Art is Life for this Artist
Ellis Echevarria is hard to categorize. He likes it that way. Art feeds his inner soul. One moment he is discussing sculpting with clay, then he is off sharing his thoughts about the impending metaverse takeover. His creative mind is perpetually in motion.
He works on his iPad and Magic trackpad, using Illustrator, Photoshop and Deep Dream Generator, an artificial intelligence program. He says, “Thousands of years ago, artists were regarded just like philosophers and lawyers.”
Then he ruminates about his digital woodcut texture drawings, a specialty of his. His knowledge of art is savant-like. His work is deeply personal, reflecting his lived experience and that of his de piel oscura (Spanish for “dark-skinned”) Puerto Rican grandmother, Doña Santo and Carmen, his mother. His mind’s eye knows their sorrow, and he has immortalized them in art. It shapes but doesn’t limit him.
He expresses his thoughts through his creations because he’s been categorized and put in a box by society. Art frees him. There’s always more work to produce and stories to tell visually.
He is a creator who is fluent in illustration, design, animation, user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design. Art moves him—it’s the muse he can’t get enough of. “My work is always communicating, you know, even if it's for you to interpret based on your own frame of reference,” says Ellis.
My work is always communicating, you know, even if it's for you to interpret based on your own frame of reference.
Off the Clock
Ellis was the art director with 32 years of service at the Marlin Company, a visual communication company located in Wallingford, Connecticut, nestled in a square box-like building alongside Interstate 91 North, in an industrial park with green grass and trees.
He juggled supervisory responsibilities running a department, meeting daily challenges, and shipping products during his career there. Fitting into the corporate culture took precedence over sharing who he was.
Ellis stopped punching a clock in March 2019, the beneficiary of a buyout. He feels a sense of accomplishment for the work he completed over three decades. He’s not nostalgic for a joy ride down memory lane—because the present has his attention.
Life off the clock for the semiretired Ellis, 60, is surprisingly busy. He says, “When you’re working 9 to 5, you sort of have a fixation on time. When you are semiretired, you have the flexibility to focus, you know, head down, and in most cases when you happen to come up, you realize that you’ve been down for a long time.”
He knows time is “precious” and expresses his gratitude that he got to do the work he always dreamed of. “I just knew that I wanted to be a creative, and as it turns out, being able to do it for myself [now] is liberating,” he says.
Today he is giddy about the future, like a 10-year-old kid on a new bicycle. He has learned much about himself through the years. And now, Ellis wants you to see his work, the process, and his studio in Hartford, where he creates. Outside the corporate pressure cooker, he laughs more. He wants to share his story.
In his studio, there’s a clay sculpture of Doña Santo, his grandmother, that’s unfinished with a color 4”x6” photograph next to it of her smoking a cigar, for reference. There’s the digital art of her on the long stone counter among papers and projects scattered along its twenty-plus feet. On the floor is another large, framed picture. Other projects are in sight with materials and tools ready for his skilled hands.
Ellis says, “I was a child prodigy when it came to drawing, you know, [and] sometimes painting and sculpture.”These days, he is all about “striking a balance between ego and insecurity.” His work is “put out there, hung up for anybody to judge.”
He doesn’t live to be judged but knows that his art will cause visceral reactions. Since elementary school, he has been creating art. When he feels productive, he will crank up Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove in his studio and let his creative juices flow; like a raging river, they can’t be contained.
These days, he is all about striking a balance between ego and insecurity.
Growing Up: The Dream
Ellis Echevarria has lived a life of constrictions dictated by life’s cruel circumstances and sometimes by people. He was born in Puerto Rico to an Italian father who wasn’t around for most of his life; He and Carmen, his Puerto Rican mother, left Puerto Rico for the mainland when he was two years old.
Doña Santos was a surrogate for his mom growing up. She spoke only Spanish. Carmen was bilingual. Doña and Carmen were dark-skinned, which presented problems that would torment Ellis throughout his life. As a darker-skinned Puerto Rican growing up in Hartford in the 1970s and 80s, Ellis knew he was different. Culturally, he wasn’t white or black—his skin complexion was like coffee with extra milk.
As a bilingual kid in elementary school, he moved around a lot and was always “the new kid in class.” At that time, Ellis was good at math but not so much at verbal communication. Art was a stabilizing force for his creative energy. From a young age, Ellis loved art. And his work showed it in third grade when he attended Annie Fisher School.
Ellis participated in a contest to design a new mascot for the school. Administration officials wanted a shark. “There were other kids I thought drew better than me in my class, but that was [not] going to stop me from drawing,” he says. One student drew a detailed piranha that was beyond his years.
Ellis won the contest and a $20 gift certificate. He had to walk on the stage to receive the award. “And I was like, oh my God, this is so cool,“ says Ellis. “And so that started my journey to be a designer.” His logo would appear on school gear. The kid who drew the piranha went on to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, a private liberal arts university. He became an acquisitions lawyer and continues to purchase Ellis’s art.
Ellis admits, “I had a complex identity.” Growing up in a primarily black neighborhood in Hartford was in direct contrast to when he lived in a white neighborhood next to a farm. “I thought my destiny was to marry a white woman.” His uncle educated him about the transatlantic slave trade and how Puerto Rico was a stop along the slave trade route.
School was not easy for Ellis. He had his struggles and run-ins with students. In eighth-grade art class, a kid ruined his clay art, so Ellis threatened the kid with a knife. It wasn’t a favorable introduction to Miss Wilson, his teacher.
He attended Weaver High School and A.I. Prince Technical High School for mechanical engineering and was held back twice. Ellis skipped school and wasn’t as focused as he could have been. At one point, he was nearly homeless. He would get back on track through art when a concerned teacher recognized his talent. He graduated from Hartford Public High School.
Next, Ellis went to Manchester Community College for two years and then transferred to the University of Hartford. He left without completing his 4-year degree because he had to get a job to support himself. He’s been working ever since.
I became a product of my environment, my father being Italian, my grandmother and my mother being dark-skinned.
Know Thyself: Puerto Rican Pride
He was once described as a cross between Bruno Mars, the Grammy-award winning entertainer, and President Barack Obama. He laughed when he heard it.
“I became a product of my environment, my father being Italian, my grandmother and my mother being dark-skinned. I understood that I had to accept to some degree, what is palpable for a lot of folks because they refer to me as light-skinned,” he says.
Puerto Ricans have struggled with their identity for a long time. On August 7, 2020, The New York Times published “Why Some Black Puerto Ricans Choose ‘White’ on the Census.” The article reported, “More than three-quarters of Puerto Ricans identified as white on the last census, even though much of the population on the island has roots in Africa.”
All Puerto Ricans could have selected “Yes, Puerto Rican” on the census document indicating their Hispanic origin. At the same time, they can choose from several “races”: white, black, American Indian and options for Asian identities.
There is a movement to make Puerto Ricans cognizant of the island's history and the African diaspora. But it is an uphill battle. “There are people who don’t want to use the word Black because they think it’s an insult, and there is still that idea that we need to ‘better the race,’” Dr. Adadia-Rexach said, referring to mejorar la raza, a popular saying in Latin American countries that suggests light skin is more desirable than dark skin.
It's Tuesday, April 12, 2022, and outside, the weather in Hartford is a sunny 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Ellis’s studio is located on Bartholomew Street in Hartford, on the first floor of a two-story brick building, in Hartford’s Parkville neighborhood. The building is cavernous but smaller than the surrounding buildings. Inside his 1,500-square feet studio, a heavy, industrial metal sliding door acknowledges the building’s past use.
The neighborhood is experiencing a renewed focus and public and private investment. Lured by an industrial building with large windows letting in natural light, an open floorplan, and a high ceiling, it’s not surprising that other creators have flocked to the building and neighborhood.
Ellis is sporting a bushy gray goatee, with a few strands of black hair resisting the eventual takeover. A snug grey baseball cap is planted firmly on his head. His sweater is grey with black stripes. Completing his look are corduroy pants and a pair of black canvas sneakers, projecting youthful energy. At 6’-0” tall, he’s thin, like former President Obama.
There’s a sense of lightness to Ellis’s life these days. He married Lesley Hubbard in 2017; in October, he will celebrate his fifth wedding anniversary. Each brought two kids to the marriage from previous relationships: Mina Elise Echevarria, 26; Elias Jasper Echevarria, 20; Taylor Kennedy, 26; and Joshua Kennedy, 20.
Ellis has felt the constrictions that corporate America and society placed on him throughout his career. The cost of fitting in and not being able to bring your complete self to the job—and the world. He never got the vice president of communications position he coveted. Add microaggressions, and it’s a heavy weight to carry daily.
To supplement his income and create away from work, he has operated a freelance business since 1994, providing creative services to corporations like ESPN, Northeast Utilities (now part of Eversource), small businesses, entrepreneurs, and many nonprofit organizations. Each project served as a referral engine to bring in new and repeat business. When he has time, he pursues his fine art interests.
“That’s the interesting thing about my corporate and freelance careers,” Ellis says, “one informed the other.” The freelance was an additional outlet for me to express myself, you know, my craft to have some sort of autonomy, but it was because of my corporate career.”
His work has stood the test of time. Anthony Griffin, 61, a Hartford entrepreneur since 1994, says, “I grew up with Ellis because he grew up in the South Arsenal Neighborhood Development (SAND) housing projects, and I grew up not far from him. So, he gave me three or four logos. I picked the one that's still on my hangtag today. I still use it.” The product is crammed in his tiny retail space at 3580 Main Street in Hartford.
That’s how Anthony’s famous Heaven or Hell logo was born and made it around the world. After a stint in prison, Anthony wanted to do better. Referring to the logo, he says, “It was a manifestation of what I was thinking. I mean, look, I didn't have to sell drugs no more. Didn’t have to do robberies. I didn't have to do crime.”
His logo would be worn by the Wu-Tang Clan, Jay Z, and on the television show New York Undercover. Anthony says, “You got to be a special client to appreciate Ellis’s work.”
Jose Rene Martinez, 54, was born in the South Bronx and lived in Puerto Rico for 12 years. He loves coffee. He moved to Arecibo, Puerto Rico when he was 10. “I wanted to create a logo name that reflected my passion for coffee, the history of coffee as it related to my upbringing, and my culture because I'm from Puerto Rico,” says Jose Rene, the founder of J Rene Coffee Roasters in West Hartford.
He says, “Ellis created a logo based on what he felt was my inspiration.” Ellis integrated the “top of the cupola of the church in my hometown of Arecibo, Puerto Rico.” Jose Rene gushes with pride when he talks about the logo, as if showing photos of his newborn child for the first time.
He began roasting in 2006 and is a coffee “Q” grader. Jose Rene received the Connecticut Minority-Owned Business of the Year award from the U.S. Small Business Administration in 2019. He continues to search the world for the best coffee for his two stores in West Hartford.
Ellis’s life is synchronic, like an expensive watch that has fallen but still works. “There is so much we can learn from one another besides how we index each other for transactional reasons, “ he says.
As far as the future is concerned, Ellis is looking forward in the near future to slow dancing with Lesley to the music of The Average White Band —just another side of the man who is letting the world in and loving every moment.
Anthony Price is an entrepreneur, writer and publisher of Mini Books, concise & inspiring stories for people who are curious about the world.