Tom Ellis is a contemporary artist who has explored many mediums—painting, sculpture, and even furniture—but who’s decided to dedicate himself fully to painting since late 2016. With a recent high profile project at the the Wallace Collection and an upcoming exhibition this month with the national charity Paintings in Hospitals at The Menier Gallery (Episodic Scenes of Fortune and Woe), Ellis has much to say on the subject of art.
“There is no definitive way to describe contemporary art. The genres are too broad, high and low cultures are too twisted back on themselves,” says Ellis, surrounded by a sea of multi-scale oil panels in his East London studio. There is one in particular that immediately captures any onlooker’s attention—finished just that morning, it was introduced by Ellis as a “balloon”, meaning it is a bigger, inflated version of its small-scale copy. The painting depicts a father and son sitting next to each other and portrays a subject that’s close to Ellis, who’s the father of two sons himself.
Born and educated in London, Ellis describes his work as “the consideration and depiction of our humanity through the act of painting itself”. Since the Wallace Collection’s exhibition The Middle, Ellis has continued to deliberately present his work in aesthetically complex and challenging spaces. “Obviously a painting is an autonomous object that can be exhibited anywhere, but in the end it’s always viewed within a specific environment. So context cannot be truly separated from painting. That is why I am interested in exhibiting my paintings outside the ‘white cube’ space, because it dramatises that complex relationship to context.”
The Wallace Collection itself holds fond memories for Ellis, who recalls visiting the museum with his parents as a seven-year-old child. He credits his parents for supporting his artistic talents. “My father was a doctor and my mother was a nurse. Even though they were cautious about the financial risks of being an artist they would always encourage me.” He also lists Neil Young’s independent creative spirit as a significant creative inspiration.
He says that working in art in the 21st century in a world of social media and worldwide connections offers more opportunities than challenges. “It increases the intimacy between the artist and their audience—whether that be a collector or the general public. And also, there’s the enormous global audience that you can reach now. And actually many more people are well-informed about contemporary art than used to be the case. In some ways we have more awareness than in the past when such direct communication was not possible, and that is largely because of social media. So the potential market is much bigger and it is easier to discover what is going on.”
Ellis also has some advice for budding artists based on his own experiences. “You will always remember your best ideas. But I do use sketchbooks and I take notes. I write down my intentions. I think the most useful, decisive thing people can do—or that I would advise a young artist to do—would be to write down their intentions. Most people do not create sufficient intentionality, they write down the list of things they hope to do, or general ideas, but creating very strong intentionality around your work is important and that is the way I do it.”
Ellis’s approach to art is simultaneously traditional and unconventional, and his passion for his creative work is clear. “Have you ever experienced that feeling, when you stretch your canvas and you’re about to paint your ‘masterpiece’? It’s a very loaded cultural activity. Painting is in so many ways just such a beast to deal with.”