Now Playing:

Radio

State of Wonder

Illustrator Carson Ellis Crafts An Image of Home


Carson Ellis in her studio

Carson Ellis in her studio

Aaron Scott

If you don’t recognize the name of Carson Ellis, chances are you do know her detailed, fanciful drawings of Victorian soldiers, talking badgers, and storybook towns. They’re among the most prominent drawings to come out of Portland: You see them on the album covers and posters of the iconic local band The Decemberists, and they lace through the best-selling YA fantasy series, “Wildwood.”

Now Ellis has written and illustrated her first children’s book, due out on February 24. It’s called “Home,” which is where I visited her.

“So these guys just got here,” says Ellis, introducing me to two pygmy goats, as she gives me a tour of her historic farm south of Portland. Their names are Penny and Maria, and Ellis inherited them from a friend. “I had said when we moved here and had five acres to stock full of whatever kind of animals that my heart could imagine, that I wouldn’t take on any animals. I wasn’t going to go seek them out, but if people really needed a home for their goats, they could give their goats to me.”

Home has always been a big point of inspiration for Ellis. Before moving to the farm, she and her husband Colin Meloy, who is also the lead singer of The Decemberists, lived for many years on the edge of Forest Park, across the bridge from St. Johns. That’s where he wrote and she illustrated their trilogy, “Wildwood,” “Under Wildwood,” and “Wildwood Imperium.” The books tell the story of a magical kingdom hidden in the park and became New York Times bestsellers, transforming Portland’s Forest Park into an artisanal Narnia.

But even before Ellis finished them, she began work on her first children’s book. She had illustrated books for other authors for over 10 years, including the likes of Lemony Snicket and Florence Parry Heide, but she longed to write her own.  “As kid, I loved to use my own imagination and apply it to an illustration to fill in blanks and answer the questions that the picture suggested,” she says. “So that was my premise: I just wanted to make a book that inspired kids to use their imaginations and think about the inhabitants of certain homes.”

The book is a whimsical journey through country homes and city homes, the homes of Japanese businessmen and the homes of Norse gods. Her own family shows up in a picture of the old lady who lived in a shoe, and in another picture, a band waits on a tour bus while the crew loads in their equipment, with the text reading: “Some folks live on the road.”

“I know this moment in this illustration kind of well,” she says as we flip through the book in the living room of the 19th century farmhouse. “After everyone’s gone home, and the crews loading up all the gear, I think some people imagine that’s when the party gets started on the tour bus and everybody goes crazy. But in my world, I’m on the tour bus with a kid.

“There’s something so weird about living on a tour bus and having ten adults be your roommates in this teeny tiny place. It’s a very strange dynamic, but there’s also something sweet and magical and cozy about it.”

Instead of Forest Park’s coyotes and moles, now Ellis is surrounded by chickens, llamas, pygmy goats and barn owls. One could almost say Ellis writes her homes into being. She and Meloy wanted to write about Forest Park, and then they found a home there. She started her children’s book by saying, “Home is a house in the country,” and then she moved to the country.

Which isn’t to say it was easy. A couple weeks after moving to the farm last October, Meloy took their oldest son on the road, leaving Ellis alone with their baby in the creaky old house. “It was built by a pioneer who drowned in a river going to deliver a baby in the middle of the night,” she says. “There was a lot to come to terms with … the oldness of house — the old pioneerness of it.”

To make matters worse, in the evenings she had to grope through the misty Oregon nights and gnarly tree branches to feed the animals. “It was so scary at first,” she says. “Actually, I feel like that was a big part of this really feeling like my home — of having to kind of “woman up” and combat that fear of being in this big place by myself that didn’t feel like mine. The more I faced my fears here, the more it felt like my place.”

The second to last page of “Home” shows Ellis sitting at her studio desk painting the book’s opening pages. It reads: “An artist lives here.”

Ellis turns the page: “Then last page says, ‘This is my home, this is me. Where is your home, where are you?’”

Now at home, she’s starting on her next picture book, along with two new books with Meloy.

You can view the book’s original illustrations and buy limited edition prints at Ellis’s gallery, Nationale, through March 16. Ellis will be signing books there on February 28.

More Radio

More OPB