Following his highly successful 2019 show Pretty Ugly, we visited Lee Ellis at his home studio to chat to him about his inspirations, art practices, and why his work can be so divisive. Known for his portraits, that can be disconcerting, scary or funny, depending on the perception of the viewer. Altered by colour and form, they are the main focus of his practice.
It’s fair to say, Lee is a prolific artist who is constantly creating works that are fresh, visually affecting, and far from the norm.
In many ways, Lee’s studio is like his work; bright and busy, full of colour and energy. Old, new and unfinished pieces sit side by side, along with tubes of paint, aerosol cans and a gas mask. This suits Lee, who likes to mix up his practice, often moving from one work to another, from oil to charcoal to ink. Responding to his mood, flexibility is key.
“I’ve always found that I have to work on multiple pieces at a time… I have so many ideas flowing through my head that I need to get them all out as quickly as possible” he says. “My drawings have a different energy to them compared to the paintings, where I can really work with the paint to create explosive, dynamic and energetic pieces”.
Such a studio is surely a testament to his prolific experimentation, something Lee credits to his training as a graphic designer. No longer wanting to feel constrained by his more formalised background, Lee has a freedom. He is less rigid and approaches each work with a flair of creative rebellion.
“As an artist, I’m still finding my definitive style of working and for now, I intend to experiment and play creatively as much as possible… I work with every medium I can get my hands on. If it’s in the studio I’ll throw it at a surface to see what happens”.
His willingness to think outside the box has enabled him to develop a distinctive style. Lee isn’t restricted by traditional methods. But he does admit that this approach has not always been successful.
“I’ve had quite a few disasters. One disastrous experiment was using wall filler on canvas as well as stapling clothes to the canvas. It looked awful and did nothing for the piece. I ended up destroying that one”.
Constantly pushing the boundaries of his practice, Lee’s passion for creativity is infectious. And it’s what makes him so interesting as an artist. The more he experiments and adapts and hones his skills, the more he subverts his audiences expectations.
Lee can’t pin-point one exact source for his inspiration, acknowledging the influence of various artists, musicians and everyday life. But it is clear that his son has had a big impact on him.
“He (Rex) loves scribbling and it’s so refreshing. Seeing him draw is amazing because he’s just so free with it. We started drawing together and that’s when I did an abstract piece, just trying to go nuts with it, which is hard”.
Lee gives the impression of someone who acts as soon as inspiration takes hold. His series “You Smell Like Bananas”, a collection of postcards that have been given the characteristically ‘Lee Ellis’ make-over, was created in one day whilst he was on the phone to his Mum.
“I just started scribbling with Tippex and permanent marker and I thought ‘Oh, actually I’m onto something here’ so being quite driven, energetic, prolific, all of those words, I did seventy-eight in two weeks and now I’m still going because I’m kind of a little bit obsessed”.
Exploring themes of emotion and mental health, Lee is fascinated by the viewer’s reaction to his work as opposed to imposing his own meaning.
“I paint people with energy and have never painted anything remotely sinister… I like it when people take the work in and give me their thoughts. People often see emotional pain though I know one person who sees humour in my work. There really is no way to predict what the viewer will see. I figure I’ll just leave every viewer to see what they want to see. I pretty much paint people with as much energy as I can and often it comes across quite macabre”.
To balance out macabre elements, Lee often pairs his works with humorous and unexpected titles. Think ‘They Call Me The Wild Card’ and ‘Tony’s Terrible Toupee’…
Big thanks to Lee for having us! If you like what you’ve seen, you can find Lee’s full gallery collection here.