Valerie Ellis is an artist, formerly a psychotherapist, living near London. She makes abstract expressionist oil paintings and works on paper. Valerie gained her degree in psychology from the prestigious University of Queensland, Australia where she lived for decades after moving from the UK where she grew up. After 20 years in private practice, attuned to intrapersonal dynamics, Valerie’s artwork uniquely reflects psychological themes like the effect of context and childhood on people, and how art communicates human needs symbolically. Returning to the UK in 2019, Valerie also returned to her artistic practice. Motivated by her own emotionally deprived childhood and sympathy for her clients, Valerie Ellis’ work continues to express her concern for psychological issues and for the welfare of those who suffer emotionally.
"Things Could Get Better" from the 2020 Context series
When Did You Become an Artist?
"People have natural talents. As a therapist of 20 years this fact becomes very obvious when you listen to the stories of enough people. It’s also true that those who fulfil their talent are happier and more successful than those who do not. Mine is art. I was the child at school who was asked by other children for a drawing. At home, I spent most of my time making something-or-another; little sculptures from dough or candle wax, paintings, drawings and arrangements of found-objects.
At the end of secondary school I had an art exam - a challenging life drawing. I clearly recall a fellow student lounging on a chaise (fully clothed - we were only 16!) and the drawing I made of her from an angle requiring skilful foreshortening. At the end, my teacher asked for my portfolio..."What portfolio..?”, I said. The one I was supposed to have been making all year, apparently. Kindly, she allowed me to spend the rest of the day painting, drawing and writing to make a year’s worth of submission. Not only did I pass, I was awarded the highest mark in the country that year. It was obvious I should pursue art but…I didn’t. Both my parents were from dysfunctional homes. I’m sure they married young to escape but, of course, made their own version of familial mess. My family never missed a chance to criticise, ridicule and crush aspiration. From infancy, my experience of my mother ranged from neglect through to physical abuse. My father constantly ‘corrected’ and, for his daughter in particular, emphasised appearances rather than character, saying “it’s harder for people not to love you if you’re good looking”.
As a small child I'd become attached to my home - a more secure, reliable thing than my parents. So, it was very destabilising and painful when my mother abruptly took me from it to return to her own home city. There I met my grandparents who added to the retinue of hostile adults relentlessly using threats and put-downs to extinguish all happiness and spontaneity. By the time I entered school I felt profoundly alone, certainly lacking the confidence and skills required to thrive. English schools operated on a control-based culture and frightening experiences awaited me. Ridicule from teachers and fellow students was common (though the kindly ones stand out in my mind), I witnessed students abusing each other in ways I cannot describe...and teachers too. I recall a chair being thrown by a child at one poor teacher. By the time I left school I'd survived an assault that left me with a black eye and coped with the daily threat of harm well enough not to fail all my exams. At this point I was bereft - no one seemed to protect or care for me, especially the people who might be expected to.
Because the emphasis was always on the wrongness of one's actions rather than communicating values or emotions, my inner life was a closed world to me and my communication skills were severely stunted. I recall deciding, one day, to go to London. After making my way to the local train station and into London, I wandered for a few hours before managing to return home. I was 14 years old and told no-one what I was doing because no one was listening. Although I gained entry to an art college, with the help of my art teacher, my drive to fulfil any artistic potential was completely drowned by the desperate need to feel loved. This was the first time I played the hand dealt me to my advantage; I had both Australian and UK citizenship and decided to exercise the option to go to Australia, thinking that life with my Father (still there) might provide a chance for the happiness I needed. So, I left for Australia...
What Happened in Australia?
Quickly I discovered that my ever-critical and invasive father was unbearable to live with. I ran away with nowhere to go - arriving at a local town with a suitcase. Eventually, I found a youth shelter where I stayed for a couple of nights before one of the staff took me home. Despite his a wife and child, he was inappropriately ‘touchy' so, onwards I went.
Eventually, I found work and flatmates and a boyfriend. He thoughtfully gave me a book about personal growth and psychology. No one had explained to me that life had patterns, reasons, causes and effects. It seemed like an endless sea buffeting me with assault after assault and the best you could do was hold on. Psychology was a revelation! It explained why I was unhappy and provided hope for escape. I immediately decided to become a therapist, like the author, who seemed to have found wisdom and relief from the buffeting.
Two years later I gained entry to the prestigious University of Queensland. Four years later, eating cereal for dinner on many nights, I graduated with an honours degree in psychology and a little more insight. Soon, I married, established work and a house. I enjoyed being a psychotherapist because I understood how much my clients had suffered and how much they needed help. They were loyal because they felt the commitment and care I had for them. Though I worked with them, I had not persisted in improving myself - I remained convinced I was alone and uncared-for - this childhood hangover poisoned my marriage triggering divorce and the loss of my home. This was the next big turning point. This massive loss exposed that, although I understood what harm my childhood had done, I had not recovered. I re-focussed on my own wellbeing.
For the next few years, I developed even more insight into myself and others, more discipline in correcting my inherited errors and higher expectations of myself and others.
Why Change Career?
Now I'd reached 'ground level'; instead of being in a massive psychological hole I could afford to shift from reparation to self-actualisation. What I could I have done if childhood had been good? Where would I be with great parents who understood and encouraged me? I was a good therapist but, a therapist because of being of starting out lost. If I'd started well, it’s not the career I would've had. I knew that attentive parents would have cultivated my artistic talent…they'd have shepherded me into a fine art degree, encouraged me to extend myself to be both dedicated and adventurous. Trying for a new life in art would never be the same as starting decades earlier but,…it was better than continuing to live the consequences of being hurt and had the chance of the fulfilment that comes from being ‘on purpose’. Ultimately, what I have is perspective - a cultivated inner life and the ability to see meaning and motivation. I have grit - to persist and to expect continuous development in myself. And great compassion and motivation to do something meaningful as well as beautiful. All this comes with me in the new direction.
Art life started by teaching myself oil painting and developing the skills to make realistic portraits and figurative paintings. More recently I've explored abstraction, brushwork, scale and composition. Now I want to combine abstraction and figuration in art with symbolism and meaning in subject matter. Still trying to get home.