Once upon a time, surrounded by fields and forests, a carriage house stood amidst a decrepit silo, a stone root cellar and other dilapidated structures on an old estate called Dellwood, in Westchester County, New York.
This could be the beginning of a children’s story. In a way it is. It’s where award-winning children’s book illustrator Carson Ellis grew up. “I spent a lot of time then exploring the woods by myself. I liked to look for salamanders under rocks and pretend I was in Narnia,” says the 39-year-old Ellis, referring to C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, which she devoured at age seven and kept rereading. Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, to hippie parents who rented the carriage house and let the kids play freely, she also constantly drew pictures of horses and plants and sketched out comics about ponies, like the one across the dirt road.
She’s living in the country again, on a historic farmstead just south of Portland, Oregon, with her husband, Colin Meloy, author and lead singer-songwriter of indie folk-rock band The Decemberists, and their children, Henry, “Hank,” nine, and Milo Cannonball (yes, it’s on his birth certificate), two. I’m sitting with this blue-jeaned woman with long, naturally copper-colored hair and crayon-red lips (her only makeup) in her studio. It’s the farm’s original nut-drying house, its white walls bare except for an illustration of hers tacked above a big wooden drawing table strewn with sketches and splattered with India ink and paint. Between us lie slices of an apple from one of the trees I can see through the wide-open French doors, which are flanked by shelves teeming with children’s picture books and novels.
It’s mainly books like these that Ellis’s pen-and-ink and gouache images grace, along with the Decemberists’ album covers and T-shirts and the occasional magazine article. She’s most widely known as illustrator of the Wildwood Chronicles, a New York Times best-selling children’s fantasy-adventure trilogy that Meloy wrote. In all her work, you can see her love of nature embraced by an old-world folk-art feel, whether Edwardian, Victorian or medieval.
Steven Malk, Ellis’s literary agent at Writers House, based in New York City, also sees the influence of Ben Shahn, Edward Gorey and Maurice Sendak in her illustrations. “But she’s fusing all that and doing something totally new and all her own,” he says.
“I’m really drawn to naïve art—the art of children, untrained artists and crazy people. I can’t be any of those things, but I’m always trying to emulate them,” says Ellis. There’s also a Russian resemblance, a country that calls to her “because it’s at once 19th century and modern, tumultuous and chaotic, and very civilized, intellectual and elevated.” Just don’t say her work is whimsical, pleads Ellis. “It’s more fantastic, with the angst, torment and complications of old folktales. This resonates with kids. They get it.”
So does children’s book author and illustrator Jon Klassen, a friend of Ellis’s since college. He says, “Carson always manages to make things simple, without losing any of the charm or weight she wants. Your initial impression is a moody one, but then you realize how many problems she solved, and it’s almost shocking. With all that simplicity, the illustrations are also atmospheric, whole worlds unto themselves.” Leading children into those other worlds is what motivates Ellis as an illustrator. She says, “Picture books are most kids’ first exposure to visual art and prose. That’s a huge responsibility for an illustrator, and I want to do it really well. I want every illustration to be a piece of fine art.”
She fondly remembers her own first books, particularly those by Roald Dahl and Florence Parry Heide. Years later, Ellis would end up illustrating the latter’s Dillweed’s Revenge: A Deadly Dose of Magic. As a teen, she dreamed of doing something like that and kept drawing, but she admits she wasn’t very ambitious then. “I had a fear of failure, especially when it came to art. I didn’t want to fail at something I loved to do so much, so I never took it very seriously.”
College, made possible with her grandfather’s financial help, was just a way to leave home. So what if the University of Montana didn’t have an illustration program? Now she could live in the state for which she’d always felt “a mysterious allure, because of its openness, space and peace,” she says. She majored in fine art and painting and spent a semester abroad, at an art school in Lacoste, France. “But I wasn’t a good student. And I had no plans.”
She also never stopped drawing, finding her way with pencils, ballpoint pens and Sharpies. Along with her own work, she did a few cover illustrations for a friend’s zine and band flyers for one of her housemates. Ellis became good friends with this guy named Colin, guitarist and singer then for Tarkio.
In 1998, with a BFA in hand, she knew she wanted to be an artist, but she also knew she needed to see the world. For the next couple of years she traveled to Minnesota, Vermont, Europe and San Francisco, where she had her first solo show of her paintings, with successful sales. She frequently drove up to Portland to visit college friends who’d moved there. One of them was Meloy. Her last visit was in 2001, the year he formed The Decemberists, and she never left. Courtship led to collaboration, and Ellis became the band’s illustrator-in-residence, first for T-shirts and posters, then for the website, album covers and stage sets.
Within a few years, as the band gained national recognition, art directors noticed her pen-and-ink work. She quit bartending and painting to illustrate for The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the New York Times and Poetry magazine, adding gouache to her repertoire. “I was negotiating everything myself, not sure if I was getting paid what I was supposed to and sort of faking it until I made it,” says Ellis.
That changed with her illustration for The Decemberists’ second full-length album, Her Majesty, when it and her paintings on the website of Portland’s (now-defunct) Motel Gallery caught Malk’s eye. He says, “Her work had a strong narrative quality as if straight out of children’s books, and I thought, ‘That’s what she needs to be illustrating.’ It was so apparent how picture books had made such a formative impact on her.” Ellis’s first contract, thanks to him, was The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart. For the next five years, while Meloy toured on and off, “I had this long list of books to work on. I was getting paid in advance, real money, and it felt like the real thing.” It was.
She and Meloy had dreamed up an illustrated novel a couple of years earlier, but it had to wait. Eighty pages and several drawings in, How Ruthie Ended the War was inspired by a Trans-Siberian Railway trip to northern Russia that the two took in 2001 (the book was never published). Meanwhile, Ellis’s ink flowed for images in The Composer Is Dead, by Lemony Snicket; The Beautiful Stories of Life: Six Greek Myths, Retold, by Cynthia Rylant; and Stagecoach Sal, by Deborah Hopkinson—all published in 2009. Dillweed’s Revenge came next, and in 2010, her illustrations won her a Society of Illustrators Silver Medal.
By then, she, Meloy and four-year-old Hank had moved across town smack up against Forest Park, a 5,172-acre woods right in the city. They could finally return to that illustrated novel, but instead of a quasi-Russian world, they set it in the park, changing the story some and naming it after the park’s longest trail, the 30-mile-long Wildwood. They drew a map of the woods with its real and imagined places and took long walks to hash out the plot, populating Prue and Curtis’s journey into the Impassable Wilderness with talking animals, coyote soldiers, mystics and a forest witch, all amidst an ancient civilization’s ruins. Wildwood, with Ellis’s 85 illustrations, six of them full-color plates in the style of 1960s and 1970s Polish children’s books, was quickly followed by Under Wildwood and Wildwood Imperium.
“Carson’s illustrations depict what’s happening, but also provide an ambiance and attitude that are nonobjective enough to allow for a lot of interpretation from the reader,” says Meloy of the Wildwood Chronicles. He says that for both his band and the books, he and Ellis have “honed our hive mind, so we understand each other more quickly than we did earlier in. Sometimes I’ll have a specific idea, and she’ll illustrate her own version of it. Or I’ll look at things she’s working on and point things out, and we’ll come to an idea we’re both excited about.”
Ellis adds, “Colin knows the things I love to illustrate. And because we spend so much time together, I know what captures his imagination. Sometimes we have creative disputes, but mostly it’s seamless.” She feels fortunate to work so closely with him as the author, as most of her other book projects have been managed by a go-between editor. “It’s great to talk and find what you’re both trying to say and make the text and imagery work together.”
She works about six hours a day in her studio, with help from her babysitter “and an incredibly supportive husband and amazing mother-in-law,” she says. In general, for chapter books, Ellis gives herself two to three weeks to read, noting along the way where illustrations can enhance a scene or portray dramatic moments. Friend and children’s book author Mac Barnett says that “in the best picture books, the images may complicate or contradict the text, creating a tension between the two. Carson has a great intuitive sense for that.” The process for albums is more abstract. Ellis listens to them many times while working on their covers as well as on other projects and contemplates what the music says to her. Whatever the illustration, she seeks out references in art and other books, and on sites like the New York Public Library’s digital archive, then hits the paper. She’ll sketch for minutes or hours, “depending on how complicated the illustration is and how much I’m trying to get right,” she says. The same goes for the final illustration. “It’s this tightrope walk of letting all your intellectual powers and cultural references do their work while you draw with abandon.”
Ellis’s first illustrations were line-oriented, then became more painterly with her additions of gray tints and the occasional solid black. Now, she’s attracted to simpler graphics. Usually, she begins sketching with pencil in a large Moleskine watercolor-paper notebook, then paints over that with gouache in gray or muted-colored shapes, and adds pen-and-ink lines for detail. Sometimes she skips the pencil. “I especially like to work freehand in pen and ink, so it doesn’t look labored over,” she says. “Also, my work has more sophisticated references now; it’s less naïve.” Lately, she’s gotten into a little magenta, lavender and bright red, colors she’d never used before. You can see them in her latest collaboration with Meloy, the quilted-design cover of the newest Decemberists album, and in the first picture book that she also authored, Home (Candlewick, February 2015), about all the kinds of homes people and animals live in.
Barnett can stare at Ellis’s illustrations “for a really long time,” he says. “Carson is so warm and welcoming, and her art is, too. It’s like you’re invited into these private moments inside houses and forests, and you get to hear what people, animals and plants are saying when there isn’t anyone else around.”
Whether walking in the woods or working on an illustration, it’s more meditative for Ellis now than when she was a child. “But she’s always exploring,” says Meloy. “And I’m excited she’s doing more of her own creations, apart from our collaborations and those with other writers. She’s starting to develop a new voice for herself.” The artistic paths she chooses only take her deeper into the forest. ca