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The surreal stop-motion of Joey Foster Ellis

By Vishal Narayan | PUBLISHED: 05, Jan 2017, 16:57 pm IST | UPDATED: 07, Jan 2017, 14:08 pm IST

The surreal stop-motion of Joey Foster Ellis New Delhi: Art can be elusive, hard to grasp, not only because of the solid craft that one is required to possess to make something look good, but for most part simply for want of basic tools.

This is where Joey Foster Ellis, an artist who likes to describe himself as a 'digital sculptor', arrives on the scene and shows the way, as he turns the 'gifs', that mundane file format, into spellbinding stop-motion art.

"I find gifs the most transcending of art forms. You can take an everyday object and turn it into art. All one needs to do is to just observe things for longer than usual and to possess a slight knack for narration," Ellis told IANS at the recently held TEDx Delhi, where he was invited as one of the speakers.

Gif (Graphics Interchange Format), pronounced as 'jif', is a file format used to create images and low-resolution animated clips.

But gifs, however commonplace, did not captivate Ellis in the early part of his career, when he made sculptures using solid substance, including ice, like all other artists do.

"I was a chef in New York, when I decided that I'd rather be making something which people eat off, than what they eat. And I landed up in China in 2009 and enrolled myself in CAFA (Central Academy of Fine Arts)," he said.

Ellis did pottery in China for three years, exhibited an underwater sculpture-artwork in Indonesia, and showed his work at the Smithsonian Museum back home in New York, for an exhibition titled "40 under 40", before it dawned upon him tha,t just like clay, he too was "malleable".

He next ended up in Qatar for a conservation science course, "an artist wanting to become a chemist". He found his scientist peers too unaccommodating there and the country too expensive.

"Luckily, while doing the course there, I found myself a bit stretched financially. I had nothing to work with, but objects in my room and a computer. This hardship led to my dabbling in stop-motion art," he said.

"This is when I started making real cool ghetto art, birthday cards, sorry-notes, in the form of stop-motion, till I got a call from this man who asked me if I would do a video for one of his electronic songs," he recounted.

This proved to be a turning point in Ellis's career, which came at a time when he had started finding usual sculpting too static and lifeless.

"Although, I am not a musician, I'm very passionate about music. When you go out at night you don't want to end up staring at a sculpture. There's something very static about sculptures, and I didn't like it," Ellis explained.

The music video which Ellis worked on is a brilliant patchwork of narrative images, with an O.J. Simpson here (guilty, not guilty) and a Sridevi there (from the "Mr. India" song "Hawa Hawaaii") thrown into the mix, contributing to one trippy, psychedellic whole.

As in his art-form, in his philosophy, too, Ellis is democratic. He emphasises that stop-motion art, such as his, can be created by anyone, provided that one is "true, honest and vulnerable", he says in a Hemingwayesque trip of tongue.

"Vulnerability is very important to create art, so is trust and being honest to yourself. When you are vulnerable and honest, you are not forced to conceal anything from anyone, and you keep yourself away from fake reality," he expounded.

Apart from these traits, there's one more aspect to Ellis's personality to which he attributes the manic nature of his work, that is, his condition of being a bipolar.

"During the Beijing Olympics (2008) I worked on a project commissioned by the Chinese government, which demanded of me sculpting 100 statues of children from ice. I ended up making 150, and then fell to pneumonia. I worked ceaselessly during project, and I think I was going through one of my bipolar episodes where one gets an immense rush of restless creativity," he said.

Despite the downside of such bipolar episodes -- a prolonged feeling of despondence -- Ellis covets these periods of hyper-mania (which is also a clinical term), which can have the potency to out-rush all other episodes which he's experienced so far, but can be devastating once it's subsided.

Ellis, who likes to be called a "professional tourist", resists going back to his home in upstate New York, until he can see it with the eyes of a tourist. This unlearning he deems a part of work, which demands of him seeing objects always with a fresh pair of eyes. And it's this very ability that enables Ellis to enliven a stick of butter or a worn out pair of shoes, by turning them into gif art.