Artist Ed Krell gets up every morning between 3 and 4 a.m. and heads to his studio, which is an old boatbuilding shop on Hoopers Island. He starts each day by making himself available to create art. Along a wall of his studio are several large canvases stretched over found/reclaimed boards. Looking at the colors, the scenes, the shapes, you’d never guess Ed works with chalk. How and why he found chalk as a medium and how he wants to use art to create mental health awareness is a story unto itself.
Ed grew up in south Baltimore and started creating art when he was eight or nine years old. He went to exhibits at the American Visionary Art Museum and played piano.
“I was already diving into different forms of expression and art, and I thought it was really cool to be able to make something that makes someone feel some kind of way,” Ed said. “I would do these really elaborate black-and-white drawings, which were very tedious, very small. As I kept practicing over time, life kicked in and the content changed, and it got a bit more involved.”
Partially color blind, Ed stuck to black and white, working with pen and ink, sometimes needle and ink—anything he could use to create a sharp, detailed line. Ed’s father was a structural engineer, so he grew up around mechanical drawing and went into drafting through the votech program in school. But it was the art department that called to Ed, and he found ways to create, ultimately working on the yearbook and the school newspaper.
In 2004, Ed’s family left the city and moved to Taylors Island, where they had a family campground, a fishing spot.
“Pretty much anytime we weren’t working or going to school, we were fishing on the Bay in this area,” he said. “Even though we lived in a concrete jungle, as a kid at 10 years old, I had an Evinrude outboard on a 16-foot boat and had a boat license.”
For a time, he stopped making art. He wasn’t around art galleries and exhibits like he was in the city, taking in what different artists were trying. In 2015, Ed suffered a severe nerve injury that took the use of his right arm.
“I went through a lot of reconstructive surgery, lots of physical therapy; at Johns Hopkins, the head of arm/hand transplant put cadaver nerves in my arm and basically re-wired my whole arm so I could have use of my thumb,” Ed said. “The use of my arm was completely gone.”
That could have been the end of the art story for a right-handed artist. But Ed picked up chalk with his left hand and started drawing on the walls, the floors, anything that was around him. Chalk was inexpensive, Ed had to sit still for long periods of time and art became a life-giving form of therapy for him.
At the same time Ed was going through this physical trauma, a close friend whom he calls “81” was dealing with mental health issues. “I was going through all these surgeries, 81 was going through depression and mental health issues, we started using art to impact a positive change in our minds, even just the littlest bit,” Ed said. “We started throwing ideas against the wall like spaghetti—he was a conceptual thinker, and I am a weird visionary—I kind of had a plan to make art for mental health, to actually take art and making art to inpatients in mental health facilities.”
In a way he compares to the monks who create sand mandalas only to wipe them clean to show non-attachment and impermanence, Ed would burn his canvases when he finished them. He didn’t attach value to the finished product. But 81 saw what Ed was creating and told him he needed to stop destroying his art and start selling it. People needed to see it. Ed started holding on to his artwork. Some he would give to friends.
Jon Jacobs, a retired biologist and active local musician, saw Ed’s work and encouraged him to put together an exhibit at the Dorchester Center for the Arts.“Ed captures the feel of Hoopers Islan in hi work,” Jacobs said. "He is carrying on the tradition of the great impressionist artists in the way he evokes the feeling of a place in his work. That should like hyperbole, but I don’t think it is. Ed is on to something.”
The DCA exhibit was up for the moth of July 2022 and was titled “Outside In, Featuring Ed Krell’s Story of 81.” Ed had 12 large-scale chalk-on-canvas pieces in the show and began to think about his work differently, realizing it had value for other people. It is outsider art.
Ed wasn’t formally trained, and he sees the world, and art, from a different angle.
“I have talked to people in the art world who have watched me work and respect what I am creating, and I never expected that from an art world I never thought I was a part of. I think sometimes in the professional art world, people lose sight of why they create art. I make art because it takes something from inside me and allows me to show it to people.”
81 lost his battle with depression and his mental health struggles. Ed is determined that his legacy will live on through art and through public art festivals, such as the Hoopers Island Chalk Festival, which was held in November 2022. The festival brought 68 cars and more than 200 people to the island. The next one will be in October of this year.
The universe has conspired for Ed to create how and where he is. His parents moved from Taylors Island to Hoopers Island. Outside the post office there, he met Kelly Ellis Neal, who he said looked like she was having way too much fun for someone going to the post office. They talked, and Ed explained what he was doing with his art and mental health awareness. Kelly mentioned she had a building and asked if Ed would paint a mural on it. He had never painted a big outdoor mural but was game to try. That building is the former boat building shop that has been Ed’s studio for two years now. And the mural, scenes from Hoopers Island around a pair of Phoenix wings, has become a signature piece for Ed.
“Partnering with Kelly is such a big part of what is making this dream come true,” Ed said. “She is one of our biggest supporters for what we are doing and letting everyone know about it. And the support we get from the community is incredible.”
On the island, he’s also teamed up to help create a mural on the walkin cooler at Maryland Blue, which looks like the inside of a fish tank. And one of the first pieces Ed created in his studio is in the building that was the elementary school, next to where the chalkboards are still in place.
“I made the piece with a giant rope around the outside, really nautical and it’s real Hoopers Island, but it’s also psychedelic,” Ed said. “And what I mean by psychedelic is just looking at something from many angles. It means your perspective is different. I like for someone to look at something I create and be puzzled for a minute and then start to figure it out.”
Ed creates his chalk-on-canvas pieces in layers, working daily on a piece for two weeks straight to get colors right and to include the different things he sees in a scene. Working for years in black and white and being partly colorblind, he has an appreciation and approach to color that is different from what people expect.
After a storm, Ed and his partner, Paul Ellwood (Paul is the “specialist in all things that aren’t art”), will be out in their skiff looking for boards that have washed up on the shores of the island. Ed uses plank boards to frame his canvases. He finds them to be the best salt-treated wood there is. It’s also extremely light; fresh-cut pine would weigh twice as much on the wall. When a piece is finished, Ed sprays it with Workable Fixatif, which locks everything in place and protects the chalk.
He orders canvas by the 20-yard roll and sold an entire 20 yards of canvas in paintings last year. Once he has materials, Ed goes off the grid. He gets into a creative flow. He has a phone to take pictures and for internet, but people contact him through Paul.
Creating art and selling it are very different things. Ed has always focused on creating. It took encouragement from friends to get him to think about selling it.
John Lewis, a writer in the art world, is one of those who helped Ed see early on what he had to offer. He pointed to people they would see walking by, and John told Ed that none of those people, no one else, can do what Ed is doing. He has a different eye, different talents, and uses different skills to create his art. Once Ed started getting that perspective in his head, people began to organically come around and find his art. One of those people was Gail Patterson.
Patterson is opening Spiralis Gallery, a new gallery that focuses on Afro-Caribbean art and outsider art. A focus on Maryland outsider art is a specific interest for Gail, as she is from Maryland herself. She is drawn to outsider artists because their art comes directly from their soul without the conventional structure of formal training. Gail saw that in Ed’s work.
“I first saw Ed’s work at the Dorchester Center for the Arts exhibit, and I was struck immediately by his use of color and his clouds. His clouds are my favorite part of his pieces!” Gail said. “I contacted him and visited his studio and realized he had a special gift that I am privileged to be involved with.”
Ed’s work will be included in Spiralis’ show opening in July, “Things Fall Together.” The show will be on display at Out of the Fire Restaurant in Easton for 10 weeks.
For Ed, creating art is its own goal and reward. But he does have dreams that are connected to what he creates. He hopes to be able to start a non-profit organization for art therapy so that he can work with inpatients in mental health facilities. He hopes to create awareness about mental health issues and those who struggle. He hopes to give people hope. And he wants to create a vibrant arts community on and around Hoopers Island.
What we have been doing helps to make an art community. And I have always been such an outsider that I didn’t bother dealing with any of that stuff—I just made art and it was no big deal. I realize I undervalued some of what I do. Seeing my artwork in people’s living rooms, the support we get from the community here, it’s awesome.”
Michael Valliant is the Assistant for Adult Education and Newcomers
To view more of Ed’s artwork, you can go to Spiralis Gallery at www.spiralisgallery.com or Ed’s website at www.edkrell.art. https://spiralisgallery.com/artists/50-ed-krell/works/