Portland, Ore., resident Carson Ellis mostly divides her time between book illustration and art for the Decemberists. She’s illustrated The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, The Composer Is Dead by Lemony Snicket, and The Beautiful Stories of Life by Cynthia Rylant.
Was a trip to Russia involved in the creation of these pieces?
Yes, Colin [Meloy, her husband] and I went to Russia in 2001. We rode the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Irkutsk and back and some of these drawings were made from photos I took there. It was a long time ago, but that trip made a big impression on me and it’s probably informed all the art I’ve made since—every time I think I might be done drawing pictures of Russia, I make some more. I think it’s beautiful there. I love the wild, sweeping landscapes and the crazy spectrum of the architecture—from ramshackle dacha villages to decrepit Soviet high-rises to ornate wooden houses sinking into the Siberian permafrost.
Are there any similarities between Portland and Irkutsk?
Not many. I think of Portland as environmentally minded, small-feeling, safe, and orderly. I’d describe Irkutsk, a Siberian city of similar size, as being the opposite of all those things. The one thing I think they do have in common is that they’re really lush and overgrown in places. I was in Irkutsk in November, so the Siberia I saw was a cold, snowy one—though I’ve seen photos of it in the summer with houses that seem to be disappearing under a mass of weeds. It surprised me and it reminded me of some places in Portland.
How strong is the narrative in your work? I feel the hints of a story, but do you have a larger plot mapped out here?
Usually in the beginning there’s just the idea—a hockey fight or a couple making out, say—and as the drawing progresses and little details are added, the lives of the people in it come into focus. But, no, there’s not a larger plot, just a blurry idea of who the subjects are and how they got to be doing what they’re doing.
Who is Ivan Michaelovich?
When we were in St. Petersburg, we stayed in a hostel next to the infamously inhumane Kresty Prison. Relatives and loved ones hang around outside the prison wall and call to the inmates, then trace messages to them in the air. I took a photograph of the prison that I used to draw A Message for Ivan. Ivan Michaelovich is meant to be the prisoner that the two babushkas in the foreground are calling to.
What’s the connection between the man riding the one-headed dragon, heading toward the house and the framed image of the same man next to the couple’s bed?
The man riding the dragon is Yeruslan Lazarevich, a mythical Russian knight. That drawing is a copy of an old Russian print. There are a handful of versions of it out there—all with the same basic composition: Yeruslan Lazarevich riding a three-headed dragon over the water, chopping off its heads.
Russian folk prints, or lubki, were mass-produced and used to be readily available, so I thought maybe the girl in Lucky Green Dress might have one hanging on her wall, along with the icon above her bed. They’re both just meant to help describe the girl in the drawing—to say that she’s faithful, she appreciates bravery and heroism, and she’s easily led astray.
How much of your work is done later, from photographs? Or do you also pack the sketchbook on trips?
Lots of the fine art (as opposed to illustration) I make is done from photographs I’ve taken over the years. I have a big box of photos—the collection stopped growing years ago when I switched from film to a digital camera—and I mine it for ideas all the time. I’m still drawing pictures from photos I took in high school.
As for packing a sketchbook, I always used to and I did on that Russian trip. I have a bunch of pencil sketches I made there, mostly of houses and villages, some of which I turned into more finished things when I got home. These days I travel a lot, mostly on tour with Colin, but don’t do as much of that kind of drawing. I bring a lot of art supplies but use them to try and keep up with whatever I’m working on, usually whatever book I’m illustrating.
Any plans for a return visit to Russia?
No plans. I’d love to go back, but I have a toddler now and can’t imagine bringing him on a Siberian backpacking adventure. It’s far away and not an easy place to travel. I daydream about having some work-related reason to be there, though. I’d love to be a visiting professor at a university in Irkutsk or something.
What other locales have inspired you?
Montana. I went to college there, in Missoula, straight from suburban New York, where I grew up. I loved living in Montana, could barely bring myself to leave, and have pined for it since moving away 11 years ago. Also: California, Provence, and I’m pretty inspired by the woods behind my house lately.