Author Archives: Helen Ellis


  • To create and settle into a warm and secure refuge
  • A container or shelter made by a bird out of twigs, grass, or other material to hold its eggs and young
  • A snug retreat or refuge; resting place; home

Every spring new mama birds build nests in the nooks and crannies around my house. I am always wowed by these beautifully woven structures. I have amassed a good collection of abandoned nests over the years.





Sometimes I use the nests, or inspiration from the nests, in my own work.

playroom detail 3

Playhouse (detail)

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Family Tree



These amazing structures inspire meditations on themes of love, nurture, liberation, loss, and rebirth.


Liberation Mandala

Doin’ the mess around

A lot of messing around gets done in art therapy sessions.

Which I love. Play is so important for children, essential to brain development, to the growth of imagination, dexterity, cognition, emotional health.

It’s important for adults too. When we’re in a state of play, we have a sense of engagement, a way to escape time, and the process itself is more important than the product.

I spend loads of time playing, with kids, with friends, and by myself. Here’s some messing around with Kwik Stix and a Sharpie marker.



Inspiration: The Great Wall of Los Angeles


Take a group of low-income, at-risk youths from various ethnic backgrounds, all involved with the criminal justice system, many with a history of interracial and gang warfare.

IMG_9151Employ them to work on a massive mural project documenting their various ethnic histories.

Version 2Bring together a group of artists, oral historians, ethnologists, scholars, and community volunteers to collaborate.

IMG_9141What do you get?

IMG_9131You get the Great Wall of Los Angeles.

IMG_9135I just visited this astounding half-mile long mural showing the history of ethnic people in California from pre-historic times until the 1950s.

IMG_9128It’s said to be the longest mural in the world.

IMG_9092It’s a long train of powerful, moving, disturbing, beautiful images.

IMG_9091Here’s how it came to be: In 1974, the Army Corps of Engineers contacted Los Angeles artist Judy Baca about the possibility of creating a mural as part of a beautification project along the wall of the Tujunga Wash, a flood control channel that drains the Los Angeles River in the San Fernando Valley.

IMG_9136Baca, a Chicana, took inspiration from the Mexican social mural movement, and conceived of a project that would use the space to “create public consciousness about people who are, in fact, the majority of the population, but who are not represented in public spaces in any visual way.”

IMG_9086Over 400 young people participated in the making of the mural, which was begun in 1974 and completed over five summers.

IMG_9056The youths selected were employed as assistants and participated in both the planning and execution of the mural. They were paid through the Summer Youth Employment Program.

IMG_9101The participants were supervised by professional artists who worked with them four to eight hours a day.

IMG_9096They received art instruction, attended lectures by historians specializing in ethnic history, and did improvisational theater and team-building exercises.

IMG_9071There were big take-aways. Kids who had always felt themselves invisible felt the importance of their history and gained new perspectives on the impact they could make in their world.

IMG_9080The project engendered responsibility, cooperation, comradery, pride.

IMG_9084The participants learned to work together in a context where the diversity of their cultures was the focus. Thus the Great Wall, in its process of creation as well as its content, is a great monument to interracial harmony.

IMG_9025Work is never done on the Wall, as it is in continuing need of restoration. In addition, Baca hopes be able to continue the project, engaging more young people and depicting history up to the present day.

IMG_9094If you’re in the LA area, you can find The Great Wall of Los Angeles along Coldwater Canyon Avenue between Burbank Blvd and Oxnard Street in Valley Glen. It runs in roughly chronological order, with the beginning on the Burbank Blvd end.

IMG_9062There really are people out there who are changing the world in wonderful ways. Here’s a video about the history and the making of the mural:

Product review: Kwik Stix


I was recently offered the opportunity to try Kwik Stix for review. Kwik Stix, made by The Pencil Grip, Inc., are solid tempera paint sticks that come in twistable tubes, similar to a glue stick. They are billed as a no-mess painting alternative. I was skeptical. No water, no brushes, no mess sounded to me like no fun.

So I gave them a try… and was instantly converted. The paint glides onto the paper so smoothly and the colors are so vibrant that they’re a delight to use. They go on wet, the drying time is 90 seconds, and they dry to a lovely smooth finish. I tried them on a variety of paper types, from thin and junky to heavy and toothy, and they worked well on everything. I also experimented with using Sharpie markers over the dried paint to add details, and that worked really well too.


I offered them to some kids and teens to sample. One gal, an eighteen year-old with limited hand motion due to Cerebral Palsy, liked them a lot. She loves to work with bright colors, and these fit the bill. The sticks were not too difficult for her to grip, and since they don’t need a ton of pressure to work well, she could do some expressive work. My grandson, a few months shy of three years old, was also a willing tester. They were a great success with him. The sticks are a nice size for little hands, affording young children the kind of control that allows them to be highly expressive in a way that isn’t really possible with a paint brush.


Children tend to leave materials uncapped as they work, and these paints do start to dry out when they’re left uncapped for awhile. But they can be easily revived by running them back and forth on a piece of paper until they’re moist again. This is also a good way to clean off smudges that accumulate on the ends.

These paint sticks are a product anyone can enjoy, but are especially great for those who don’t have the physical or emotional control to work with wetter paints and with brushes.

Kwik Stix are available in packs of 6 colors ($5.99) and 12 colors ($11.99) from


We are like angels

Happy holidays! Please enjoy this music while you’re reading:

The term “outsider art” refers to self-taught or naive artists who have little or no contact with the mainstream art world.

Elijah Pierce, Angel, 1983

Outsiders come from all walks of life, from all cultures, from all age groups.


Howard Finster, Baby’s Angel, 1990

Outsider art often depicts extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds.

Adolpf Wölfli, Angel, 1920

But aren’t we all outsiders? Italian writer Luciano De Crescendo wrote, We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another.

Alexandra Huber, title and date unknown

And as prolific angel painter Howard Finster said, When we all get together what a day that shall be.

Howard Finster, When we all get together what a day that shall be, 1986

Peace on earth, 2016.

Paper chase

My Year in Paper, 2014

My Year in Paper, 2014

I have always been a maniac paper collector. I came from a printing business family, so had deep paper roots and access to an endless supply of paper, sample books, and discarded make ready sheets, which fascinated me from early childhood. I loved to make collages and I collected paper of all kinds. I began to supplement my supply with papers that I found and, as I got older, bought. Now most of my art involves found and recycled materials.


Great paper is the easiest thing in the world to come by. Colors, designs, and textures are everywhere. My collection contains used wrapping paper and tissue paper, birch bark, New Yorker magazine pages, tie-dye-stained newspaper from camp arts & crafts. I keep cardboard, labels, old greeting cards and stationary, discarded soap wrappers, used shopping bags.

I like to find stores where I can buy interesting paper cheaply, like the tiny now-defunct Moroccan store at Broadway & 97th. Or the junky but great Pearl River Mart in lower Manhattan. Once in a while I make a trip to New York Central, the shrine of paper lovers, or to Kinokuniya, where I happily spend too much money on a beautiful piece of Japanese washi paper or a sheet or two of handmade paper from somewhere around the world .


Dear friends have given me gifts of paper that come from places as far away as Katmandu. I spend a lot of time skulking around recycling bins. Once I gave a wrapped gift to friends who were hosting me, and later that night quietly dug my wrapping paper out of their trash can and put it back in my suitcase. You get the idea.


The thing is, I can remember where just about every paper in my collection came from. So in that sense, the collection serves as my journal. Each one marks a place and time in my life. To me, rather than a jumble of unconnected scraps, my paper assortment seems like an autobiographical narrative. And I write and rewrite this narrative in various ways.


My Year in Paper, detail

I save every scrap of paper, no matter how small. When the pieces get really small, they get used for something like this bottle, which is filled with tiny collage-making scraps. To me, it feels like a self-portrait.

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Recently, I spent some time trying to design a business card for myself. I was stumped for ideas for awhile. But then it came to me…


Singing a different tune

I’m not a music educator or music therapist, but I’m a music lover and an occasional music maker, and I know the power that music has in my own life. The importance of music in the lives of the children and teens I have worked with is so huge that it often comes into play in the therapy. Sometimes, it IS the therapy. Consider this example:

A ten year-old African-American girl is in a long-term placement with a Dominican foster mother who is planning to adopt her. The child has a beautiful voice and loves to sing along with the Latin music that’s played all the time in the home. In our weekly art therapy sessions, she sings these songs while she works, and teaches them to me so I can sing along with her. We fall into the habit of singing together every week, and our singing is filled with energy and fun. After a number of years, the placement is disrupted (an all too frequent occurrence in foster care) at the foster mother’s request; she feels overwhelmed by the child’s problems and changes her mind about adoption. The child is replaced with an elderly churchgoing African-American woman. In therapy sessions, the child continues to sing Latin songs for a long time, but the fun is gone and there is a pervasive sense of sadness and longing to her singing. At home, she attends church regularly with her new foster mother. Over the course of a few months, the songs in our sessions slowly change from Latin music to hymns, and eventually she starts to sing the hymns with a sure, powerful voice. The Latin songs disappear from her repertoire. And it is this musical communication that tells me she is beginning to absorb the loss and to form a new attachment.

Inspiration is sometimes hard to come by

But I try to follow the Ten Rules for Students, Teachers, and Life from Sister Corita Kent and John Cage. Especially these three:

  • Rule 3   Consider everything an experiment.
  • Rule 6   Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail. There’s only make.
  • Rule 7   The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something.

Here’s some stuff I do when I’m having trouble getting something going.

I scribble.




I scribble or draw on top of an image in an old book or discarded magazine.




I make my own coloring book.



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I make a mandala.


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mandala zz

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I rip up paper and glue it down.



I just mess around with materials. (Kids are geniuses at this.)



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The most important thing is the doing, the movement, the physical connection with the materials. Eventually, something opens up. And if it doesn’t… well, scribbling has it’s own satisfactions.