milo napped and hadn’t taken any time to step back and think about it. So it’s a relief to hear that people like it. As for how the commission came about, Ellen Weinstein contacted me about it a while back. I was flattered and thrilled and said yes in a heartbeat.
MK: Any thoughts you’d like to share in the creation of the poster?
CE: I wanted to depict an illustrator at work and an illustrator at play. The ant is kind of a classic old school commercial artist, hustling for work. The butterfly is an Edwardian bohemian, with her little Exquisite Corpse and her letter to her friend, probably full of poetry she wrote herself. They’re creating each other, moving in an endless circle, because I think they are two halves of a whole. I think most illustrators are part creative free spirit and part exacting problem-solver. Ideally, we’re partly working and partly playing in everything we do. I love that about this job. The balance between work and play – finding it, maintaining it - is something I think about a lot.
MK: If the conference were held in say Las Vegas or Chicago rather than Portland how might your approach differed?
CE: I probably wouldn’t have chosen insects and a border of plant-life. That felt specific to Portland. The woods here are so dense and the forest floor is such a fascinating little world of flora and fauna.
MK: You work on so many wonderful projects that most illustrators are familiar with in their own careers, illustrating books, editorial work, teaching…but one thing in your biography seems like a dream job that most people may not get the opportunity to add to their CV. What is it being an Illustrator in Residence for a rock & roll band like?
CE: Ha! I don’t know. Does anyone else have that job? I’d love to compare notes.
More than anything it entails an intimate ongoing collaboration with my husband, who is the singer and songwriter for the Decemberists. And it’s one of many: we have kids together, houses together; we collaborate on books, meals, gardens, travels and every important life decision we make. In that, being the Illustrator in Residence for the Decemberists feels like one piece of a very big whole.
MK: Lastly, in addition to waiting around for ICON in July what else is keeping you busy these days?
CE: Oh man, lots of things. I moved to a historic farmstead recently and there’s a lot to be done here. My to-do list includes things like: DESIGN WALLPAPER FOR THE PARLOR, TAKE THE SATELLITE DISH OFF THE FRONT OF THE HOUSE, and CLEAN OUT THE LLAMA STALLS. I also have a couple of kids. One is seven years old; the other is seven months old. They keep me plenty busy. And work-wise, I’m illustrating the first picture book that I wrote myself. It’s for Candlewick, due in December, and I’m very excited about it.
MK: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us and for your beautiful ICON poster. I’m looking forward to seeing you in Portland. I know a lot of other folks are as well.