Multidisciplinary Artist Dean F. Ellis has been a fixture of Brantford’s Arts Scene for over half a century.
Celeste Percy-Beauregard, October 10, 2022 // Brantford, OntarioBTOWN in conversation with artist Dean Ellis. Photo credit Sarah Evans.
Dean Ellis’ artwork can be found in private collections across Canada, the U.S. and around the world, but he remains passionate about championing the local arts scene in the city he’s called home for the past 53 years.
While many artists are fortunate to find success in one medium, Dean has found joy – and patrons – across a variety of expressions. “I do stone carving, I've done silver work, copper work, I used to forge blades,” he says of his artistic practices over the years – he even dabbled in fingernail art when he was a Fine Arts student at Guelph in the ‘70s – and that’s in addition to photography, jewelry making, woodwork, oil painting and his favourite medium: pen and ink. If that wasn’t enough, he also writes and is a percussionist. “All this stuff keeps me out of trouble,” he says with a smile.
It’s hardly surprising that Dean has embraced so many creative forms; he grew up surrounded by artists. His great-grandparents on both sides, and one great-grandfather, painted with oil, and his paternal grandmother was a hobby oil painter and watercolour artist, as well as a talented musician. “She's the most artistically inclined person in the history of our family,” Dean says. In addition to being concertmaster of the Hamilton Philharmonic in 1920 and 1921, she also taught music and played upright bass, oboe, piano, trumpet, trombone – all instruments she had around her house.
Dean Ellis with his amazing works of art. Photo credit Sarah Evans.
When Dean was just four years old, his mother, an oil and watercolour painter, as well as a talented soprano, encouraged him to pick up a paintbrush. “My mother saw that I was bored, and she got one of her canvases,” he remembers. “I stole some brushes from my grandmother and used oil paints from my grandmother and my mother and spent the weekend doing a painting.” The painting was of a Great Dane he’d met up the hill from his grandmother’s place.
A selection of Dean’s work was most recently on display in “The Eclectic Collection of Complicated Madness” show, at Robertson Fine Arts Studio and Gallery, where we sat down to chat. Some pieces in the show touched on serious subjects, for instance, he put his horror over the residential school unmarked grave discoveries to paper, and used his masques to shine a light on mental health, but much of his work conveys a sense of playfulness.
His ink and pen scenes imbue a dreamlike quality, and feature unexpected elements, like balloons, bubbles and Christmas lights, twisted guitar strings spring from his masques, with delicate dots of colourful nail polish beading the tips and his cubed pocket puzzles are a literal invitation to play.
Dean Ellis uses different techniques to create unique pieces of art. Photo credit Sarah Evans.
Born in London, Ontario, Dean moved here in his youth. “My dad worked for the Canadian National Railway,” he says, “We basically moved every two years until 1969, when he took a position here as an upper middle management supervisor.”
In the years since then, Dean has worked with other local artists to foster the arts scene here. “Brantford has never been a Fine Art town,” Dean says, and independent galleries have struggled to become permanent fixtures. “Things have come up, lasted a year or two, and then disappeared,” he says.
In the early 1970s, Arts Place opened on Dalhousie Street, operated by The Art Gallery of Brant, but ultimately left the downtown core when it amalgamated with Glenhyrst Art Gallery in the ‘80s.
Much later in 2008, The Station Coffee House and Gallery, operated by Mike and Linda Tutt, enjoyed a good run, but eventually shuttered in 2017. “Sundays they had live music,” Dean says, recalling how, in the nice weather, they’d set up a little stage outside, “and people would sit in chairs underneath the covering between the two buildings and listen to live music, and every once in a while, a train would go roaring by, and nobody was ever fazed by that.”
In 2015, Dean was a founding member of The Crawford Collective, which attempted to once again bring the Fine Arts downtown, with a commercial gallery space on King Street, helmed by Lily Crawford. “We had First Friday events, and it was basically an opening for new artwork every month,” Dean says, “We could have anywhere from 75 to 200 people, the majority of them from London, Simcoe, a lot from Hamilton, Toronto, Orangeville, all of those places.” But without the local sales to support it, the gallery closed a year and a half later.
In spite of these disappointments, Dean is hopeful for the future of the arts in Brantford and surrounding area. “Things have improved immensely,” he says. Robertson’s gallery has been operational on West Street since 2017 (“Tom's been very gracious in letting me put my artwork up here,”) and close by, two new galleries have opened in Paris; the Taren White Gallery and The Paris Bohemian Gallery, where Dean has shown work with consistency since it was opened three years ago by Katherine Pickering. “She’s one of these art whirlwinds,” Dean says, “She’s very deep into the BIA there and the theatre group. She’s got a lot on her calendar all the time.”
And there are new spaces on the horizon. “There are things in the works with Laurier University for theater, and art space, being developed now in the Market Square building,” Dean says. “It's definitely improving. And it has to, because we have so much talent in Brantford.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Celeste Percy-Beauregard’s first form of storytelling was as an actor, and her eager curiosity and interest in a variety of subjects led her to writing. Her work has appeared in Toronto Star and Today’s Parent, and she is enjoying exploring Brantford and learning about the people and places that make it such a special city.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Born on a frigid winter's night, Sarah Evans knew early on that the only way to warm her soul was through art. During her time studying Film and Video Production at York U, Sarah discovered her love for photography and has been shooting ever since. Other things Sarah has done is worked on film and television sets, painted a terrible mural in high school, opened a floral business and bitten into a paintball (it wasn't a chocolate covered blueberry!).