Ted Ellis, T. Ellis Fine Arts

For the last 30 years, New Orleans-born and Houston-based artist Ted Ellis has had an exemplary career documenting Black history and culture.

He is one of the most celebrated artists of the 21st century. In just a decade, his art has sold over 1.5 million prints and posters nationwide. As an art advocate and educator, he produces work that has earned him recognition from several organizations and city officials.

Ellis is the only African American artist appointed by the U.S Department of Interior to serve on the federal 400 Years of African American History Commission. He is also the new museum director for Southern University at New Orleans.

Ellis is part of a new art exhibition in Galveston called the “Juneteenth Freedom Project” that features more than 60 pieces by local and regional artists that highlight Black experiences in America from the 1500s to present day.

The Defender spoke with Ellis about his career uplifting the Black community through art.

Defender: You are originally from New Orleans. Is that where your love of art began

Ted Ellis: It began at an early age. My cousin was an illustrator for his high school newspaper and my other cousin Albert collected a bunch of DC and Marvel comic books. I would sketch and doddle and I was fascinated with images as a kid. I thought it was so clever how comics could be animated like this and the art bug stuck with me ever since.

Being from a city like New Orleans, you are surrounded by culture and artists. I took public transit to the French Quarter. I asked so many questions of the artists around the square. I went to the public library to immerse myself in books on art and culture. I was limited on my history and I wanted to educate myself. I have a responsibility to speak through my passion purposefully.  

Defender: Describe your style of art work.

Ellis: My work is quiet advocacy. I don’t have to speak. I let it do the talking. My work is described as Tedism. It’s a part of impressionism and folk. I paint with a lot of emotion.

Defender: Not only are you an artist, you are a scientist. Was art something you transitioned into or did you become a scientist as means to sustain your love for the art?

Ellis: I worked as an environmental chemist prior to doing my art full time for eight years. You think about critical and creative thinking. I understand complexities, I pay attention to detail, and I’m solution oriented. The study of science, you’re looking at models in front of you and you’re trying to identify how it works. I was the first generation to go to college. At some point I had to decide what was going to provide for my livelihood.

I earned my degree and entered into my career field but my passion for the arts kept calling. Prior to my generation, the only way you could be a successful artist was if you had a patron. Artists had to have other jobs, isolate themselves in academia and teach to do the art. My generation could do art full time and not have to go to Europe to be established because the support for the arts was higher there than in the United States. I’m blessed to be able to have my art sustain me and provide for my family. 

Defender: What was one of your most memorable pieces of art work? What is the story behind it?

Ellis: The Tuskegee Airman. Those guys were brilliant. They became these extraordinary pilots who never lost a bomber. They were the best pilots in World War II. When they finally received their Congressional Medal of Honor someone had the presence of mind to take my print to Washington D.C. that all the living airman members signed. I got a copy of it. That shows the value and intention behind my art. That wasn’t planned. It spoke volumes about who they are and what they’ve accomplished.

Defender: Why is the value of African American fine art trending upward?

Ellis: Mainstream sets the value of art. Number one, its been undervalued for so long. Number two, going to museums wasn’t the same as other folks. I didn’t see constructive images of my community, culture and heritage at these places. There was only one driven narrative. I told myself that I have to do the good work. I have one of the most comprehensive bodies of work as it relates to telling that story of African American history.

Defender: You have two new Juneteenth art exhibitions in Galveston and in Houston. What can we expect to see?

Ellis: I have three exhibitions that will be seen during my Juneteenth journey to equity excellence at the Leidos corporation in Reston, Virginia. That’s going to be up for the entire month of June. That collection has 17 paintings that speaks to diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion. It also speaks to what plagues African America people for so long…policies, laws and systemic racism.

My Juneteenth Freedom Project is located at the Juneteenth Legacy Headquarters in Galveston at Nia Cultural Arts Center. That’s 10-plus paintings. It’s a powerful exhibition. The new exhibition I just launched is my Juneteenth Champions. I recognize dynamic historical individuals that decided to stand up for freedom and equality and fight against oppressive forces that have held us down for so long. These are the champions that have birthed the opportunity for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday. There is nothing like it in this country that speaks specifically to Juneteenth.

Laura Onyeneho

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...