Ray Ellis now lives up North, but his memory is still vivid with the Lowcountry.
The paintings of the former Hilton Head Island resident have been included in best-selling books and on the White House Christmas card. He's spending his golden years in Martha's Vineyard, but his connections to the Lowcountry always bring him back. He has a show of original art at the Karis Art Gallery starting today.
Ellis grew up around Philadelphia, but his family tree has roots in the South. His mother's family came from Georgetown. His great-grandfather was the rector of St. Michael's, now the oldest church in Charleston.
He finally set his own roots in the South in 1974 when he bought a beach house on Hilton Head. He'd meet frequently with legendary local artists such as Walter Greer, Joe Bowler and Elizabeth Grant to discuss their craft. Six years later he moved to Savannah.
"When I moved to Savannah there were so many dirt roads and oyster and crab factories. I remember the old African-American men playing checkers with bottle caps in the squares. It just intrigued me," he said.
Around the same time, he received an offer from Oxmoor House publishing to compile a book of art about the Southeast coast. The publisher was looking for someone well-known to write to accompany his images. Ellis knew Walter Cronkite from his time on Martha's Vineyard and convinced the most trusted name in news to collaborate. "South by Southwest" was a success, and the duo teamed up on two others: "North by Northeast" and "Westwind." The books proved a boon to his career, as his work became even more popular nationwide. One of his personal highlights was when he created an original painting for the White House Christmas card from 1998 to 2000.
"The books were an incredible experience," he said. "I don't know what I'd be doing now if those things didn't happen."
He spends most of his time in his Martha's Vineyard home but still gets down to Savannah several times a year. (With regrets, he says he won't be able to make it for the opening of the Karis exhibit.) The Ray Ellis Gallery in Savannah's historic district has been a fixture in the city since 1987.
"I'm 91 now and I'm still painting," he said. "Every day I come up to my studio. I just look at the easel and start painting."
Sometimes, when he sits and looks, an image might cross his mind -- the way a shrimp net fans out when cast or how light shines through the Spanish moss on an oak tree -- and he can't help put to capture it on canvas.
"The South gets into one's blood," he wrote in "Ray Ellis' Savannah and the Lowcountry," "and it stays there no matter how far or how long one wanders."