This Briarcliff Painter Is Behind Some of NYC's Most Iconic Pop Art
In a new retrospective at Ossining’s Bethany Arts Community, graphic designer and fine artist Mary Ellis reveals her scope of work, from coffee mugs to canvasses.
Photos by Noah Baumwolf
Mary Ellis’s artwork can be found on refrigerators, kitchen shelves and coffee tables around the world. They’re the happy little souvenirs that remind tourists of their New York City adventure: a magnet, a shot glass, a set of coasters. Fifth Avenue Manufacturers, which Ellis owns with her husband Kenny Bookbinder, is a leading purveyor of souvenirs and gifts. Wherever there’s a tourist attraction — and there are many — there are Mary Ellis mugs, magnets and buttons. You can find her work from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Highline to the top of the Empire State Building, not to mention retail outlets like Walgreens and The Strand and all three metropolitan area airports.
You may not know Ellis’ name, but you know her work. Her cheerful, Pop Art style distills iconic objects down to graphic lines and bright colors: a yellow cab; the Statue of Liberty; the Chrysler and Empire State buildings.
Yet like many commercially successful artists, Ellis has a hidden fine art side. She produces dozens of original paintings a year from her home studio in Briarcliff Manor. Her first retrospective, “Mary Ellis — So Far,” opens Junes 8 at Bethany Arts Community (BAC) in Ossining. The exhibit traces her evolution from Pop Art to abstract expressionism and reveals her scope of work on a grand scale, most of it never shown before. “There’s a lot of people like me — people who put their passion on hold to make a living.”
“The point of this exhibit is to show my totality as an artist,” she says. “I’m known for my iconic pop art, but nobody knows that I have another, more personal side as an abstract artist. This exhibit shows that crossover, exposes it. This is me being vulnerable and truthful.”
A generous portion of the proceeds from sales will establish a fund at BAC for children who can’t afford art supplies. It’s a typical Mary Ellis approach: art from the heart.
Ellis is a Pratt-trained fine artist who began her career licensing her art on party goods, balloons and gift products. In 1973 she opened a needlepoint store in Greenwich Village called Designpoint, which morphed into a clothing line in the '80s. You can find her vintage tees on eBay, her enamel pins on Etsy and increasingly, her original oils on people’s walls.
She began painting canvasses in earnest in 2008, as a creative outlet for her emotions. Her paintings are improvisational explosions of texture, color and shape, alive with energy and rhythm. She works on several canvasses at once, often while listening to reggae music, her passion, along with African drumming. “I drum the way I paint — it’s purely intuitive.” She credits participating in the 100 Day Project, where she produced a small painting a day for more than three months, with improving her discipline and setting her free “to reconnect to my heart.” The show hung at The Donald Gallery in Dobbs Ferry.
Whether it’s a coffee mug or a 48-inch canvas, her approach is the same: “If you’re going to make something, it should be art. This show draws the connection between the two sides of my creative process. I want to share an experience. I hope viewers will join me in an adventure, set thought aside, and be open to allowing their senses to take in and enjoy the work on a purely visceral level. It’s the same thing I say about my iconic Empire State Building: Take it home and remember it on an emotional level.”