Carson Ellis

Illustrator, artist, and all-around winner Carson Ellis tells us about her work with the Decemberists, collapsed mining towns in Montana, and what’s stuck in her head.

Illustrator Carson Ellis has contributed much acclaimed artwork to all of the Decemberists’ releases [more of her work can be seen here]

Full name and date of birth: Carson Friedman Ellis, October 5, 1975

Occupational title(s), both real and desired-in-another-lifetime: Illustrator (real and desired-in-another-lifetime)

A dog traipsing over a city? Outhouses? Russian? What ties it all together? There’s a certain element that runs through all you’re doing, but what is it? Oh, I don’t know what that element is, I’ve never had to name it before. I like things that seem shabby, historical, sort of haunted, vigilante, archetypal but not overused… I was just in Butte, Montana, yesterday and I loved it so much that I’m going back after I write this to visit again and do some drawing. It’s a collapsed mining town with a history of rival copper-mine tycoons, labor-union calamity, an influx of Chinese immigrants, and tragic mining accidents, including a famous fire that claimed the lives of 160-something miners in the early part of the century. The old part of the city is intact architecturally though totally run-down and ghosty and set against the backdrop of these enormous pits from the mines, which in turn are set against the backdrop of some mountains, which themselves are topped by a 90-foot statue of the Virgin Mary named Our Lady of the Rockies.

Favorite books? The Brothers Karamozov by Fyodor Dostoevsky; The Painted Bird by Jersey Kosinski; Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas

How did you get involved with The Decemberists? Colin, their singer and songwriter, is my boyfriend. I actually began my illustrious xeroxed-rock-show-flyer-making career drawing posters for his old band, Tarkio, back when we were college roommates.

Heroes? Right now I’m in a tiny, tiny town in Montana called Basin for the month of September and my heroes are a bunch of women who moved here in the ‘70s. They all settled into hundred-year-old houses in various states of abandonment and unlivability and learned to fix them up, teaching themselves plumbing and wiring and carpentry and, in the case of one house, how to build a roof. Their names are Joy, MJ, Nancy, Brier, Randy, and Nan (and there may be more I haven’t met yet).

The art scene: galleries, kissy-face, and all that. Are you into it? Why or why not? I only had one opening that might be described as kissy-face-y. It was in San Jose and I got led around by the elbow and introduced to wealthy old ladies, one after another, and chatted them up about art as best I could while trying not to seem too drunk. It was so fun and I was totally into it. I paint really seldomly though and don’t think of myself as a painter so much as I think of myself as an illustrator. So I don’t know if the gallery scene is where I fit in. When I have openings in Portland (where I live) they’re typically pretty small and all my friends come so they feel a little like birthday parties…which I like also. As for the real, international art scene, I don’t really know much about its inner-workings. I think of it with a mixture of intimidation, curiosity, suspicion, and awe.

Charity worth giving to? There’s a place in Portland called p:ear gallery that I think is really neat. It’s a studio and exhibition space that offers art workshops, food, support, and plain friendliness to homeless kids. They exhibit their art in the gallery and have openings every month or so.

Five words that sound great? you, are, my, sun, shine (it’s stuck in my head)


Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News. He is always working on the next installment of the Albums of the Year series at TMN. More by Andrew Womack