Interview: Theo Ellsworth

Categories:  Interviews

Theo Ellsworth pulls his book out of a manila envelope and sets it on the table. “Officially it went on sale October 6th–the day I came back.” Theo has just returned to Portland from the Small Press Expo in Maryland. His publisher, Secret Acres, brought him out there for the book release. “I also did a reading in Baltimore with Jesse Reklaw and five or six other cartoonists.”

A performance of sorts, one-panel projected on the wall, Theo read all the voices and used a hand-held recorder to playback sound effects. “Before I left New York, I helped my publishers ship pre-orders.”

He unwraps an autumnal colored scarf and unbuttons his jacket. His green T-shirt draws my attention, a print of Sesame Street’s Bert with a third eye. Theo wears a groomed beard, short cropped hair. His features are delicate and birdlike.

“I’m going to get some tea,” he says and leaves me with the book. The shimmering feathers and plants growing from the characters are the flesh of innervision, emerging from the mind’s eye. Capacity is the full attention span of an artist, sitting for long stretches of time where his only point of reference is internal, a dream on paper. It’s narrator speaks directly to the reader, invites you into the story, makes you the main character. “This is you,” it says. In your dream, you’re the main character.

Theo takes a drink of tea, breaks a piece off a blueberry muffin, and apologizes for the crumb that tumbles in front of me. I feel I’m in the presence of a monk, a cartoon visionary. His calm self-definition extends through his words and gestures. A gently unassuming maturity, a soft mellifluous voice.

“I have this really long story, a multi-volume story following the lives of these characters. This book is a working up to it, working in short stories.” Theo self-published seven issues of Capacity as a mini before Secret Acres approached him. “It’s taken awhile to get my words and pictures to work together. Every picture I would draw, there was always a feeling of a story, something that happened before and just after that.”

When Theo first moved to Portland, he had trouble finding work, so he did the work he knew and showed his drawings to the Saturday Market. They jury each new artist and accepted Theo. “I thought I was just going to do it in the meantime, while finding work, but I just never stopped doing it. I’ve been selling at the Saturday Market since I moved to Portland. I make my living doing that–ideally I want to make my living just making books. Comics are the most challenging. What I’d like to be doing, as soon as possible, is working on these longer stories, these ongoing stories . . . and publish a book every year.”

Theo’s family moved from L.A. and he attended first grade through high school in Montana. “Through my twenties, I followed a migratory route. I went all over, did a big loop around the U.S.. I went to upstate New York, Florida, New Orleans. I actually camped in a cave, off and on, for four months or so. I was there with a girl I was dating, then started going back there by myself.”

“There’s all this time when I didn’t take in anything from the media–just this period of time when I was out there internalizing. I did that instead of college. That’s when I really started to develop my art.” Theo jokes that his girlfriend now says he has a pop culture deficiency, TV shows and references he has no idea of, and he says, “Then my art’s what brought me back to society.”

“I remember an assignment from first grade, and I drew a picture of myself as a cartoonist.” Theo pauses to take a sip of tea and adds, “There’s a great comics community here in Portland. I hadn’t met other cartoonists until I moved here . . . no one really does comics in Missoula.”

Craig Thompson helped Theo with some of the book production. “Putting together the book became like this crazy puzzle–the final piece came into place right before the deadline–and I just pulled it off, yeah . . . it’s a strange process.” A book release for Capacity happens November 6th at The Pony Club in Portland.

–Arthur Smid

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