On the nippy day in January that I meet David Ellis outside of his Calyer & Diamond Street studio, men are unloading boxes into the ground level space of the three story warehouse. His studio is somewhere inside this massive complex with dusty, grey, winding hallways that faces Key Food. “I remember that this building looked derelict from the outside for most of the ’90s,” I tell David as he’s leading me into the belly of the beast. GHC Furniture and Futon Factory Outlet still have storefronts here, but most of the other space inside, David explains, now has been carved out into artist studios. “Photographers, sculptures, musicians,” he lists, as we walk past doorway after doorway on the third floor. Eventually, we reach a dead-end, where a door has been left ajar. David pushes it open.
We enter what once must have been a large square room that has been subdivided into two, long rectangular studios. “This is my side,” says David. He gestures at a workspace that contains a faux wall made of canvases stacked on racks at least twelve feet high. “The other side belongs to an artist named Beth O’Brien,” David adds. I look around the room. There’s a table with tubes of paint, plastic cups, a paper towel roll, and brushes near the canvases. Although the day felt overcast from the ground floor, up here David’s paintings are bathed in natural light coming in from the generous windows. There’s also a bookshelf
overflowing with paint cans and other odds-and-ends. The wall on my right is home to numerous pieces of artwork from fellow artists and David’s friends. He goes through each piece’s provenance quickly, and pauses at a serious portrait resting inside an oval frame. “And this, I stole out of a Burger King when I was 18 years old,” he says. “We were really, really high, and we were laughing because we thought that looked like my dad. So I was very stoned, and I had a getaway car outside. I ripped that down off the wall, and I still have it.”
Since those youthful days in Canada, David has grown a creative professional career that has had him wearing many hats: designer, actor, writer, musician, and artist. He’s played and recorded with numerous rock groups, has been featured in ad campaigns for Diesel Jeans, and has been photographed by Terry Richardson (to cherry-pick a few of his laudable achievements). This year, though, he’s taking things more slowly and has thus made a return to painting. “For the time being, I like doing things on my own, creating on my own,” David explains, “and not having to be part of a group of any sort. I’m just enjoying getting to know myself. That may not be a good thing, but I’ll find out.”
As I turn on my recorder, David offers me some Evian water out of his mini-fridge. No, thank you, I say. And then we jump right into the questions:
GPers: What’s the best part about being in these studio spaces?
David Ellis: I pretty much have almost a “no music” policy when I’m here. I only listen to NPR. I leave the drapes open so I can see out onto McGuiness [Boulevard], and it’s just like a little hideaway for me to change the pace and get away from everything. I usually don’t have my phone on or my computer. It’s like a little mini-escape, and I’m the type of person that needs to escape.
GPers: What’s the idea process like for generating your work?
DE: For the most part, I start my day with morning pages and a morning drawing. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of those, and if I think some of them
will translate to a painting then I either just do them right on the canvas or I project them with this [overhead projector] so I can line them up properly and try to get it as close to representing the morning sketch as possible. I could show you some.
[DE shows me some sketches]
GPers: What’s the painting process like?
DE: I do an outline first. Then, I usually paint pretty much the whole thing in acrylic so it’ll dry fast, and then I thin it down. Then I put the oils on top. I do one or two coats of oil. I do use radiator paint a lot. Like aluminum paint. Like, that toaster [DE points up at a painting] has aluminum paint. You have to stir it constantly because the aluminum just sinks to the bottom.
GPers: Are any of your paintings based off real advertisements?
DE: No, they’re just what comes into my mind first thing in the morning when I’m having coffee. But, no matter what it is, I like to just take the word and the item and turn it into a rock star. Whether it’s a piece of toast or a jar of jam or a goopey sundae.
GPers: Cool. Is there a set amount of time that you spend in here each morning?
DE: No, just until I can’t stand the fumes anymore or until I just get tired of it or want to move on. Or maybe I get hungry. In the summer, I was on my motorcycle, so I was just buzzing back and forth quite a lot. These days, when I leave here, I’m pretty much gone for the day.
GPers: How long have you had your motorcycle for?
DE: I got it last spring, and it’s my second motorcycle. I took it out to Montauk once. I got caught in a huge storm and swore never to do that again. Basically, I just use it to go back and forth to Greenpoint.
GPers: When you were in high school, what posters did you have on your wall?
DE: I had the Farah Fawcett poster of her in the bathing suit. I read the book Subliminal Seduction, and I actually went to the poster and I found the word “sex” airbrushed across her forehead—
DE: —And the word “sex” that was airbrushed into her flowing locks of hair in gigantic letters.
GPers: Where is the poster today?
DE: I don’t know. I think my mother threw it out. [laughs]†
David Ellis is a Canadian-born pop artist who lives in Williamsburg and works out of his Greenpoint studio. He’s a lover of people, animals, vinyl, and a good cup of coffee. When he’s not working, David likes to eat at the Lobster Joint because “they have really, really good fried oysters and a nice backyard patio for the summer.” He also likes brunch at Five Leaves because of their ricotta pancakes. You can follow David Ellis on Twitter & Instagram (@DavidCraigEllis).