The language of beading
An accidental beader and artist, Russell Ellis, says his work is “an art of compassion.”
For more than 35 years, Ellis has created exquisitely detailed, beaded thangkas. In that time, he has completed seven of the intricate pieces and is working on his eighth.
Also known as scroll paintings, thangkas are portable panels, often silk, painted or embroidered to depict Buddhist deities, famous scenes or mandalas. These story-telling scrolls are omnipresent in the Himalayas.
Ellis, a bead artist and staff member at the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington, Ind., creates thangkas containing 108,000 stitches, about 450,000 beads, and at least three million prayers.
The finished pieces are about 15 square feet.
Ellis recently visited Lodi’s Beads in Bosque Farms for the New Mexico Bead Society’s monthly meeting in September.
Lodi Ake, owner of the bead shop, said she met Ellis in August and took him to the bead society’s meeting that month.
In front of the nearly 100 people at the meeting, Ellis unrolled his current thangkas and Ake said, mouths dropped.
“I was standing in front and could see the whole audience. The look on their faces was unbelievable,” Ake said. “When they came up to touch it, they were in awe.”
Since Ake was hosting the Bead Society picnic at her store the following month, she asked if she could have Ellis as her special guest.
“The people who came to the picnic were able to put beads on it. I put a couple of rows on,” she said. “It was an honor to be able sit down at a piece that size and beauty, and be able to add to it.
“I don’t know where this lovely piece will end up. What excites me and humbles me at the same time, is to know that two small rows of tiny beads in this piece of thousands of beads are mine, the one I stitched into the piece with my hands. That I am a tiny piece of this huge work.”
Ake said Ellis was in the Land of Enchantment with his wife, visiting her parents.
“When he came to New Mexico, he had no idea that we have a beading community this large,” she said. “He wanted to meet people who did beading so I took him to a meeting.”
Ellis seemed to be impressed with the number of people and variety of bead work they did — from jewelry to bead weaving, Ake said.
“That is the true sign of a master, when someone is interested in every aspect of what other beaders do,” she said. “This was a wonderful opportunity for all of us to see what he does. I wanted to share his work with everyone.”
Ake called meeting Ellis a “humbling experience.”
“To see how he has taken his desire to learn patience. I know how much time and work it is to put together a piece like that. The fact that this is his eighth one, it’s truly overwhelming,” she said. “It took my breath away. It’s an incredible piece of work.”
Ellis says the thangkas is an artform that is very precise, and takes years to study and understand.
“The colors of the auras are very specific. The positions of the figure’s hands and body. It’s all a language,” Ellis said. “I get to mess around with the background, but other than that, it has to be exact. It’s very precise, very traditional or it loses its juice.”
Even down to the positions of the figures’ hands, heads and bodies, the “language” of the thangkas cannot be altered, Ellis said.
“A red fang biting a tongue is to remind people not to tell unkind truths. A knife in a hand is to cut through lies,” he said. “The positions, the expressions, it’s all a language.”
Ellis spent his childhood as a military brat, touring the country, living on Air Force bases of the Strategic Air Command. Finally settling in Spokane, Wash., he finished high school and earned a degree in sociology at Eastern Washington State University.
Anthropology, philosophy and Eastern psychology were his passions in college. In the early 1970s, Ellis was introduced to Tibetan Buddhism by Tsultrim Allione, one of the first Western women to take vows and become a Tibetan Buddhist nun.
In 1975, Ellis met his teachers in the art of beading. Cheyenne Big Crow and Jerry Peltier, cousin of Leonard Peltier, the noted Native American activist, took Ellis under their wings and taught him Lakota beading techniques.
“I was working at a dairy and some of the people there would do beading during the breaks,” he said. “It was mostly ceremonial, religious work and they taught me beading. I wanted to do something religious, and since I’m a Buddhist, I talked to my teacher.”
His teacher suggested thangkas, telling him that he would have to say 108,000 prayers.
“I wasn’t sure what that meant, so I decided to do 108,000 stitches,” Ellis said. “I just wanted to do it. Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to come across a lot of people — teachers and Tibetan artists — who encouraged me.”
He has completed seven of the detailed pieces, one of which is in the collection of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and hangs in the Art and Antiquity Museum in India.
He is one of only two Western artists to have work in the museum.
“And I am really honored to be one,” Ellis said.
Before he begins the 2,000 hours of stitching, Ellis first sketches the design on the canvass with a pencil.
“I never thought of myself as an artist and I drew them over and over until they were right,” he said.
Eventually, Ellis learned the “trick” of putting a grid over the drawing and sketching one square at a time, until the whole piece was finished.
And that was also a key to making sure the design was done to the exacting standards of proportion and position.
“The pictures I work from, the proportions and angles are precise, and the colors are very exact,” he said. “I’m lucky in a way to be doing this in beads.
“If I was a painter, I would study for 15 or 20 years just to learn how to make my own paints,” he said. “The blue paint is made from ground lapis stones. You have to learn how to grind the colors correctly before you even paint.”
Ellis said people need to look at beads as a way of calming down.
“Beads are common with all cultures through the ages. They’re part of our human family,” he said.
Ellis called his connection to the creating of the thangkas “karmic,” saying he has a deep, spiritual connection with the Tibetan people.
In his travels, the beader said he has seen how art connects many of the peoples and cultures across the globe through the use of identical color combinations, significant shapes and meanings.
“I love the art form even if I don’t understand it,” Ellis said. “It’s very unique but at the same time, there is similar art where ever we go — the same colors, shapes and meanings.
“Nature is talking to us. You just have to look for it.”
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