Working the land and wielding the brush. Chris Ellis has forged a 'hand-in-hand' identity that, despite illness and loss, affords him the space to create and provide insight.
Lines full, lines fine, lines straight or strokes murmuring, hopelessly stuck on a subliminal beat. It’s luscious, great swathes of riparian hues so richly spread he’s yanked out of all that’s not easy, from all that is lost.
He leads the way down two tight flights of stairs, brushing past brown brick walls, into a sunken heart, into space and light, the vibrant dazzle of landscapes bursting with water and life.
It’s the mess and order. It’s a studio table laden with a jumble of an artist’s arsenal, searching for reason in the blank canvas chaos, through the unknown, straight to the blindingly obvious.
Backed up against one brick wall sits an old brown leather couch, to sit and let thoughts carefully spill into stillness.
His illness at bay, aside from a slight, sporadic shake in his left hand, the 56-year-old retired Henty farmer and life-long creative points his critical, patient gaze beyond the backyard of his West Albury home.
As a swollen and dull, damp greying sky gears-up to dump from the north-west.
Paintings so wet, so green, so blue. Some abstract fantasias, others clear-eyed, sometimes imagined spectacles of the Murray’s beautiful aesthetic.
Alluring and calm, that prettiness cloaking the deep-rooted, mind-boggling complexity. Ellis knows these dreamings allow a grasp at something far greater.
For as a farm lad who’d take off on his motorbike, a battered school case full of oil paints and brushes, pencils and paper under his arm (some a gift from Mum and Dad, others scavenged from siblings already moved on to another curiosity), it also reveals an ultimate truth.
That without water we cannot eat or drink or even breath.
It began as a boy sketching and drawing and painting for an hour or two under some random old gum, the ghosts of delicately dry water courses laid-out before him, hastily dressed in parched, worn-out browns and yellows, and in the patterns and innate knowledge Dad cut into and fashioned in the ancient soils.
“It was observing the land from an aesthetic point of view, as well as a production point of view. Even as a small child I can remember being able to recognise the different phases of production and the different colours in the landscape.”
After a 12-month break following his HSC, he studied fine art at the then Caulfield Institute of Technology, now Monash University.
But deciding he knew enough – “I wanted to learn about colours and how to mix colours, to understand the real fundamentals of painting and get some good solid practice in too” – he returned after two years.
“I decided I’d better have a go at this farming business while I’m fit and young”.
Chris Ellis’s life force is in the grand wash of art and horizons, of farms and drawing, love and mourning, in riding this compulsion to bring order while heeding lessons sucked out of life.
The motivation for the 40 works (one half watercolours, the other oils) in his Riverine Reflections exhibition, at the Malvern Artists’ Society from September 28 to 30, came from wanting to show how much we all depend on clean drinking water.
“From an aesthetic point of view, tranquility is a word I use to describe the river and the water. But we’ve got to remember that it’s not just a beautiful place to go for a walk; it’s an ecosystem to a lot of native birds and animals. We should treasure those aspects of nature.”
Art is the drive, especially from when he and his late wife, Elizabeth, decided to escape the big 2000s drought, when they realised “there’s no point making dust out in the paddocks”.
They took on workers and at weekends painted in a shed Ellis built on their sheep and cropping farm, but didn’t use himself for years. Forensic planning, a scientific bent and keeping stock in good health dulled the drought’s grip.
“I think part of that was due to the fact we had an escape into the art world and the studio.”
Until the big dry, he was too busy farming though still did the occasional watercolour.
Years before, at 34, still raising two young boys, he got a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis, to match what he reckoned from ticking-off his symptoms against a medical textbook.
A hand kept on shaking, legs began stiffening, the exhaustion swallowed him up like a slow drowning. Fiddly stuff on the farm, those nuts and bolts and “things like that”, but the neurologists laughed when he told them his verdict.
You’re too young, they said, most got Parkinson’s in their 60s, their 70s. It took a couple of years before his belief was backed and the medication prescribed.
“And those two years were the worst two years of my life because I was feeling crook the whole time,” he says.
“It got so bad I couldn’t function properly on the farm. It was a real sense of relief when I was diagnosed finally.”
The medication at least treated the symptoms, which were destined to keep progressing. Ellis walked into a Melbourne pharmacy, filled the prescription and on taking the pills, his body re-awoke as he returned down the street.
“I could feel the energy and the control coming back in to my muscles again, feel it flooding all through my veins. It had been difficult, difficult for the whole family.”
The drugs kept him ahead off the Parkinson’s and let him improvise on the farm, to make sound management decisions such as buying more land.
It was part of steeling himself to focus on what he could still do as he gradually lost control of his hands and arms.
And then in 2010 came another diagnosis, but this time it was for Elizabeth.
She had a brain tumour. Their GP said they had to choose between Sydney or Melbourne for treatment, so they rented a South Yarra flat to allow them to walk to The Alfred hospital.
Early on in their Melbourne stay, Elizabeth had urged him to have a deep brain stimulation operation.
“How are you going to look after me,” she asked, “if you can’t look after yourself?”
The operation was a great success and the symptoms, still under reduced and refined medication, disappeared.
But after 18 months, Elizabeth died. Ellis stayed in Melbourne for another six months to work out the bewildering emptiness.
Her death left him struggling. He had sold his stock, “I was very fond of my sheep”, so knew he had to get off the farm, after going back for a short while to take care of a few jobs.
“There were too many memories to stay there. I was gradually simplifying the path ahead of me.”
Moving into Albury was followed by a search for a home with a studio, which meant inspecting more than 100 properties.
After finally buying he began painting before he’d even unpacked.
“The only thing that made me feel good was painting. When I’m painting I go into another world,” he says.
“It’s the reflections in the water, shadows in the water, the movement of life in the water I’ve painted. I hope the exhibition makes people stop and look and think about the importance of the river. Water is essential for every cycle of nature”