We are all different, but Theo Ellsworth is more different. I met the artist at Pittsburgh’s Toonseum where his enchanting one-man show hangs through April 30. He calls his studio The Thought Cloud Factory. He came to Pittsburgh from his home in Montana to participate in PIX, the Pittsburgh indy press expo. Big Sky country seems like the right place to relocate a Thought Cloud Factory. First I ever heard of him, he was part of the Portland art zine scene. My daughter sent me an early copy of his sold-out collection, Capacity.
The bio on the wall at the Toonseum announced: “Theo Ellsworth is a self-taught artist and storyteller living in the mountains of Montana with a witch doctor, their son and a slightly evil cat.” A witch doctor? I asked him if that was true. He said that was a bit of a family joke. –His wife is a certified acupuncturist.
Theo says he “came to comics through automatic drawing.” I took notes at his PIX presentation. He described his monster drawing project based on a recurring childhood dream of a collapsing house. A young phantom soul, wrapped like a mummy, floats through an attic populated by strange entities. Alas, my notes are more confusing than Theo’s dreams. You’ll have to read the book, The Understanding Monster, Book 1. Book 2 will be out soon.
Robert Kirby described The Understanding Monster (Book 1) like so: “Ellsworth’s deep imagination, as well as his idiosyncratic charm, humor, and sincerity are evident in every passage rendered, no matter how far out into the ether it may be. His trippy psychedelic home movies are projected directly from his head without ever forgetting the heart.” – The Comics Journal.
Theo’s work is tough to categorize. Neil Gaiman included his drawings in the Best American Comics of 2010, so they must be comics. Some of Theo’s works on paper have outlined panels and speech bubbles. Many have thought balloons. Perhaps his idiosyncratic style belongs in the fine art annex of the big tent of comics.
At the end of Theo’s PIX talk someone in the audience asked him if he practiced astral projection. He repeated the end of the question, ‘astral projection?’ He seemed bemused, gently shook his head -No. Bill Boichel tried to draw him out about his stylistic influences. Theo vaguely referenced nonwestern and outsider art. He said he loves Native American art and recently acquired a real Kachina on a trip to the U.S. Southwest. When asked if he used photo-reference, Theo’s smile neared the border of laughter. No.
At one point I overheard him explain, “Logic Storm is denser. I was exploring ideas for The Understanding Monster.” His fans will understand. In the forward to his zine Logic Storm, Theo writes, “Over the course of this exercise, I became aware of a mythological emergency taking place in my subconscious that needed to be tended to with a creative act.” We are lucky to live at a time when a determined individual can publish such an acts of imagination.
I bought his 28-page illustrated zine Imaginary Homework. It was originally produced as a text for a workshop he taught in scenic Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. He’s made it available through his Brooklyn-based publisher, Secret Acres. At just $5 this would make a quirky textbook for a college course on creativity. Below are two panels to give you a sense of this happy project.
Incidentally, Theo is pleased with his publisher, Secret Acres. They are “fairly hands-off” as far as editing. In fact, he says, most of their editorial suggestions involve pointing out his spelling mistakes.
Finally, I asked Theo Ellsworth if he had any advice for young artists who want to enter the field of comics. “Just get a blank book. Then fill it completely from beginning to end. That’s what I do!”