The Theo Ellsworth Interview


SOBEL: You’ve talked in other interviews about various artists, like Henry Darger, Adolf Wölfli or Martin Ramirez, that are influential to you. How did you first develop an interest in these Outsider artists?

ELLSWORTH: I think it might have just been finding an issue of Raw Vision. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that magazine but…

SOBEL: I’m not.

ELLSWORTH: That’s my favorite art magazine of all time. It’s a quarterly magazine and I think they’re based out of London, or somewhere in the UK. It basically focuses entirely on Outsider art and art environments like that. I feel like it was the first art magazine I ever picked up where I was really floored and captivated by the art. I’ve been a subscriber to it ever since.

SOBEL: Why do you think you identify so strongly with these particular artists? I know a few years ago, in your interview with Broken Frontier, you said that there’s something about “art that was made to fulfill a personal need” that resonated with you.

Drawing by Outsider artist, Adolf Wölfli, which hangs framed in Ellsworth’s studio.

ELLSWORTH: Yeah. Definitely. And that’s also why I love so much Native art and ancient art. People like Adolf Wölfli and Henry Darger, I feel like they were, in some ways, instinctively trying to make comics. They were both telling this giant narrative with their art, even though they probably weren’t even exposed to comics. I mean, Adolf Wölfli died in the ‘30s, so he probably never saw a comic book. Maybe he did. But so much of that art feels like they’re delving into a personal mythology, like they really need to create in order to make sense of something inside of themselves, as opposed to trying to be part of the art world. I feel like they’re on this whole other track from the artists that we learn about in a mainstream art history class. There’s just something about the intensity and the energy of what those artists put into their work. I feel like I can feel it on the page. When I got to see some original Adolf Wölfli pieces, I felt like they were vibrating on the wall. His art was in the same museum as a bunch of really famous artists who I respect, but Wölfli’s art was the stuff that made me want to sit down and stare at it for a long time.

SOBEL: Do you see yourself as an Outsider artist?

ELLSWORTH: Not really. It seems like a tricky thing to claim yourself as. I do make my art for myself, but I also want to be able to exist in the world and not have the kind of circumstances in my life that led a lot of those artists to be prolific. Like I want to be able to support my family and I want to understand how to be business savvy enough to make a living with my art. But I also don’t want that to be polar opposite of creating the art that I feel like is supposed to be coming out of me. I want to be able to follow those subconscious impulses in my work and be completely real to that. I’m trying to find the right balance.

I feel like there’s definitely a part of me that could become completely detached from society and become this art recluse weirdo that doesn’t know how to talk to people. But during that time I was living out of my car, I got to explore that part of myself and made a definite decision to come back and be part of the world. I definitely wanted to figure out how to be a part of society while simultaneously being true to this subconscious urge I have to draw all the time.

SOBEL: Many of these Outsider artists, or at least some of them, were not only reclusive, they were mentally ill or institutionalized. Do you, in your life or in your family, have any personal experience with mental illness?

ELLSWORTH: I definitely feel like I’ve come close to that in some ways, and my Uncle is actually schizophrenic, but I don’t know. With some of those artists, it seems like the art itself isn’t necessarily a direct symptom of that. Like with Adolf Wölfli, he was considered unfit for society and got put away, and ended up isolated himself for most of his life. But once that happened, he suddenly was able to tap into this whole other part of himself and wrote entire symphonies, which people can’t necessarily translate, but he also wrote a 10,000 page narrative and created all these works of art. So, in that way, he was a highly functioning person. I mean, just the amount of will power it takes to finish a single picture is pretty intense. I guess for a lot of Outside artists, it takes those extreme circumstances to actually pull back and devote themselves to drawing what really wants to come out.

For me, when I don’t do art, I start feeling really uncomfortable. I start feeling depressed, like I don’t know what to do with my thoughts. But as soon as I sit down and draw, it all becomes clear; I just feel so much better from doing it. So I feel like I would be mentally ill if I didn’t make art. Maybe that’s an intense thing to say but I really feel like making art puts me in a good way.


SOBEL: Can you describe what was going on in your life in the Summer of 2004 when you began Capacity? You had just recently moved to Portland, is that correct?

ELLSWORTH: Actually, when I started Capacity, I was still living out of my car and decided that I really wanted to focus on comics. So I moved back to Missoula and sold my car, which gave me enough for a few months of rent. So I got an apartment and started drawing Capacity #1. Only Capacity #7 was made in Portland, the first six issues I did in Missoula.

I started the series because I really wanted to create a long-form comic, to tell some kind of epic tale, but I just got completely confused whenever I tried to sit down and work on it. I made a few full color comics back then to try to start that epic story, but the process of drawing the same character more than once was painful. <laughs> Just drawing a single comics page was really hard. I would be mentally exhausted after trying to draw the same character three different times. So after a while I decided to start making short stories out of whatever came to mind. Every issue of Capacity was completely random. It was just whatever I could pull off and make cohesive.

Then, around that time, I went to APE (Alternative Press Expo) for the first time in San Francisco. I had never been to anything like that before and I saw so many different kinds of comics, and that people were self-publishing them, that I got inspired and decided to take whatever I had, 24 pages of comics, and put them together. Then the next year, I went to APE again and got a table, and did my first ever comics show and slowly started somehow finding a bit of an audience that way.

SOBEL: I know Capacity is a collection of short stories, but there seems to be an overarching theme of you searching for your subconscious. This might be a tough question, but what was it that you were looking for exactly, or what compelled you on this journey?

ELLSWORTH: That is a difficult question to pinpoint. I don’t know; it just feels like this innate urge I have for some reason. I guess I’ve always been too much in my head, but then there’s also a part of me that wants to get even moreso. I don’t know. I just find myself paying attention to my thoughts a lot.

Sometimes I’ll start thinking about how, in our imaginations, we can basically do absolutely anything, but then other times I’ll feel so limited in my thoughts. I guess I just think about that lot. It’s like I’m trying to figure out how to reach a point where I’m thinking absolutely clearly about something. Also, I’m trying to figure out how to disengage from thoughts that completely self-sabotage me and gear my mind towards something that’s going to actually take me somewhere.

At first, when Secret Acres said they wanted to put out a book, I had this resistance to it just being a collection of separate stories. I felt like that was such a specific time in my life when I had written and drawn all the Capacity mini-comics, and I wanted to be able to go back and look at it and…almost wrap up that period of my life in a way. I wanted to create something that was a solid chronicle of my life, real or imagined, but I wasn’t capable of doing that. So I ended up doing over 100 extra pages just for the book and it was all those in-between things that gave it that over-arching concept you mentioned. Creating those extra pages was my way of going back and exploring that whole time period and figuring out how to see the common thread through all of those disassociated short stories. I just wanted to be able to sum it up somehow.

SOBEL: In Capacity #7, you expressed some frustration at your inability to control your thoughts. Do you feel like you were able to accomplish what you’d hoped for with the series?

ELLSWORTH: Yeah, I think so. I look back on it all and there’s part of me that wants to go back and rewrite the whole thing. And there’s plenty of stuff that feels somewhat embarrassing, but I feel like it’s all a completely honest representation of where I was at while I wrote it. So as a chronicle of that time period, it feels like it is what it’s supposed to be. I couldn’t be making the comics I am now if I wouldn’t have done all that work. So, yeah, I feel like it served its function.

SOBEL: Why did you decide to end Capacity?

ELLSWORTH: I got burnt out on making the mini-comics. I started feeling like I was becoming a production factory, folding and stapling stuff for hours on end instead of actually making new comics. So it was pretty amazing when Secret Acres contacted me because I was pretty much at my wit’s end at that point.

SOBEL: You mentioned in the book that you had always planned for Capacity to be seven issues right from the start because seven was “a lucky number.” Why was that?

ELLSWORTH: I’m not sure. There was always this idea in my mind that if I finish those seven issues I’ll be at a new place with my work. I don’t know, sometimes ideas like that just stick in my head and I feel like I have to go through with it. <laughs>

SOBEL: Whatever became of the giant imaginary man you described in “Eye to Eye”?

ELLSWORTH: Well, I just got an art studio in this really neat old brick building in downtown Missoula and right now the imaginary man is packed away in a box in that studio. But last time I was able to afford a studio – I had one for like maybe eight months in Portland – I actually put him up on the wall and worked on him some more. He’s going to be a character in some comics I want to make.

SOBEL: Oh yeah? You feel like you understand where he came from more?

ELLSWORTH: To some degree or another. I probably won’t have a larger grasp of it until I actually finish it. This has been like the longest drawn out art project I’ve ever done. But I want to put him back up and work more on it. It’s really interesting working on it because parts of it were started and worked on over a decade ago and I have a completely different way of drawing now. Last time I got to work on it, it felt like I was collaborating with my past self, like drawing a new character right next to a character I’d drawn twelve years ago. But eventually I would like it to be a book.

SOBEL: This is separate from The Understanding Monster?

ELLSWORTH: It kind of all ties in. I feel like every single drawing and everything I write is part of the same world, even when it seems like it comes out of left field. For example, some of the characters from The Understanding Monster I drew for the first time inside the head.

So I still don’t quite know what it is, but I’m going to put him back up as soon as I can and he’ll be something I keep slowly working on until it’s finished. Then it all comes apart into separate panels so I would eventually like to do a book where every page is a panel of the head and you can go into it and explore it.