Unlimited Capacity 

Probing the fervid imagination of Theo Ellsworth

Behold the imagination of Theo Ellsworth: a place revealed on the pages of his comic books wherein the curtains of the mind are quite literally pulled back to reveal a stage full of illustrations encompassing otherworldly characters, bifocaled adventurers driving rocket ship cars, pointy-eared party fairies, cheerful pedestrians with invisible necks, seemingly regular Joes wearing fish hats and loitering little boys who wear magical caps capable of channeling infinite visions of penguins in hot-air balloons and tree-climbing sloths. Ellsworth writes sweet short stories in his self-published comic books, but it’s the meticulously detailed, densely psychedelic images that transport his readers.

“It’s like I have my own little theater in my head and there are always these little performances happening in response to my day…,” Ellsworth writes in the opening to one of his Capacity books, an ongoing collection of illustrated stories that vary in length and topic. “…and I find myself wanting to show them to people but I can’t exactly invite people into my head where they could sit down to watch them so I find myself always making things…”

The phrase “making things” sounds so simple for someone creating elaborate alternate universes with pen and paper. To hear Ellsworth tell it, the inspirations come easily and are just a reflection of his reactions to daily life—“creatively responding to everyday situations,” he says. Sitting at the Saturday morning People’s Market, hosting the booth for Slumgullion, an alternative printing organization that he runs with Nick Gulig, Debby Florence and Madeline Ffitch, you can see what Ellsworth means. He converses with a steady stream of friends and admirers, some of whom take the time to tell the artist which images they most value, and why. One gentleman stops and, after looking through a few of Ellsworth’s books, abruptly proclaims, “So, you must be a star gazer.”

“I guess I am,” Ellsworth responds. The artist later says he often gets intriguing, slightly bizarre reactions from his readers, and those reactions help fuel his stories.

“Some of [my work] is directly autobiographical, but the pictures still end up looking surreal because I like to depict things on more of an emotional level rather than a realism level. I feel like I’m more able to directly express stuff when I creatively respond to it.

“I like to have fun with reality,” he continues. “I like to create stuff I can disappear into. A lot of it’s really dreamlike and comes straight from my subconscious. A lot of times I’m just as surprised at what comes out. I just let my hand take over.”

Ellsworth is a self-taught illustrator who developed his style “on the sides of math papers” at Sentinel High School. At the time, art classes proved too rigid an environment and he struggled to stay within the guidelines of his teacher’s assignments. After graduating from Sentinel, he briefly pursued liberal arts classes at the University of Montana, but still never really felt a connection.

“I realized the best thing for me was to develop my own collection,” Ellsworth says, noting he learned a lot from researching influences like Edward Gorey and Dr. Seuss on his own. “I needed to just start my work.”

Over the last few months, that work has been taking off. He attended an April alternative press expo in San Francisco and was picked up by a distributor who now has the Capacity series in stores in New York and Chicago. Locally, Muse Comics and Games carries his books, Authentic Creations hosted his first art showing last First Friday, All Around Art displays single drawings in their gallery and every Saturday he’s at the People’s Market with Slumgullion—a new endeavor this summer that’s proved to be profitable for both Ellsworth and the organization. Most satisfying in regard to his recent strides, Ellsworth was invited back to Sentinel to speak to one of the art classes.

“It was my ultimate revenge for high school,” he beams.

Ellsworth’s goal is to find a publisher willing to produce and distribute his work. Currently, all of his books are manufactured by hand—pages printed by local printshops and then cut and stapled by Ellsworth in his apartment. For the new wholesale orders, he also handles packaging and shipping. The artist makes copies based on demand, and recently that’s meant a lot of extra labor.

“It’s not the funnest part. Lately, I feel like a production factory,” he says. “But there’s something satisfying about doing everything yourself. I don’t deny that. Not having an editor to limit what you do and being uncompromising creatively—for my style of work, I think that’s important. Ideally, I really want to find a balance where I can produce my own art and then have someone else get it out there. It’s a matter of finding the right person who connects.”

In his story titled, “You Really Must See My Hat,” from the first Capacity book, a boy sits perched on a tree branch in a park within a city. He waits for hustling urbanites to pass by and excitedly approaches them to show off his mysterious cap. “On my hat there is a boat,” says the boy, once he gathers a businessman’s attention. “And on the boat there is a human! And on the human there is a hat! And on the hat there is a tree!” And so goes the boy, reaching images of penguins and sloths before the impatient man cuts him off.

“Yes, yes,” says the man. “I see where this goes…your presence puts me ill at ease. Good day to you!”

“Sir! Sir! You miss out sir! Further into my hat it gets truly profound!” says the boy. But the man leaves anyway.

Ellsworth points to this story as one of his favorites. “I think it says a lot of different things about life and art and other things all at once,” he says.

And is he the kid perched in the tree with the magical hat?

“Sure, in some ways you can draw a parallel between the boy and my search for a publisher,” he says. “But I try not to draw attention to the correlations between my stories and my life just because people see a lot of different things on their own. I don’t want to limit them. I bet someone else would look at the same story and find a meaning I never even imagined.”

arts@missoulanews.com

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