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Sian Ellis "I'm taking a lighter look at the darker side of life"

Sian Ellis is a Blackpool-born, Sheffield-based illustrator and muralist known for her light-and-dark designs, often featuring ghosts and ghouls but with a wry slant.

Sian's work is increasingly visible in Sheffield and beyond since she went full-time as an artist in 2020, including several large commissions and through her self-initiated folklore zine, Tell the Bees.

She told us about her inspiration, fundraising for good causes with her work and what she's got in store for fans of her art.

Hello Sian, and thanks for gracing us with your wonderful work. Could you tell us a bit about how you started out as an artist?

I’ve always loved drawing for as long as I can remember, but it was always such a private thing for me and I never really considered it as a career choice. Then in 2017 people around me had started to encourage me to share my work a bit more, which I did, and then from that people started asking me to create things for them and that’s how I started getting my first commission work.

I had been working as a fundraiser for about a decade by this point and I loved doing both, so it wasn’t until lockdown came along in 2020 and put a stop to my work as an events fundraiser that I became an artist full time, and that’s how it’s been for me for the past four years.

It’s probably not your typical origin story for an artist, in that I never studied art or planned for this to be my career. It’s more like I just had this love for creating things that just spilled over into my working life and then completely took it over.

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Sian Ellis

Where do you usually find inspiration for your work?

I don’t think that there’s a typical place that inspiration comes from for me. It might be from stories that I find interesting, a trip somewhere full of history or just a daft pun that has sprung into my head. I will sit and work on a drawing for hours based on one little nugget of an idea that’s popped up and stayed with me.

I really love taking my work to markets and seeing people laugh at my stall, especially if they weren’t even smiling when they first arrived, so I think I chase that with my work a lot too.

Obviously folklore and ghost stories are also a huge inspiration for me. They are both life-long loves that I devour hungrily – I have a haunted library in my studio that does very little to contain my collection of ghost story and folklore books – and I feel like the act of creating pieces inspired by folklore in particular is a way to become a part of the life of the stories themselves, as they are told and retold and amended and developed over years and years. I think that’s a really special thing to be a part of.

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Sian Ellis
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Sian Ellis

There's a consistent theme of spooky levity around death in your ghostly character pieces. Is this born of a particular fascination with the macabre, or is that a bit of a deep read?

My work isn’t about death really, it’s very much about life. My characters tend to experience all sorts of maladies of the living; being permanently tired, self conscious, food-motivated or being serial plant killers. They are mainly self portraits through a silly spooky lens.

The motif of the ghost works because I think it shows a character that is instantly more aligned with the edges of society as an outsider but is often a bit misunderstood. In this way I think that ghosts are a good mascot for all of us who grew up enjoying the weird and the wonderful – horror films, creepy books and strange stories. They haunt the peripheries of society, looking over at ‘normal’ folk (whatever that means) and not quite feeling like they totally fit in.

Even now I think there are people who see my work and think, ‘Oh that’s very dark,’ and assume I’m a bit bleak and miserable, but I consider myself to be pretty cheery really. I like to think I’m taking a lighter look at the darker side of life.

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Sian Ellis
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Sian Ellis

There are a number of excellent commision pieces in your portfolio. Do you have a favourite and how do you decide who to work with?

I don’t think I could pick a favourite, really.

The Snooks sculpture trail in York this spring was a real highlight for me as even though in the last six years I’ve painted 34 sculptures for arts trails across the UK, the Snooks is the first time I’ve been given the opportunity to design the base character for a sculpture trail that other artists then got the opportunity to paint.

I was able to go on to paint two of the 25 sculptures for two really great causes – St Leonard’s Hospice and the York City Council Fostering Team – and it felt like a real privilege to see talented artists from up and down the UK transforming a character that I had created into these sculptures with totally different styles and filled with totally different personalities.

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Plus the sculptures will go on to be auctioned to raise money after the trail too. I spent so long working as a fundraiser that I’m really chuffed to be able to continue helping to raise money for good causes with my work. Of the 15 or so pieces of mine that have been auctioned for charities since 2018, the total they have raised at auction exceeds £104,000 and I am really proud of that.

In terms of choosing who to work with I just absolutely love painting massive things and really like a new challenge, so I am always keen to hear from people who have a big canvas in mind. Painting two car bonnets for Roundabout Sheffield’s Bangers and Cash Rally last year was a lot of fun, as it was a totally new canvas for me and I loved the idea of my work going on an adventure around Europe.

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What does 2024 have in store for you and your work?

I’m just coming to the end of a solid six months of back-to-back painting commissions so I’ll have five painted sculptures going on display in York, Staffordshire and my hometown of Blackpool over spring and summer 2024.

I’m also working on the fourth issue of my folklore zine Tell the Bees, which I launched last July. It’s a real labour of love for me as researching, writing and illustrating all of the articles on different stories from folklore, fiction and history takes a huge amount of work, but the reception to the first three issues has been brilliant and I really do love sharing these stories with people. Issue 3 focused on ‘Britain’s Weirdest Ghost Stories’ and issue 4 will be dedicated to all things ‘Folk Horror’, so each of the issues all have a bit of a different personality and I’m excited to see where I can go with it over the course of the next year.

Towards the end of 2023 I teamed up with Louise Walker (a.k.a. Sincerely Louise) to bring out a brand new local monthly craft night called Weird Crafts, and we’ve been having a lot of fun with these laid back creepy vintage inspired workshop sessions, so that’s another thing I’ll be working on throughout 2024.

Learn more

Sian is always open to hearing about opportunities for collaboration and commissioned work.

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