A conversation with Carson Ellis


    Alexandra Wallace spoke with Carson Ellis about the maternal properties of llamas, whether tangible art faces extinction, finding the perfect word for forts and why her chickens haven’t been laying.

    I’m really attached to the idea of album art, but my need to have a physical representation of an album on an actual physical record shelf is fading away.


    Alexandra Wallace

    A large body of your illustrations are contained within physical works — the pages of storybooks, the cardboard covers of vinyl records. Do you worry that we are progressing into an era where tangible art will soon be extinct?

    Carson Ellis

    I don’t. It certainly seems possible that vinyl records will go extinct. It’s kind of miraculous that they’re still around. I’m really attached to the idea of album art, but my need to have a physical representation of an album on an actual physical record shelf is fading away. I’m 42 and nostalgic for that kind of thing and still I’m starting not to care. But my husband, who does most of the record collecting, still cares and people buy a lot more vinyl today than when I started designing album covers. So who knows? I hate the idea that I’m designing album covers that most people will only see as a tiny, indecipherable square on a screen. I’m not sure how long people will really care about album art as a form because of it and that’s sad to me. But I don’t worry about books. Or visual art. I think these things will last forever.


    Llamas: elegant queens or scheming camelids?

    I can only speak for my own two llamas and they are neither. I would describe Danny, the boy, as a shy and steadfast protector of the other animals in his herd. We have a couple of goats and a sheep too and llamas are good guard animals. He’s the more maternal of the two. And I would describe Sugar, the girl, as aloof and kind of scary.


    Your book Du Iz Tak was written entirely in a language of your creation. What was your process for inventing the dialogue of these incredibly well-dressed insects? Was in all instinctual, or did you find yourself re-working and second-guessing?

    I don’t totally remember. I know I came up with it quickly and then read it aloud a few times, replacing words here and there that I didn’t actually like to say. I also showed the manuscript to my sister-in-law, Maile, who has good advice about all things literary. She told me I should change the word bodilantaree. It meant “fort” and she felt like it didn’t seem like it would mean that. So I changed it to furt, which she approved of.

    We probably talked about our chickens and why they haven’t been laying. We’ve been talking about that a lot.


    You were a bartender in your twenties. What is the most interesting exchange you can recall with a patron?

    A man came in clutching his chest one night and asked me to call the police because he’d been stabbed. Another man came in during the day when I was alone. The bar wasn’t open yet and I’d put two bar stools in the doorway to indicate that but he threw them both at me and charged into the bar ranting and threatening me. I grabbed a baseball bat and waved it at him while I called the police. Another man, a regular named Ivy, told me that he wasn’t drunk when I cut him off. He said he accidentally got some soap in his beer and drank the soapy beer and that’s why he was acting crazy but he absolutely wasn’t drunk and I should serve him another beer. Most of my bar memories are pretty depressing.


    If Shrek was made into a movie in 1939, what would it be like?

    Don’t get me started on Shrek. I’m a William Steig fan and I think those movies are the saddest thing ever.


    Who is the last person you talked to and what was the subject of the conversation?

    The last person I talked to was my husband. We probably talked about our chickens and why they haven’t been laying. We’ve been talking about that a lot.


    You have designed every album cover for your husband’s band, The Decemberists, dating back to the 2002 release Castaways and Cutouts. What is the greatest lesson you have learned in the last 16 years of crafting visual companions to these records?

    That’s a good question. There are things I love and hate about all of them and I don’t know if any lessons I’ve learned apply to album art over all. I’ve learned a lot about collaborating with Colin (and other people in general): how to not take creative differences personally, how to resolve them, how to find common ground, etc. I’ve learned to make art that looks okay as a tiny, indecipherable square on a screen.

    Thank you.


    Conversation: 182
    Curated by: Alexandra Wallace
    Conducted by: Email
    Edited by: Morgan Enos
    Published: May 17, 2018
    Total questions: 7
    Word count: 745
    Reading time: Three minutes


    Square: ∞
    Visual: ∞
    Miracle: ∞
    Deciphering: Null
    Creation: ∞
    Lesson: ∞


    About the subject

    Carson Ellis is a Vancouver-born visual artist and children’s book illustrator. She resides in Portland, Oregon.

    About the curator

    Alexandra Wallace is a photographer, visual artist and the founder of Coyote + Oak. She resides in Orcutt, California.

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