Mike Ellis is an artist, illustrator and all-around creative who’s been living in Toronto for the past seven years. A true multi-tasker, Mike at the moment is juggling freelance illustration, editorial and design work and managing the visual direction of his new record label Legwarmer Records. I stopped by his in-house studio near Kensington Market the other day to chat about art, music and staying motivated.
Was there a particular moment or milestone that lead you to pursue art?
When I was a teenager, music was my life. I would constantly play instruments and hold jam sessions with my friends. There was a point, though, at that time, that something just switched in my brain. I felt like I had hit a part in my life and just stopped playing music. Discovering art, I found I could express myself in a better way and just ran with it. It wasn’t a particular moment, I guess I just gradually started painting more and giving less attention to music.
At the moment you have your own in-house record label. Are you considering going back to music?
I’ve been a musician for a long time, so music has definitely played a big part, I’m trying to fit it back into my life through the label; designing posters, album and cassette covers. With Legwarmer Records, I’m in charge of visual direction and take on bands that allow us to create an image for them. Since I know a lot of talented musicians in the city who are looking for that, I love being able to help out, as well as merging both art and music in what I do.
What media do you prefer using?
I work mostly with digital illustration. I usually sketch some designs and transfer them to the computer for further work and editing, just to print them out again and do the process over again. I love how digital editing is fast-paced, if I was to work with traditional media it would definitely take me more time to complete. And because design and editorial work is usually characterized by short deadlines, I always find myself listening to fast music and really not stopping.
How does being here enable you and your art?
I’m from Barrie originally, and I remember just wanting to leave so badly and really wanting to move to Toronto. Just being around busyness motivates me, surrounded by architecture, people in action, constant events. I’ve met so many great people here in Toronto and they continue to inspire me every day. We haves similar interests sometimes, but I’ve learnt the most from those who do something different than me, which is what being an artist is about, I guess,expressing yourself in as many ways as possible.
Would you change anything about the artistic community in Toronto?
In a broader sense, I participate more at my own level than in the greater art community here. I’m always looking for the next thing, and Toronto is definitely on it’s way. Things like Nuit Blanche, for example, should definitely continue.
Are you doing anything on Nuit Blanche?
We’re putting up an impromptu projection with friends on Yonge. We came up with the idea from the top of our heads, but we’ll be projecting flames on the building on the other side of the street. I’m also a projectionist and multimedia installation technician, so I know how to put things like this together.
You are definitely an all-around creative. Was this your plan?
Nowadays it’s just easy to do and be whatever you want. My full time job is doing solo projects in as many different ways as possible. Clients range from friends and family to newspapers like the Globe and Mail and the New York Times. It’s always something different and always something I love.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Someone once told me that the harder you work, the luckier you get. The more you work, and the more you dedicate yourself, the more opportunities that present themselves. I know a lot of artists and musicians, and they’re always saying that they don’t know where to start. No-one knows! You just do, you start and you figure it out. Everybody’s situation is different, no-one can tell you what to do. You have to risk it, put yourself out there and get hurt. You have to work towards a goal, no matter what.
What’s your favourite spot in Toronto?
The Don Valley. It’s beautiful, you can bike for hours, it’s basically in the heart of the city, yet it’s like being in a forest out in nature. It’s untamed, unkempt and when you’re there, you don’t feel like you’re in this huge, bustling city. I’ve felt that way many times in Toronto, there are so many parts in the city, little areas and industrial spaces that are sort of secret, as the city is very spread out. You make a wrong turn and you discover something amazing, that’s something I love about this city.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
I’m doing some stuff for magazines now, but nothing that I’m very personally connected to. I’m working on something for If Walls Could Talk, an illustration installation event going on at the Gladstone Hotel in March. I’m doing a miniature home in the style of an advent calendar, with different scenes. I’m also working on artwork and marketing now for releasing a cassette for the label, for my friend’s band Omhouse, I design the covers and put them together.
Do you have advice for emerging and ambitious Toronto creatives?
Find what you’re good at. You won’t find it until you find what you’re interested in. And when you experiment in that realm of interest, what you are actually good at will shine through. You won’t realize that until you try. And don’t get discouraged! Art comes from you, but it isn’t you. From 100 drawings, one can be good. and that one will actually be what you are trying to express.
All images by Lexiquette