Art Beat: A View From Above

Sep 12, 2019

"Winding Through" by Sy Ellens
Credit Sy Ellens

It’s easy to recognize a painting by Sy Ellens. He paints with a unique aerial perspective, as if the viewer looks down upon the earth from the heavens. The land is dotted with trees, a patchwork quilt of farmland, broken up by winding rivers and sparkling lakes. His colors are bright: warm and fiery reds, oranges and yellows, calming blues, greens, and purples.


“I grew up on a farm in McBain, Michigan,” Ellens says. “When I was a child, I would draw the horses and the cows and the chickens and the pigs. I always wanted to be a creative person and to paint. As long as I can remember, that’s what I wanted to do.”

Ellens worked as a house painter and decorator as a young man, but it was not the kind of painting he had in mind. He eventually enrolled at the Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, and later at Western Michigan University.

For nine years, Ellens taught art at Kalamazoo Christian High School, then moved with his family to Nigeria, where he taught art for three years at Vandeikya Government Teachers' College.

Sy Ellens
Credit Jan Ellens

“It was part of a mission project,” Ellens says. “I taught classes of 60 students with no art materials.”

It was a lesson in creativity for Ellens' students. He and the class scoured the area for art materials — pieces of broken clay pots, logs out of wood piles for carving, and natural dyes from plants for painting.

When he and his family returned to Kalamazoo, Ellens worked as a freelance architectural illustrator while building his personal portfolio on the side. From flying around the world, he gained a new way of looking at the world below.

“It gave me a new perspective on the land,” he says. “My wife and I traveled to China more than a dozen times to teach English during the summers, and I like to always sit by the window. I like to see what’s down there.”

Ideally, Ellens says, he would like to fly over the earth in a hot-air balloon at an evening hour, when colors are most vivid. He tends to exaggerate those colors in his paintings to accentuate patterns.

Ellens has won more than 170 awards in international, national, and regional art competitions. His art is included in private and corporate collections throughout the United States, Canada, Nigeria, Netherlands, Germany, England, Switzerland, Italy, India, Poland, China, Hungary, Japan, and Spain. Ellens’ 2,200-square-foot mural, “Fantasy in Flight,” can be seen in the children’s room at the Air Zoo in Portage, Michigan, along with a 62,500 square-foot floor mural. He keeps a studio at the Park Trades Center in downtown Kalamazoo, where he often participates in Art Hops.

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