Carson Ellis

Illustrator

Interview: by Janice Grube

Working from the home studio she shares with her husband, Colin Meloy of the Portland-based band The Decemberists, Carson Ellis has spent the last decade racking up awards and praise for her acclaimed body of illustration work.

Beginning her career as the illustrator-in-residence for The Decemberists, Carson’s collaborations with musicians have gone on to include album art for bands like Weezer, and children’s books like The Wildwood Chronicles, a New York Times bestselling series she brought to life with her husband.

Her work with Florence Parry Heide, the legendary children’s book author known for her collaboration with renowned illustrators like Edward Gorey and Jules Feiffer, resulted in a silver medal from the Society of Illustrators, and her work with Lemony Snicket in The Composer is Dead showcased Carson’s ability to illustrate the types of cult fables that age to become classics.

Having already fulfilled her lifelong dream of illustrating for the New Yorker, Carson’s current projects, which include a couple of picture books and a stop motion adaptation of the first book in the Wildwood series, are just a few of the many that will help usher her into the distinctive class of illustrators whose work is admired by generations to come. 

JANICE GRUBE: You always wanted to be an illustrator, so how did you end up at The University of Montana- a school with no illustration program?

CARSON ELLIS: I grew up in suburban New York and I really wanted to move out West. The Rocky Mountains felt so majestic, and I loved snowboarding, and I felt this pull towards the University of Montana. I studied fine art and got a painting degree. I graduated not knowing what editorial work was, not knowing how to use a computer, not knowing what an art director did. I didn’t even know how to use Photoshop. I do now, but in a weird, ridiculous, self-taught way. It takes days when it should take me 10 minutes.

JG: What brought you to Portland?

CE: After college I moved around a bunch and ended up in San Francisco. I was an oil painter when I graduated, but by no means making a living. I think a lot of people from Montana come to Portland looking for more culture, especially people in the arts. Colin had been my roommate in college, and he moved here. I was secretly in love with him, so I would drive up and see him, and eventually I moved here. When I came here, I felt like I found my people. I started doing work for The Decemberists as a labor of love, and then some art directors started to call.

JG: You definitely have your own unique style, and I can usually tell when it’s your work. You really helped create the identity for The Decemberists. Does Colin art direct?

CE: Yes. I would say he’s pretty bossy, but I’m pretty headstrong, too, so it works out. Sometimes it’s awesome, and sometimes it’s gnarly and terrible. They’re always just creative disputes, which is a good thing. That collaboration [with The Decemberists] is such a unique situation because we collaborate on every visual aspect. They have so many albums and singles and merch that helped create their body of work.

JG: And fromthat work you started getting editorial calls? Did you ever feel out of your realm?

CE: Totally! The art director from Willamette Week called me and I couldn’t believe I was getting paid for my art, because I was always an under-achiever. They wanted a cover in color and I had no idea how to use Photoshop, so I had to call her back and ask for help. She was cool about it—she walked me through it on the phone. For so many years—and still now to a certain extent—I felt like I was faking it and I didn’t know what I was doing.

JG: What’s the creative process like when you work with a writer? Do you collaborate closely with the author or do they give you the final copy and let you roll with it?

CE: It tends not to be very collaborative, which is odd. They streamline the collaboration and the editor is usually the go-between. I always had this vision of working closely with the writer because the images and the text are so interdependent. But it’s also kind of nice because having done the opposite with Colin and being all up in each other’s faces, I can see why it evolved that way.

JG: You illustrated Florence Parry Heide’s Dillweed’s Revenge, which was shelved for 40 years because Edward Gorey refused to do the illustrations if the ending was revised. What an honor to get that gig 40 years later. Did Florence get to see the final version before she died?

CE: Yes, and she loved it! She was so supportive, and she was notorious for not taking anything from anybody. She had this huge personality and worked with a lot of great people. She was someone I really admired as a kid. I’m sad I never got to meet her before she died. I regret not jumping on a plane and flying out to Kenosha, Wisconsin.

JG: The Wildwood Chronicles that you created with Colin was named after a trail in Portland’s Forest Park, right outside your doorstep. Did you both conceptualize the story by taking walks out there for inspiration?

CE: Initially we had been working on this illustrated novel a long time ago, which even predates The Decemberists. It was this weird, psychedelic story about this girl whose family had been kidnapped and she has to go out in search for them. It was rambling and trippy, not really for kids. We had to stop working on it because his music took off and I was always busy with my work, but we never forgot about it. When we finally had a chance to come back to it, we were much older and had a kid and we thought, “Let’s make something that kids would want to actually read.” We always thought it should be set in Forest Park, and thought “What if turn Forest Park into this alternate, enchanted world?” When we bought this house, we were still fantasizing about it. Actually, the woman who was selling thehouse had a lot of competitive offers. We were trying to win her over so wetold her that we were writing this book that was set in Forest Park, and she sold us the house on the condition that we send her the book when it was done! We finally had this window in our schedules and started working on it first by drawing a map. That’s what started the writing process for Colin. We would go on these long walks and he would talk through the whole story out loud and ask himself questions about the plot, and I would sometimes give feedback. We did that almost exclusively by walking up there in the woods. 

JG: Your studio is so cozy, complete with a pellet stove and surrounded by greenery up in the hills. It’s exactly what a reader would expect it to be. It’s a beautiful place to work, but do you ever feel isolated?

CE: A lot of the time I feel imprisoned by work, but with Wildwood, it’s everything I love to do: magical worlds and talking animals. Chapter books are often written in series and kids have come to expect that they’ll come out once a year, so publishers want to keep the momentum going. It’s the kind of art I love to make, except that the time frame is really nutty. I hate rushing the creative process, but there could definitely be a lot worse lots in life. 

 

Carson Ellis's PDX


photo: Christine Taylor
  • Oh, how I love Forest Park, a 5,000 acre swath of woods on the western edge of Portland. Things I’ve seen in Forest Park: owls, deer, newts, coyotes, delicate woodland flora, a 500 year old tree, a stray cat, evidence of 19th century logging, an abandoned hobo camp, and some teenagers having a kegger.
  • If you like zines, comic books, art books, picture books, good magazines and small press miscellany, you’ll like Reading Frenzy a lot. It’s a small, lovingly-curated bookstore and Portland bibliophilic landmark.
  • This native plant nursery in West Linn is magical. It’s so magical, I can’t even describe it. You should just go there and see for yourself, especially if you like plants and hippies.
  • This is a funny, old bar at the top of Forest Park. Sometimes I walk there from my house, through the woods. I have a beer and a bowl of crockpot chili and then I walk back home, through the woods, kind of buzzed. Something about this trek makes me feel like a hermit or a prospector from pioneer days, which I like.
  • Primarily an art gallery, but also a vendor of nice things and a tiny event space for intimate readings, shows, dance performances, etc. Highly recommended for well-curated art, literature, vinyl, functional ceramics, perfume, candy, soap, jewelry, shoes, and you-name-it from Portland and beyond.
  • I love bright, cozy French café-type places like St. Jack. This is my favorite restaurant in Portland, especially when I get to sit in the back, next to the window.
  • A top-notch permanent collection housed in a beautiful building and also the oldest art museum on the West Coast. I think the fact that Victorian Portlanders opted to build a first-class art museum in what was, at the time, a back-waterish town in the wilds of Oregon, says something nice about Portland’s legacy of arts appreciation.
  • Our city’s hinterland, on a peninsula at the northern-most reaches of North Portland. You can see a cheap movie and drink beer at the St. Johns Theatre, shop for antiques at Sabi & Friends, drink coffee at the James John cafe, view Portland from the St. Johns Bridge, and learn to fence at the Fencing Salle.

More Interviews