Memoir IX: Liberation

All images have been provided courtesy of the artist

Some of the content in this memoir contains explicit language

2020 is truly shaping up to be a memorable year. From COVID-19 to the world realising that black lives do in fact matter to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. One thing I constantly hear from social media is “our kids will ask this generation, “what was 2020 like?”.”, and social media is right, our kids will ask a lot of questions about this year.

But the question we need to ask ourselves is what were we doing this year? Now I don’t state this question, to be intrusive and to suggest that everyone should be “hustling” or making “money moves” because to each their own, life is a marathon against yourself and not a 100m dash against others. I state this question because what did you do when the lockdown was in place. Did you flounder the rules and attend outdoor parties or did you stay indoors? When you witnessed the death of George Floyd, saw the death of Ahmed Aubrey or heard about the death of Breonna Taylor did you respond with “All Lives Matter” or did you have difficult conversations with your friends and family and say, “Black Lives Matter”. When you heard the phrase, “We failed Yemen”. Did you respond with, “but the media didn’t talk about it” and “how am I meant to help” or did you decide to educate yourself about the current situation, and if you could, did you donate to the right organisations?

In my opinion, 2020 is the year of mental liberation. With the internet at our disposal, we can’t continue to turn a blind eye towards such injustices because it makes us feel “uncomfortable”. Bob Dylan said in his famous song, Blowin’ in the Wind (released 1963), “how many deaths will it take ’til he knows that too many people have died”. Being uncomfortable is the state in which true change, understanding and learning can occur.

Life is complex, weird and strange, and we only get the chance to do it once. So I think it is important that we learn from each other and it is imperative that we understand our unconscious biases before we can make an external change. Because how can we connect with others if we don’t understand ourselves?

Someone whose art is a true manifestation of this is the North London based artist, Ellis Lewis-Dragstra. By connecting with aspects such as nature and his experiences, Ellis has created a portfolio of work that has turned his thoughts and experiences into art.

Ellis’ story into art begins as a child. One of his favourite pastimes as a child was drawing. When he was with his friends, they would draw imaginary characters. “I started at that age where you really didn’t care whether it was good or not. I just enjoyed it.”.

As a child, all his friends had consoles such as N64, but Ellis did not. His father who was a piano tuner and technician would make him and his siblings toys out of wood, and along with this, they would take trips to the woods. Ellis loved doing this and even to this day he looks fondly at those memories and is eternally grateful to his father.

In primary school, Ellis states that he was bad at everything. “I was kind of use to trying things and being bad at them.”. From the guitar to the drums to the piano and even the recorder, Ellis failed at playing these instruments. However, when he discovered free-running due to his brother, he excelled at it. “I just wanted to do what he was doing.”. During his pre-teens, free running was something he enjoyed more than drawing. Additionally, it was through free running that Ellis was able to discover gymnastics.

By secondary school, art was in the background. Ellis would occasionally draw comic book panels with his friends, but his focus was free running. During GCSE, Ellis did Art, but he states he didn’t enjoy it. “They told you everything you had to do. They would mark you on the technical side of art and that was what I was s**t at.”.

Going into A-Level, Ellis knew his art was not to everyone’s liking but he did not care. Ellis still pursued Art A-Level, but he would be met with some obstacles. Local sixth forms and colleges did not allow him to study Art A-Level due to him getting a C in Art GCSE. After applying to Highgate Wood’s Sixth Form, Ellis was able to secure an interview with the sixth form’s Art department. Ellis was given the chance to study Art A-Level, but he had to impress the department with a portfolio of work. In Ellis’ eyes, this was an impossible task. “At that time, I felt my art wasn’t good.”. So, he devised a plan to use his friend’s work for the interview.

After acquiring his friend’s art, Ellis was ready for his interview. However, the day before, his father entered his room and saw his friend’s work. Ellis told his father about the plan and his father was mortified. The two spoke for a while and Ellis’ father convinced him to use his work instead. So, the night before, Ellis stayed up and created some new pieces.

Primed with his new pieces, Ellis entered his interview. But just as he envisioned, he was presented with bad news; the head of the department did not feel his work was adequate. However, there was a silver lining to the bad news; the department liked some of Ellis’ work and offered him the chance to study Photography A-Level.

Even though it was not Art, Ellis enjoyed studying Photography A-Level, as it allowed him to understand; compositions, framing and the mood of an image. Additionally, during sixth form, Ellis’ involvement in free-running died down; his attention was now towards photography and as well as that he started to get into film. During his spare time, he would create videos of himself doing free-running tricks with his digital camera. Furthermore, during this period, Ellis received an iPod from his brother, and it was this that truly made Ellis become an avid listener of Hip Hop. Before his iPod, Ellis only had CDs. His collection consisted of Outkast, Black Eye Peas and Gorillas but with this new iPod; it was like a gateway into a new world. “Going for a walk and listening to music, I could probably come back with a new idea. That’s one of the things I enjoy the most, one of the simplest pleasures.”.

It is because of his love for Hip Hop that pieces such as Paranoid Anxiety {Street Level} (painted 2018) have been created.

Paranoid Anxiety is a triptych piece, and it delves into the idea of night-time exploration. If we look at the piece, we can see references to London. For example, the tube lines from TFL’s tube map can be seen in the second piece of the triptych. As well as that, the London Underground logo can also be seen in the second and third piece of the triptych. Besides night-time exploration, I also feel the piece delves into the exploration of London from an intoxicated viewpoint, with words such as “Stop”, “Paranoia” and “Look Left” inverted.

The main colours in this piece are blue, purple, yellow and pink, and Ellis states that this was deliberate. The four colours draw inspiration from the album cover of “Kids See Ghosts”, a joint project by Kid Cudi and Kanye West.

The piece is also acknowledging the size of London, and how daunting the capital can be to new visitors. As someone who has grown up in London, I have seen all the nooks and crannies of this city, so it feels small to me. But to someone else, London can appear to be colossal and fast-paced. This very notion is shown with the colours working with each other to create this bright and flashing effect.

Ellis stated in our interview that he wanted to use this piece to write a visual essay about London, “This was like trying to paint a feeling and I kind of like it because that’s the whole description. You either get it or you don’t. You can see it and you kind of know what it means already from just looking at it”.

Overall the piece is strange, weird and eerie but beautiful. The four main colours accentuate each other and create this effect that is unsettling but captivating.

Paranoid Anxiety {Street Level} (painted 2018) [each piece: black spray paint, acrylic paint and watercolour on canvas 40 x 90 cm] 2018(40x90cm)

After completing sixth form, Ellis went on to do a foundation year at the London College of Communication, he studied Photography. Socially, he did not enjoy his time at the establishment, due to not fitting in. “Whenever I did drawings, I remember hearing people talking behind my back and kind of laughing and being like, “what’s this?!”. But I didn’t really care, because I liked it (his drawings).”. Academically though, Ellis stated that this year was just a continuation of sixth form but the focus being photography. Ellis liked the course because for his final term projects he could use a variety of mediums such as film and illustration.

After completing his foundation year, Ellis went on to work with his father and the two would fix pianos. As well as that during this time, Ellis barely drew. The only drawing he did was a self-portrait that had loads of writing. Ellis states that this piece meant more to him than any drawing that was done prior, and it was something that made him feel vulnerable whenever he shared it.

After working with his father, Ellis pursued other jobs. While working, Ellis and his father would often have conversations centred around philosophy and their relationship.

It is through such conversations that pieces such as Less is MORE LOVE (created 2019) which was a piece dedicated to his girlfriend have been created.

Less is MORE LOVE delves into the beliefs of Taoism, during that period Ellis and his father talked about the various teachings from the Tao Te Ching. The Tao Te Ching along with the Zhuangzi are the fundamental texts used in Taoism. The Tao Te Ching is made up of 81 verses and part of the first verse translates to the following, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The unnameable is the eternally real. Naming is the origin of all particular things. Free from desire, you realise the mystery. Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations. Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source. This source is called darkness. Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding.”. Many scholars have debated the meaning of this first verse and the others, and none have reached a consensus. But I think in my opinion what this verse talks about is the idea of language, theory, logic and other devices that simply cannot comprehend certain experiences. For example, science has told us that love is this chemical reaction occurring in our brains. But can we say that? Because to make love sound so rigid and robotic is frankly rude, don’t you think?

Focusing back on this piece, we can see two figures, male and female, both naked and faceless, and this, in turn, creates a minimalistic setting. Ellis states that this was intentional, “I was drawing something conceptual; I didn’t want an identity of someone to distract from that, I don’t want someone to think, “oh who’s that?”.”. Ellis is trying to tell us to focus on the energy the piece exudes. The energy that radiates from the two figures holding each other in this dark space.

Less is MORE LOVE (created 2019) [watercolour, pen and pencil on paper finalised with Adobe Photoshop]2019

Moreover, around this time, Ellis started to do animation; he would create videos which consisted of pencil drawing animations.

After a couple of months, Ellis teamed up with his friends and to set up a market stall. This was Ellis’ first time displaying his work in a public space; his work consisted of photography and his friend’s work consisted of paintings. However, the stall did not perform well, as they only sold a couple of pieces.

After the gallery, Ellis went to several interviews for companies who specialised in film production. However, he was unsuccessful, and this too would impact his confidence. With no stable job, Ellis started to draw again and after being persuaded by his friend, he started an Instagram page. Once set up, Ellis received a message from someone; the message was about an album art commission. Ellis stated in our interview that this shocked him, “I didn’t think anybody even liked my drawings.”. This was such a surprise to Ellis, that he didn’t even know how much to charge the artist, so he charged a small fee. After he completed the commission, more opportunities started to appear, he was introduced to more artists who wanted his services. If we fast forward to today, Ellis has done multiple album art covers. “I thought no one was going to hire me. I was just like; it’s not going to happen. (…) Album art was the perfect thing because I was always so connected to music.”.

In 2017, Ellis tried his luck again at showcasing his work, this time in Rich Mix, Shoreditch. Ellis teamed up with the arts organisation, Phakama UK. While there, he ran some workshops and created an animation for the organisation. It was through Phakama UK, Ellis received a residency and was able to set up a gallery which was open to any artist. Ellis states that if it were not for the organisation, he probably wouldn’t be able to successfully freelance since they supported him during his residency.

In terms of the gallery, it was free to attend, and part of a bigger festival called Take Over. The festival involved other arts such as dance and theatre. It was through this opportunity that Ellis also won a competition. Ellis submitted a design that would represent the Take Over festival and was displayed across Shoreditch.  However, Ellis felt this was more of an advertisement for the company than an actual celebration of his work. But this feeling would eventually change as Ellis would see the piece as a symbolic turning point, one that represented him becoming a professional artist. Overall the gallery was a success, and this gave him a massive confidence boost, and the success would continue, a year later, in 2018, Ellis received another residency at another gallery which also received positive reviews.

Besides his family, Ellis states that his best friends Max and Zac played an influence on his journey to becoming an artist. As a child in primary school, he and Max would draw characters together. With regards to Zac, the two met each other in secondary school and would draw comic panels in their free time.

In terms of a defining moment that Ellis considered himself a fully-fledged artist; he states the following, “Professionally it was after the gallery. But what I create is art, and I guess I’ve thought that way since birth. (…) I have always thought that everyone is an artist in their own way. So, I don’t think it’s a special kind of moment”.

Moreover, in terms of how he would describe his work, Ellis stated in our interview, “I guess it depends on the piece you are talking about, it kind of differs from one to the other but I guess at its core, I want it to be relatable, and I guess the main things are the connections to childhood and nature.”. This point leads to the next point which is Ellis’ work and how it has changed over the years. Ellis stated that his art use to be dark and serious, with examples such as Paranoid Anxiety {Street Level} and Failure Part 1 {Blue Judgement} (created 2018).

Ellis describes Failure Part 1 {Blue Judgement} as the first time he drew something from raw emotion. He states that he was happy with the outcome and how it was a moment of self-realisation. “Drawing from feeling and then seeing where it goes, I like that. Because while you are working on it, the art is kind of teaching you things. You draw things and it’s like you don’t even know why but you just know it’s right and later on, you’re like that’s why.”.

The piece delves into the idea of failure and not being deterred by it. “Everyone fails at some point, everyone is everything at one point, everyone is funny at some point, everyone is a coward at some point, everyone is angry at some point. But it doesn’t define who you are.”.

The title of the piece references blue and we can see that across the piece. In general, blue is traditionally a colour that represents tranquillity and calmness. But Ellis gives it a different meaning and uses it to represent self-reflection.

Failure Part 1 {Blue Judgement} (created 2018) [watercolour, pen and pencil on paper finalised with Adobe Photoshop] 2018

If we fast forward to now, it is here that we meet the piece, Nature was the First Artist I Met (created 2020) and it is here we see the culmination of Ellis’ experience as an artist, with the focus point being nature.

In Nature was the First Artist I Met, Ellis unleashes his entire arsenal of artistry; from the incorporation of watercolour paint, acrylic paint, pen, pencil, crayon and even photography. “It got to a point I wanted to do things that meant more to me because I realised whenever I did, those were my favourite pieces.”. The piece is sporadic and gives an insight into Ellis’ imagination as a child.

During his childhood, Ellis would go on holidays to Holland with his family and this had a massive impact on him. Ellis and his family would stay in a caravan near a lake. He would carry a notepad and sketch the various insects he encountered. “I think everyone has a connection to nature and wants to reconnect with that, and I think everyone’s is different and I think mine is through art. Just because I see art and nature almost as the same thing, I think it is so entwined.”. Additionally, his mother would play various songs which would go on to define his childhood.

It was through such holidays that Ellis appreciated the colourfulness and intricacy of insects. “They are really colourful and made up of simple shapes but really intricate. A nice juxtaposition.”, and it is this very notion that would be the foundation of this piece.

Nature was the First Artist I Met (created 2020) [watercolour, acrylic paint, pen, pencil and crayon on paper; photography incorporated; finalised with Adobe Photoshop]38nature-was-the-first-artist-i-met-master-mantis_orig

With regards to his relationship with colour, Ellis attributes this to his synaesthesia (synaesthesia is a condition in which one sense for instance sight is simultaneously perceived by one or more sense). Ellis’ first experience of synaesthesia was during his childhood. He made a connection between a cowbell, a sweet and saturated blue. “There was a guy who owned a corner shop, he was friends with my family. (…) He had these blue sweets; these vibrant blue sweets and he gave them to me and my brother. I remember tasting them and I still associate that taste to that colour. I also remember the first time I heard this instrument, drummers use it, it’s like a cowbell. (…) It made a ringing sound. The first time I heard it was like the exact same colour as that sweet.”.

Moreover, in terms of past artists who have inspired Ellis; they are Jean-Michel Basquiat, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van-Gogh and Frida Kahlo. However, Ellis made it very clear that these artists are not on a special pedestal, and that he draws the same amount of inspiration from his contemporaries. “I say I draw just as much inspiration from artists such as Gus (Gus Brooks-Simpson [Instagram: gusbrooksart]) or the friends I have like Max and Zac.”. Nonetheless, when it comes to Basquiat’s influence, we can see it in the piece, Ignorance is Bliss (painted 2018).

Although the piece draws inspiration from Basquiat, ultimately the piece was inspired from The Simpson episode, The Mysterious Voyage of Homer (Season 8, Episode 9), his brother’s favourite episode. The episode sees Homer go on a spiritual journey after eating a chilli. During his journey, Homer talks to a coyote and it is through their conversation that he questions if Marge is his actual soul mate.

Ellis also stated that his fascination for the show’s animation was what also compelled him to make this piece and give it to his brother as a gift. “Just in general, I never really realised how strange The Simpsons’ colour palette is because it has been a part of my childhood. I never really thought about how strange it is. I was really thinking about it, the walls are purple most of the time and the buildings are blue and pink. The grass is bright pink! I just wanted to get that across.”. He also stated that he didn’t want The Simpsons’ reference to be so obvious to the viewer, “You don’t think of The Simpsons straight away when you look at it but after a while, you are like “Wait, is that The Simpsons?!”.”. Across the piece, a range of different colours have been used and this adds to the eccentricity and strangeness of the piece.

Going back to the Basquiat influence, we can see various words across the piece, the repetition of certain words and the capitalisation of them such as “SUNSET”, “SUNRISE” and “1000 THOUGHTS”.

In terms of its theme, Ignorance is Bliss is a piece that delves into the idea of selfishness vs selflessness. Can you have a family and still pursue other things? Which path leads to a destination that leaves the individual satisfied? If we look at the life of someone such as Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs revolutionised the 21st century but he was not “Husband of the Year”.

Ignorance is Bliss (painted 2018) [black spray paint, acrylic paint and watercolour on canvas 40 x 30 cm]2018(40x30cm)

In terms of what to expect from Ellis in the future. If there is no second wave we can expect another gallery; Ellis wants to work in collaboration with all artists of different mediums. The money raised by the gallery due to paid attendance will go to a charity of his choice. To add to that, the gallery will be called “Pass It On” and will also showcase his new triptych he is currently working on as of the release of this memoir.

I wanted to explore the idea of liberation, the liberation of thoughts, and I specifically chose Ellis. Ellis’ story is about an individual who didn’t care about people’s opinions.

When it comes to the overall message of his art, Ellis states there is no clear-cut meaning,  the viewer can come to a personal conclusion. “Whatever that person feels, that’s what’s right. (…) there are no right or wrong answers when you do art, you make it up yourself.”, and I truly believe he embodies this.

The influence of music on Ellis’ work is something that supersedes any other present or past visual artist. As stated in the art analysis of Paranoid Anxiety and previous sections of this memoir; music has a powerful influence on Ellis’ work. Whenever he is drawing, he always has a song or an album in his mind – Hip Hop and its influence are infused in his work.

From Public Enemy to Kendrick Lamar, the story of Hip Hop has always been about doing it yourself and making do with what you have, and this is what Ellis is trying to show us. He is trying to make us, the viewer, reconnect with something. Something personal to us.

To see more of Ellis’ work visit or follow him on Instagram at @ellis_l.d

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