A lot of people think Ken Ellis is a vampire. “They never see me in the daytime,” he says. “I’ve been sitting at doors at different clubs for years, so people probably wonder what else I do.”
If people really do wonder what this Rainbo Club doorman and bartender is doing in his off-hours, they might be surprised to learn he’s making quilts. His paintings, as he calls them, are photographs copied onto fabric, then embroidered and sewn with batting.
“I find it very soothing for my nerves to sew late at night when there’s nothing in the street,” he says. “It’s especially therapeutic after coming home from the bar and listening to blaring music and people talking. Since I don’t drink, I need something to lull myself to sleep.”
Ellis learned to sew from his father, a maintenance engineer, while growing up on the Gold Coast, and he’s always painted. He’s also a big history buff. But it wasn’t until after stints at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, the School of the Art Institute, and Columbia College that he combined the three interests. “I got fed up with school and went to work in a punk bar,” he says. The bar was the famous La Mere Vipere, where he met his ex-wife, Marilyn. She turned him on to fabric dye, which she used to color T-shirts and pillows. The dye was brighter and more durable than oil paint, “which is on a layer of gesso and can crack and peel off,” says Ellis. “My dye is part of the fabric and will be there as long as the fabric is there.” Technically his paintings are washable.
He started painting and sewing on T-shirts, which he and Marilyn sold at art fairs, and doing small portraits of gangsters. Gradually the pieces got larger and more elaborate, depicting obscure figures from African-American history like Colorado mountain man Jim Beckworth and Old West lawman Bass Reeves. More recently he’s done local bands–some members of which are his coworkers at Rainbo–including Pegboy, Eleventh Dream Day, Freakwater, and Tortoise. For his current Haitian-voodoo series, he’s incorporated beads, feathers, and shells. Some quilts depict violent historical episodes. The Hate Quilt shows a Klan lynching, goose-stepping soldiers, Hitler (who sports a real Iron Cross), prisoners in the Dachau concentration camp, kids in Doc Martens, and a swastika dripping blood. It was inspired by Marilyn’s niece and nephew, who were skinheads when he made it ten years ago.
“In grammar school they used to have an art contest,” Ellis says. “I realize now that my paintings never won because I’d do all these bloody Hercules kind of things. But I don’t make up any of it. It’s blood that’s there. I don’t try to glorify it; I just try to show it.” Ellis’s own blood dots the backs of the paintings. “I stab myself a lot,” he says, laughing.
Four of Ellis’s pieces will be on display through March 20 at the Bona Fide Gallery’s new exhibit, “Three Sides of a Quilt,” which also includes work by Jane Sassaman and Pat Kroth. The free opening reception is tonight from 6 to 9 at the gallery, 2136 W. Chicago (773-252-7103). –Cara Jepsen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Dambala’s Dream”/ Ken Ellis photos by Jim Newberry.