Merlene Ellis has lived art all her life and while this is not an easy profession to follow in Guyana she would tell you that for over 12 years it has been her only means of income. Maybe it is because she “gets very excited” whenever she sees a blank canvas.
She always has the urge to paint, and she becomes “very angry” if she does not get a chance to start on a blank canvas; in fact she admits that “all hell break lose” if she is prevented from bringing her artistic skill into play.
But art is not all that Ellis can do. She operates her gallery, the Merlene Ellis Art Studio, behind her East Ruimveldt home, and if you had met her some years back you would have found her working as an auto-electrician doing art on the side.
Today the electrical work has faded into the background, and it is all about painting for Ellis, who says she only spends about a day or two away from her canvases, paint and brushes.
During an interview with the Sunday Stabroek, surrounded by her paintings, machines and frames for the pictures, Ellis spoke passionately about her life as an artist without which there is ‘no her.’
She revealed that she started to paint around the age of 15 and began on canvas, although as a younger child she used colouring crayons and coloured pencils to do drawings.
“I think I born like that [with an artistic skill] because nobody taught me anything. I just as a little girl around age six, my mom say when I finish doing my homework I would pick up a pencil and start to sketch, just like that, no one showed me from that age,” Ellis said.
But after she left school she completed a three-month course at the Burrowes School of Art where she started out fully on canvas with oils and later acrylics, now adding water colours to her media. She has since won several competitions with her water colour paintings.
“I have never stopped; somehow when I stop I just have to restart, I can’t stop,” she said matter-of-factly.
Soon after that stint at the Burrowes School of Art she did not stop painting but her main focus became working as an auto-electrician.
She told this newspaper that she was once employed with the then Guyana National Trading Corporation (GNTC) which imported vehicles, and she was an auto-electrician at the company’s Tiger Bay workshop. She did work study where she learned welding, but when she was employed by the company her manager suggested she move to the electrical field.
“Right there I was taught auto-electrical… and I was employed there for a good ten years before the company ran bankrupt and sent everybody home.”
It was a job she loved and she recalled that many times the store’s customers would hire her to do work outside working hours, but because of bad management the company died.
But even while she was working, Ellis said, she continued to paint mostly at weekends, and even “steal some afternoons” from work, even though at that time she did
not have any real means of marketing her work.
GNTC had a bookstore on Camp Street which at the time was managed by Lloyd Austin – now owner of Austin’s Book Store – who purchased her paintings to sell in the store. Later she sold them to an art gallery at the Pegasus along with Fogarty’s and Guyana Stores.
“At that time it was hard to find private buyers, so you had to utilize the stores until I developed myself more, and people would call around and place an order or buy what I have.”
After being made redundant, Ellis said she initially attempted to offer auto-electrical services from her home, but she had problems with customers paying her, and she was forced to abandon that initiative. It is still one of her passions, and given an opportunity she would love to do some auto-electrical work as she still has her toolkit ready, although she admitted that she may need to do a course on fully electronic vehicles.
“But I can still change a fuse and so on, and handle myself,” she said with a smile.
Focusing on auto-electrical work for a while was solely because Ellis felt that she may be in a better position to earn a living, but after the hurdles with customers she decided to concentrate on her first love.
“I just said, look I have a talent, let me expand more on it, and I said let me paint entirely. And it was better because I got more time to experiment and paint more and got to move around and see what is going on around me,” she said, adding that she bought herself a camera and with the photographs she took her work was enhanced.
She also got the opportunity to seek out customers and as she describes it, this “worked out better for me because I was able to get a few customers by going around by their offices.”
It has now been more than 12 years since she has been painting full time, and Ellis said initially she was doing “very good” because in those early years the country’s tourism sector was in good shape and the art gallery at the Pegasus started to sell more of her work. Persons also visited her workshop or some called her to their homes to commission work.
“Things were good then, but then you know tourism started to deteriorate because of all the crimes and so on, and things [at her business] started to fall and go down…”
This situation forced her to expand her skills and that is how she began to frame paintings, a skill she taught herself. She has since invested in machines to assist with this, along with other machines, not only to improve her work, but to make it easier and more manageable.
“I started the hard way; before I could purchase a sanding machine I had to get sandpaper and I would be rubbing on the wood until it got smooth, but at the time I was just starting and I gained confidence from people and they supported me then,” she said.
When she started to make frames Ellis said many of her customers were surprised to learn that she actually painted the frames with her hands because of how neat the work was, and “it was acceptable until I was able to buy an electrical spray gun and now I have a compressor.” She enjoys doing frames as it involves a lot of technicalities and it is more than just cutting and painting wood.
Many times the paintings that sell are the ones which are commissioned by customers as opposed to paintings depicting her own subject matter.
In recent times the volume of commissioned work has grown as customers always have an idea as to what they want. Many times the cost is decided by the size of the painting and how much detail it requires, but those who commission work may pay more than if they selected a painting from her gallery.
There are times when persons want the painting but are not willing to pay the price, because “most people feel that art is just a dab of a colour and that is it…and sometimes you explain to people and they would just listen to you or play they listen to you and say, ‘look this is all I got.’” With those persons Ellis said she would explain to them that she would reduce the size of the painting so that she could use less material and spend less time, “and I don’t get that much problem.”
She also explained that when she paints she uses a lot “of wild dashes and strokes” but when persons commission paintings they at times may just want it plain without any dashes and as a result the commissioned paintings are oftentimes not a true reflection of her style.
“That is what commission is about; people tell you what they want, but added to that I have my tendencies on how I would work and my application on putting things to canvas is different,” she said.
She has a protocol though, she continued, and she does have an input into the direction of the painting even if it has been commissioned.
Over the years Ellis said she has held a couple of local solo exhibitions at what was the Hadfield Foundation, as well as at Castallani House and Oasis Café, and she also held some abroad in St Lucia, Venezuela and the US. She recalled that the last exhibition she was part of along with other artists in the US, she did not sell a single work, since while people visited, they “were not interested in art” as many of them were thinking about the economic downturn.
“Finding buyers over there [in the US] is not easy when you are new and you don’t have anybody to show you the ropes – tak[ing] you to galleries, introduce[ing] you properly and link[ing] you up; it is hard. It can become easier if you are living there,” Ellis said.
While she can be found in the yellow pages of the telephone book she is advertised via word of mouth, and she said her customers do spread the word. While she may not sell a painting in a month, there are times when she can sell several, and during the slow period she does framing, which helps.