MAPLEWOOD, NJ — It’s entirely possibly that anyone taking a close look at Stephen B. Ellis’ art will hear the rich sounds of an alto saxophone or the smooth undertones of a bass guitar playing in the background. Ellis’ musically influenced work is on display this month at the Maplewood Memorial Library as part of its monthly local artist exhibition, which kicked off with an art and music reception on Feb. 11.
The event also featured traditional jazz selections from vocalist Michael Mayo, with Andrew Freedman on the keyboard.
Ellis, a Maplewood native, credits the appreciation for arts found in the South Orange and Maplewood communities as his first introduction into what would one day become both his profession and his passion. Growing up in a Caribbean family, Ellis also acknowledged that this cultural influence plays a significant role in his work.
A student at Maplewood elementary and middle schools, Ellis fondly recalled that it was during his days at Columbia High School under the instruction of artist Onnie Strothers that he really began to hone his skills as an artist.
Later, as a student at New Jersey City University, Ellis found himself once again under the tutelage of Strothers, who was his supervisor when he returned to CHS as a student teacher. Strothers now runs the education project at 1978 Maplewood Arts Center.
“Strothers was my father in the art world,” Ellis said during the event. “He never let me turn in subpar work, and he encouraged me to be creative in whatever medium I was using for my pieces.”
Ellis also credits one of his NJCU professors, Ben Jones, with his success, remembering how Jones would demand excellence from him with every assignment.
“I always tell my students to go hard with whatever they do,” he said. “You will never succeed if you don’t give it your all.”
In fact, Ellis says that it was his students who inadvertently reignited his passion to return to creating art again. Ellis’ first teaching job upon graduation was in the Newark School District, but because he was a first-year teacher at the time that the state takeover occurred in 1995, he was one of many teachers to be let go.
Eventually landing in the Elizabeth School District, Ellis taught there for 10 years before making his way back to the Newark public schools. But it was while teaching art at an elementary school in Elizabeth that Ellis overheard his students saying that, while he used to be an artist, he was now just someone who teaches it. That innocent remark was the push that he needed to get back in the game and he was hosting his first show at NJCU by 2003.
Ellis’ artwork inspires feelings of everything from nostalgia for the days when big bands and bebop music ruled the airwaves, to the pride that the African-American community felt for sports figures such as Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, to the hope that soared for President Barack Obama and current sports stars Serena Williams and Simone Biles.
Each piece is a history lesson that Ellis shares with his family, friends and students.
Ellis, who currently teaches art at Central High School in Newark, said he feels his art has come full circle.
“My journey has been one with something that I love to do; I can share my art with my students and with my children,” he said. “I can identify with my students when they are stuck on a piece because I’ve been there too.”
Photos by Shanee Frazier