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An Interview With Theo Ellsworth

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Editor's Note: We came across the work of Theo Ellsworth at a recent craft fair. As I slowly shuffled along carried by the current of the crowd, passing by vendors, Theo's booth stopped me in my tracks. It was a pleasure to discover a new artist and realize, once again that your town is full of amazing and talented people. I bought a few items as gifts, grabbed a postcard, and went home and looked him up online. Aside from his unique work, he is also a new dad. Lucky for us, he was happy to answer a few questions...

At what age did you first start drawing? Do you remember how or why?
I remember enjoying drawing and coloring when I was in Kindergarden. I also used to like to carefully cut out pictures with scissors. The feeling of quietly putting my attention into something has always had a certain appeal. Drawing in particular, is something that's stayed with me over the years and became more and more important to me. High School is when I feel like I really started using it as a thinking tool. Automatic drawing; just putting straight pen to paper, became an activity that could bring me into closer contact with something inside of myself. On the outside, I was a quiet and uncomfortable teenager in a mildly hostile learning environment, getting below average grades, but sitting and drawing was like turning on a flashlight inside of my own head. Not that I was really that great at drawing back then. I was just making these tiny little doodles, but the activity itself got my thoughts moving in new directions. It gave me the ability to carve out my own private space where I could just be myself. 

Your art is extremely detailed, tell us a little about your process.
I've come to think my approach to drawing as being in a state of "Careful Abandon". It's a certain mode I find extremely satisfying. I try not to pause and second guess what I'm drawing too much, but I also try not to draw too fast. There's a steady, forward pace to my drawings. It takes a lot of energy and focus to keep up with a drawing, but it's also relaxing. For me, It's just about being present with my own creative inclinations and being willing to let it take hold of me. It can be both frightening and fun.

How do you begin a project? Do you have ideas in mind ahead of time or do you just begin and then create as you go?
The ideas are always foggy at first. Drawing is sort of like turning a focus knob or developing a picture. I've never written out a whole story before drawing it, or pre-planned an art piece. It's all worked out as I go, step by step. I like the surprises and sudden evolutions that can happen. 

How did you begin work with Secret Acres?
I had started self publishing my comics, printing them at copy shops and folding and stapling them by hand. I traveled down to San Francisco and had a table of my work at the Alternative Press Expo and met a guy who distributes self published work to indie-friendly comic shops. The guys who started Secret Acres found my work in a store in New York City and wrote me a nice letter saying they were starting a publishing company. They flew out to meet me in San Francisco the next year when I was at the same expo. I really connected with their whole publishing vision. My book, Capacity, ended up being their third publication.

What is one thing that you can consistently count on for inspiration?
I think that inspiration is just there, inside of people. It's just about following that natural inclination.  I try to let my art have it's way.

Who are some of your biggest influences as storytellers and as artists?
It's always hard to tell when someone's influenced me. There's so many storytellers and artists I love. Looking at art is like a kind of food to me. I've been looking at Jack Kirby's comics since I was a kid. On the surface, there's probably not too many similarity's to my own art, but I'd say that he's one of my very biggest influences. The insane amount of energy and invention in his drawings, and his huge body of work is astounding. I can't look at his work without wanting to sit down and draw. Another cartoonist I relate to strongly is Jim Woodring. His comics are probably the closest thing I've seen to someone capturing what feels like actual footage of a concrete subconscious world. Everything always feels so perfectly tangible that I can't help but accept the bizarre series of events depicts as matter of fact, just like I would in a dream.

People say doodling is underrated as an art form, what advice would you give kids who use doodle as a way to express themselves?
I would probably advise who loves doodling to get a notebook and fill it. To just start on page one and see what comes out. Make working on the book a part of your everyday life, even if it's only a few minutes a day. It makes the notebook become an extension of your own personal experience. It's something that's growing along with you day by day. Keep working on it until it's filled and you have a genuine time capsule from that period of your life. No matter what you might end up thinking of the individual drawings, or your abilities in general, I'd be willing to bet that following through to the end of the book helped you navigate your everyday life in some way or another. Drawing always leads to a new place.

In what ways has fatherhood influenced your art?
It's definitely amplified it. It's turned up the intensity on my focus. On most days, I spend the morning with my two year old son and the afternoons at my studio. I can't waste any time. I've got to hit the ground running and dive right in when I get to work. It's really pushed my art forward. It's hard to even imagine what I was doing with all of my time before I was a Dad. My past-self seems lazy to me now.

Many artist feel that family life can give their work more profound depth, do you find this to be true (or are you just happy to get a decent nights sleep?)
Everything is deeper. I'm more tired than I've ever been on some days, but there's also more fuel behind what I'm working on. I'm putting everything I've got into what I'm doing. I'm trying to be as true to the work as possible and hope that it will continue to be something that can provide for my family.

There are a lot of parents of young kids out there who count on art for anything from a personal indulgence to a full blown profession, are there things that have worked well for you in terms of striking a balance between expression and fatherhood that you can share with our readers?
Now more than ever, I feel like an amphibian. You kind of have to figure out how to switch back and forth between lungs and gills and feel good in both places. It really helps to have a studio away from the house. It's just far enough that it's a nice walk or bike ride, so I have time to think and have some in between time. My studio feels like my own personal space where I can disappear into my art for awhile. No computer, no distractions. There has to be a space that's just about the work so you don't have to solve a hundred other puzzles before you can actually sit down and get started. You want to be able to just show up and dive in.

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Categories: reviews & interviews

Theo Ellsworth

I live with my family in Missoula, Montana. My wife is the owner of Mountain Sage Acupuncture and my son likes fighting imaginary fires, going down slides, and reading storybooks by flashlight. I make graphic novels, art zines, illustrations, and woodcut art out of my studio, The Thought Cloud Factory. It's all one big crazy juggling act, but it's a good life.
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