A Picture of Success

At ninety-one, artist Ray Ellis paints daily in his Edgartown studio and reflects on his career. It hasn’t always been easy, but one notable collaboration in 1981 changed his life as an artist.

Something benignly mischievous in the twinkle in his eyes suggests he would still welcome a challenge, but he has little left to prove. He is a formidable presence: a combination of talent, unwavering self-confidence, almost religious optimism, and enough determination to add buoyancy. It is a goal-to-go formula for success.

Ray Ellis: Born in 1921, he was a cocky, good-natured, people-pleasing kid who grew up on Lismore Avenue in Glenside, Pennsylvania. He showed a gift for drawing and painting almost as soon as he could hold a pencil and brush.

But that would hardly foretell Ray’s artistic accomplishments. A full-time painter since 1969, his representational watercolor and oil paintings, usually atmospheric sea- and landscapes, have received national recognition. Fifteen books dedicated to his work have been published. For three consecutive years beginning in 1998, President and Hillary Clinton commissioned his paintings for the White House holiday cards. Exhibitions of his work have been in museums, galleries, and international embassies; his first show was at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art when he was twenty-seven. In 1984 in Savannah, Georgia, he founded Compass Prints/Ray Ellis Gallery, a successful company that continues to show and sell his original paintings and prints of his work.

On-Island, Ray’s impact is impressive. This year he will be creating his twenty-fifth (and final) painting for the commemorative print of the annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby. He has raised upwards of one million dollars for the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust by donating his paintings to its fundraising auctions. (In 2010 Silver Moon Rising sold for $230,000 – the largest single bid made at an Island charity auction.)

Talent. “It was just something I always had,” he says, making it sound as natural as learning to whistle.

Ray was the neighborhood newspaper boy who delivered his papers with a paint box and sketchpad strapped to his bicycle, so he could stop when inspired by light and shadows or the colors on a clothesline. He sketched and painted backyard scenes, train tracks, neighbors talking over fences – making a rosy diary of his childhood. Art was his saving grace and fostered a sanctuary where he felt worthy.

On an eighth-grade American history exam, instead of answering the numbered questions, he drew a detailed rendering of the Battle of Gettysburg. And failed the test.

“I knew early on that I wasn’t going to be a rocket scientist, so my aim in life was to make people laugh and paint things of beauty....I knew I was an artist from the time I was in third grade. All I wanted to do was draw and paint.”

A natural pitchman, Ray used his artistic ability to gain popularity, painting posters for school activities and making, publishing, and selling a weekly newspaper featuring the adventures of one of his original cartoon characters. He was invited by some of his former teachers to give drawing demonstrations to their classes, and gained some status when, at age sixteen, his paintings were exhibited at the Glenside National Bank.

By his estimate, he’s made close to 6,000 paintings, 2,300 in the past twenty years (“When I look back at how much art I produced, I can hardly believe it”), but he still remembers the first painting he sold: He was fifteen when a Lismore Avenue neighbor bought a watercolor of the dairy farm behind his house for one hundred dollars – the equivalent of what his father earned in a week working in the advertising department of Exide Batteries.

“Still, my father would say, ‘I saw your report card,’ then take down the strap.” Ray dropped out of high school while repeating his senior year. “It’s hard to describe,” he says. “I did math just to get the batting averages of the baseball players, because I loved baseball. My father didn’t understand how I could quote the statistics of every baseball player but couldn’t do well in math.”

After leaving high school, Ray studied art at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art, going to classes during the day and working nights in the advertising department at the Philadelphia Ledger. Summers were spent in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he honed his crowd-pleasing skills, working at the old Pennhurst Hotel as a beach boy, managing a dairy bar, and drawing pastel caricatures on the boardwalk.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Ray dropped out of the Philadelphia Museum School to enlist in the United States Coast Guard, which was then under the auspices of the Department of the Navy. His first ship, Kickapoo, gave him his earliest look at the Maine shoreline, and later, aboard the Corpus Christi, he served in the Indian Ocean, Australia, and the Pacific. His reputation as an artist spread through the sketches, paintings, cartoons, and illustrations he made for Coast Guard publications. The Red Cross used his painting of the Pacific shoreline for its 1944 Christmas card.

“After my discharge in 1945, I had originally intended to go back to art school,” Ray says, “but like most men on my ship, we were eager to start families, and make money. Some guys dreamed about opening their own bar or restaurant; my dream was to paint and find a wife.”

As he reminisces, Ray leans against the soft cushions of the long blue couch in his well-appointed studio above the garage of the Edgartown home he and his third wife, Theodora “Teddie” Axtell, built in 1986. The studio would look like a family room in an upscale home except for the large wooden painter’s easel in the center of the room, the drafting table for watercolors, the paints, brushes, color-stained palettes, and the ever-present in-progress canvas. Overlooking the swimming pool, the room is bathed in natural light, filled with books, memorabilia, commemorative photos, and the backgammon table where Teddie routinely trounces him.

And life is good. Ray, his voice deep and animated, describes both good and bad times with no change in tone or inflection: a career in advertising, membership in the American Watercolor Society, and in 1968, in the prestigious Salmagundi Club, a national professional art association. He founded Ray Ellis Advertising Agency, but in 1969, after marriage, four children, a bankruptcy, and dramatic financial reversals, he boldly decided it was time to devote himself exclusively to a career as a fine arts painter.

Ray’s first wife died in 1972, and a second marriage in 1974 imploded in the early ’80s. The couple had been swept up in a wildly extravagant lifestyle. Keeping up with the expenses of world travel and resort living cost Ray all the income from his paintings, as well as his savings. When the couple split, he moved to Hilton Head Island with $300 to his name and lived in a one-room rented apartment in a third-floor walk-up. Finally, a sold-out show of his paintings in a Savannah gallery afforded him the means to relocate to Savannah, where he and Teddie, whom he married in 1985, lived before moving to the Vineyard year-round.

“For all of my life, I’ve always tried – worked hard, in fact – to put a positive spin on everything, no matter how difficult,” he says. “I’m not sure why, but I’ve always been an expert at convincing myself and those around me that whatever the situation, by stepping lightly along, ignoring what I can, redefining what I can’t, I could get past most anything. The most important thing is not to stop. Just keep going.”

In the fall of 1981, Ray received a call from Oxmoor House publishing company after its executives had noticed Ray’s painting of Savannah’s harbor on the cover of Travelhost magazine. They decided to publish South by Southeast, a book combining Ray’s paintings of the southeast coast with text. For Ray, it was the brass ring – rescue from economic crisis as well as the resuscitation of his career as an artist on a national level. He refers to it as “an opportunity that changed my life.”

The publishers were considering various writers for the text, including Pat Conroy and William F. Buckley. But Ray, who immediately launched into his pro-active mind-set, decided the way to ensure the success of the book would be to have the participation of the renowned CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite. Ray, a long-standing member of the Edgartown Yacht Club, frequently played tennis with the famed television journalist and knew Walter to be a devoted recreational sailor. Ray was told to go ahead and contact the newly retired newsman – a long shot at best. But it was as if Ray had always been preparing for this moment.

“When I picked up the phone to call Cronkite, my hand was shaking,” Ray admits. “This was my whole life – a turning point. I felt that I couldn’t go back to begging for a loan from a bank, or go back to not knowing whether I could pay the next month’s rent. I was really that I called Walter. I think it goes back to my old motto: What’s the worst that could happen? The worst that could happen is he’ll say, ‘There’s no way I can do this.’”

But Ray Ellis was a natural salesman.

“I said, ‘Walter, I was just given an opportunity to do paintings for a book on the southeast coast and I know you like sailing down there. I think it would be a great opportunity for us to explore the coast together.”

Walter wasn’t interested. He told Ray he already had more projects than he had time for, and there was no way he could take on a project involving sailing along the coast to write about the people and places.

Ray was as direct as he was irrepressible: “How can I change your mind?” Would Walter be willing to look through some books to get an idea of what this one could look like, would he be willing to just think about it?

Again, Walter politely refused.

Like the longtime ad man he was, Ray shifted his approach: “I said, ‘Just think, Walter, you could write off your boat as an expense.’”


Ray smiles. He was unrelenting. “And I said, ‘And wouldn’t you like to be known as an Old Salt?’”

The two men spent the next year collaborating on South by Southeast. They traveled the coast from Key West to the Chesapeake, Walter in his sailboat Wyntje, writing about the people and places he encountered, and Ray in an old twenty-eight-foot Bertram, painting the scenes that caught his attention along the way. Sometimes the two sailed together on Wyntje, but most often they worked independently.

South by Southeast was published in the spring of 1983 and brought with it a national media blitz, almost immediately selling in excess of 200,000 copies. Walter and Ray made television appearances, gave talks, and appeared at book signings.

“The book was such a lift, and I’d gotten so used to painting every day I wasn’t going to give that up.” When Oxmoor hosted a celebratory party for those involved in the book, Ray Ellis stood and gave an impromptu but inspired toast: “Here’s to North by Northeast.”

He remembers: “There was dead silence. No one had ever talked about a sequel, but suddenly the chairman of the board of Oxmoor House stood up, raised his glass, and said: ‘Ray, you’ve got a deal!’ Cronkite signed on again, and the two of us started working on the new book.”

Ray admits, “The year 1983 was momentous.” In addition to the surge in his painting career, it was the year he met Teddie at a dinner party and purchased an 1864 townhouse and carriage house studio on West Hall Street in Savannah.

The series with Walter went on to include a third book, Westwind, and Ray embarked on a path that resulted in fifteen books devoted to his work that include The Spirit of Golf (1992), Ray Ellis’ Savannah & the Lowcountry (1994), Martha’s Vineyard: An Affectionate Memoir (1995), Coastal Images of America (1998), The Road to Ballybunion (1997), Fishing the Vineyard (2000), Ray Ellis in Retrospect (2004), and By the Light of the Moon (2007).

“My father was a plain man. He knew hard times,” Ray says. “He never made more than $8,000 a year, and he could never have been able to envision what I have now or what I am able to do....I think I was determined to be a success as an easel painter in order to do what my father always wanted to do.”

He continues: “My whole goal in life was focused on becoming recognized as an artist. I knew what images would reach people, and knew I could produce them. It was about more than painting; this was about my nature. I am a people-pleaser. I want to make people feel good, and I want to paint the things I see as beautiful. I believe that is the function of art.”

Ray receives acknowledgement of his abundant success with all the celebration and wonder of a lottery winner. “It frees me,” Ray says, “gives me the luxury of striving to make the next painting the best painting. I’m liberated. There’s nothing to prove.”

This article was drawn from Painting a Life, a book in progress about the artist Ray Ellis by CK Wolfson.