Tony Ellis: Fairfield Artist Joins Michigan Makers for ArtPrize 2014 Festival


Carpet sample based on an image by Tony Ellis.

This fall, my husband, artist Tony Ellis, and I will return to Michigan where his installation Finding Beauty: Grand Rapids—will exhibit at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art (UICA) during ArtPrize 2014. Since Tony’s work is already well represented here in Iowa, local artists and friends are wondering, “What’s going on in Michigan?”

Every year, ArtPrize transforms three square miles of downtown Grand Rapids into an open playing field where anyone can find a voice in the conversation about art and why it matters. This “art fair on steroids” offers the public an endless opportunity to discover new works and interact with artists during the 19-day event from September 24 to October 12. For a Midwest artist, it’s an opportunity to show work to a large and diverse population. Over 1,200 artists have submitted their work into one of four categories: 2-D, 3-D, Time Based, or Installation.

And since the event is judged, I should mention that this international competition awards the world’s largest art prize. The two grand prizes are worth $200,000 each and eight category awards are collectively worth $160,000. Half of the awards are decided by public vote, and half by a jury of art experts. That means that every man, woman, and child in the Grand Rapids area during ArtPrize can use their smartphone to vote or stop at a voting station to support the artists they like best.

Last March we drove to the Wolverine state, where Tony shot photos along the streets of Grand Rapids. Tony specializes in extracting beautiful images from totally unexpected environments. During that visit we approached the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art about exhibiting there during ArtPrize 2014. UICA curator Alexander Paschka explained that UICA was selecting work that was collaborative in nature.

Tony immediately came up with two ideas: a carpet and a window treatment that would function as both contemporary art and commercial design. Since these ideas had been floating through his mind for some time, Tony recognized that “Alexander was offering me a way to showcase my images in a whole new context by moving my creative process out of the studio and working together with Michigan designers and manufacturers.”

Interestingly, we had just taken a tour of Scott Group Custom Carpets, which works with clients to create high-end, certified green carpets at their LEED-certified factory in Grand Rapids. A week later, we met with Scott Group president Mike Ruggeri, who mentioned that UICA had recently asked him if the company would contribute towards a carpet for their new collaborative space on the fourth floor. After several conversations with everyone involved, we settled on an 8-by-10-foot design, which is scheduled to be delivered in September.

tony ellis

Streetbox 1

The finished carpet will be sourced from Streetbox 1, an image Tony captured from a utility box on Monroe Center Street NW, near the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Diane McCabe, a talented textile designer at Scott Group, has already completed an 18-inch square sample of Streetbox 1. “I was inspired by Tony’s ability to focus in on a small detail and expose it for its vibrant beauty and abstract composition,” she says. “As a textile, his work becomes sculpture in multiple tuft directions and pile heights.”

The carpet will exhibit against a background of large, colorful, translucent window shades using a second image, Streetbox II, that Tony shot in downtown Grand Rapids. Fine art reproduction printing specialist Mark Reed and interior designer Jan McCollum are collaborating on this piece of the installation. Streetbox II will be divided to create a triptych of window shades as a dramatic backdrop to the carpet. Once installed inside three large steel-casement windows and backlit by spotlights, the piece will make a spectacular nighttime statement from UICA during ArtPrize 2014. During daylight hours, when the shades are backlit by natural daylight, the shades will come alive for viewers inside UICA.

Finding Beauty: Grand Rapids will be the largest display of Tony’s work to date, continuing the theme of discovering beautiful imagery in the most unlikely and mundane environments.

At the risk of sounding like the Michigan tourism board, we have been encouraging everyone we know to consider this event as a weekend getaway this fall. Michigan colors will be at their peak in late September and early October. From Southeast Iowa, it’s an easy seven- to eight-hour drive, with only an hour of city traffic around Chicago and the southern tip of Lake Michigan. We usually make one stop along the way to enjoy the Western shoreline of Lake Michigan at Saugatuck and head to nearby pristine Oval Beach, then top it off with a fantastic meal at Phil’s Bar & Grille.

Last year, after three amazing weeks at ArtPrize, we left the state with a long and growing list of friends whose genuine interest, openness, and generosity were reflected throughout the community. This was especially true of our ArtPrize hosts, Chuck and Katie King, who housed us and warmly brought us into their circle of family and friends. We knew we’d return for ArtPrize 2014 and, as Tony says, “This time we wanted to do something special for them.”

Support this project by visiting the Kickstarter page for Finding Beauty: Grand Rapids. See more at:

• Finding Beauty: Grand Rapids: the ArtPrize 2014 entry:

• Tony Ellis Fine Art website: