The Art of Living
● By Emma Comery
Text by: Emma Comery Photography by: Jason Page
As our “Sparkling City by the Sea” and the surrounding Coastal Bend neighborhoods experience a surge of entrepreneurial innovation, downtown activity, and Insta-worthy local pride (and we are here for it!), we still find pleasure in discovering the wallflower holdouts, diamonds in the rough, and hidden gems of our community.
That’s why we were giddy with excitement to meet Monica and Scott Ellison. Neither Ocean Drive McMansion nor Padre Island waterfront villa, their mid-sized 1937 build on Santa Fe sits quietly behind a curtain of foliage, almost completely invisible from the street. They say to never judge a book by its cover…well, never judge a house by its exterior, either. The muted, blue-gray facade doesn't prepare you for the explosion of color waiting inside. As you enter the home through an arching church-style door, you’re met by a rainbow of hues. Thirty-six different colors (to be exact) paint life into the Ellison house, from warm Pueblo yellow in the entryway to Tahiti Lime green in one of the bedrooms.
All this color, and the first thing to draw your eye when entering the Ellison home is the row of three small square portraits hanging above the patio door in the entryway. Two girls and a boy – the Ellison children. Family friend and TAMUCC Associate Professor of Art Joe Pena gifted the portraits to the Ellisons as a thank-you for hosting his wedding to now-wife Diane in their lushly landscaped backyard. The placement of these portraits makes a statement; it says, Welcome, here we are, come be part of the family.
Or, at least that’s how I decide to take it, since I’m about to be incredibly nosy and snoop through every room of their out-of-this-world gorgeous home.
The Ellison abode, as it stands today, is the culmination of remodels spanning eight decades. It’s easy to tell which parts are original, since the living room still sports early-mid-century wall panels, and the wood floors in the hallway undulate with age. The architecture is a personality of its own.
Perhaps the most vibrant space in the house is the kitchen. Remodeled by the previous owners, it boasts every texture imaginable and soaks in natural sunlight from counter-to-ceiling windows. Wood floors give way to sprawling white granite countertops. The counter-height island pops with green, blue, and white tiles, and a feature wall has been entirely redone in brick. In the corner, a whimsical stove alcove reveals another tile inset, this one the color of the Mediterranean. When it comes to storage, this kitchen throws it back, sporting floor-to-ceiling wooden drawers like a giant card catalog from a 1950s library…but with snacks.
For Monica, the kitchen feels “like you’ve hit the jackpot. You wake up every morning and breakfast becomes such a joy.” Breakfast does sound infinitely more delicious when you imagine it served at the long, modern wood table beneath a colorfully flavorful painting of a smooshed, quasi-cherubic Frida Kahlo. Chubby and bright, she bends her head to her shoulder, trying to fit within the dimensions of the canvas, so vivacious she’s nearly uncontainable. She’s riveting. No wonder the kitchen is the heart of the home, a “focal point for hanging out,” as Monica puts it. “We will just sit at this table and drink wine. We barely ever make it into the living room.”
The kitchen is a showstopper, a cover model, a dream. But the true allure of the home is in its history, its labyrinth of add-ons and renovations that make you want to pull open every drawer, cubby, and door that promise stories and – possibly – passage to another place or time. Through every door appears another door, another turn, another built-in cupboard that no doubt leads somewhere wonderful – Narnia, perhaps.
As I poke through the house, pushing through swinging doors, getting happily lost in the maze, I note every style of furniture imaginable from mid-century tables to modern bookshelves, vintage lamps, and even a table decorated entirely in old bottle caps.
“So far as design, there’s no rule in our house,” says Scott. “It’s kind of a hodgepodge, eclectic collection of stuff.”
As the owner of 20/20 Vintage, an upscale resale shop downtown, Monica has a unique ability to revitalize old furniture, clothing, and decor simply by dusting it off and finding the right spot for it. Take the piece of burnt driftwood sitting on the mantel of the angled fireplace, for example, broad and curved like a moose antler. “When she brought it home,” Scott remembers, “I thought, ‘What are we going to do with this?’ And all she did was put it on the mantel.” Elegant, eye-catching, and recycled.
One piece of driftwood does not a beach house make, however, as the living room (and entire house, for that matter) seem to defy classification. The room itself features a high ceiling and exposed beams, as well as wooden curtain rods but, oddly and stylishly enough, no curtains. A mid-century style couch sits catty-corner to a vintage dresser, which acts as a TV stand, while a custom-made record player sits in the corner and modern art colors every wall. Two vibrant turquoise chairs in velvet – a Chic to Chic find and birthday present for Monica – pull your eye to the center of the room. Vases and religious icons from around the globe add another layer of complexity, creating a space of exploration and wonder.
Wander over into the next room and you’ll feel as though you’ve been transported into a museum of sorts. With built-in shelves boasting various art pieces and artifacts from a time past, this room instantly becomes a treasure to behold. It seems as though any direction you look, you’ll find a new piece you hadn’t seen before – what seems to be a common theme in the Ellison house.
One of Monica’s favorite finds in the home is the glass chandelier hanging over the entryway. “It’s a reclaimed piece,” she says. “The glass has been repurposed and it sits really thick in the metal, so when you turn the light on, all that color bounces on the walls in these beautiful amber tones.”
There are older pieces passed down from family and friends, too. In the master bedroom, a nearly Elizabethan armoire offers an unexpected complement to the modern panel bed with a distressed headboard and footboard. Their son’s bedroom also features an heirloom: Scott’s childhood bed restored.
While the furniture is in and of itself an ever-revolving art collection, what truly brings this home to life is the celebration of art - both international and local. Paintings, drawings, stained glass, collages…again, there are no formal prerequisites for the Ellison collection. It’s not that Scott and Monica don’t know their own style; it’s that their style is so uniquely personalized.
“If we like it, we like it,” says Scott. “I think our style has evolved over the years in that we have more of a discerning eye for talent,” Monica muses. Simple as that.
Such talent includes Ben Wright (the artist behind our June 2019 cover image), whose two large-scale Native American profiles command the living room. Meanwhile, abstracts by Texas native Cande Aguilar enliven rooms across the home. Swirling earth-tone abstracts and portraits by Betty Mobley, a Corpus Christi artist who once lived down the street from the Ellisons, are omnipresent (Scott received 32 Mobley paintings after her passing). Then there are the Betty Roberts paintings, the Diane Peñas, the intricate mixed-medium sculptures from Becky Smith, the dazzling canvases they’ve collected from travels around the world – the list goes on.
One of Monica’s favorites hangs above the couch: a souvenir Scott brought back from Cuba. “This particular piece was painted on pieces of bedsheet sewed into a canvas,” she says as she points to the piece above her. “We’ve had it almost 20 years and I can still sit here and look at the different colors, the shadows. I’m never tired of looking at that painting. There’s just a vibrancy that is so true to Cuba with the colors, the cars…it keeps pulling you in, and I’m pulled to it over and over again.”
With so much art, it prompts the question: Do they ever become numb to the beauty? Scott answers without hesitation, “We definitely enjoy looking at the art work every time we see it.”
“I know exactly where every painting came from,” Monica adds. “When there’s a story behind the piece, it makes it that much more interesting.” As she takes our team through the home, she tends to point out every single piece adorning the walls and tells us how she acquired it, who is behind it, and what it means to her.
The Ellisons may say they have no particular vision for their decor, but a tour through the home belies an intention so natural, it’s nearly subconscious. It’s the story of a life together, a curation of memories and enjoyment. Scott describes their home as “a respite,” and in that vein, every viable space is dedicated to art. One of my personal fav-orite pieces in the home – a Cande Aguilar pop art, comic-book-style collage – hangs above the toilet. The average American spends two hours a week in the bathroom, so why not make it beautiful?
And yet, with all the curated artistic mastery, the Ellison house is very much a home – a place to enjoy a glass of wine, practice drums, and make a meal together. Every room reflects the joys, evolutions, and memories of this specific family, reminding us ever-scrolling Pinterest addicts that you don’t need to be Joanna Gaines to cultivate a space of comfort and beauty.
Because, really, a home shouldn’t look like a magazine.
It should look like you.