Tim Ely’s artwork might make one think he is channeling the mind of some alien physicist, blending geometric shapes, lines and his own take on hieroglyphics set in books and book covers.
But Ely says it is simply his childhood fascination with space and science blended with his affinity to create.
“Ever since I was in grade school, they couldn’t get me to do the regular stuff,” the 61-year-old Colfax artist says. “I became an artist at an early age. I made all this stuff up when I was in junior high, grade school.”
Commissioned all across the country, Ely currently has an exhibit at Gonzaga University’s Jundt Art Museum, an upcoming exhibit at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, and is working on a fourth book, “Color,” for a series called “The Secret Book of Natural Philosophy.”
He grew up in the heat of the space race, watching the United States and the Soviet Union battling to take astronauts where no man had gone before.
Though he and his friends’ predictions that we’d shortly be colonizing the moon were a bit off, Ely says, “it was a really amazing and fascinating time to be alive.”
The Snohomish, Wash., native attended art schools and graduate school at the University of Washington and studied abroad in Great Britain, Italy and Japan.
He ended up in Colfax nine years ago with his wife, Ann, who is a graphic designer. The move brought them closer to family and gave them a break from big-city life.
While he lived in New York City for several years, Ely says being an artist in Eastern Washington is easier because it’s quieter and less distracting.
However, he does encourage aspiring artists to live in a large city, at least for a while, to mine the resources that other artists have left for study.
While Ely is not an astronomer, mathematician, architect or cartographer, much of the book pages and covers he designs – his third-story home studio is littered with presses, design tools, stampers, etc. – seem to map fictional worlds, constellations, blueprints, prisms and mathematical formulas with no real answers.
“I think anyone who makes something is ahead of the game,” he says. “Everyone has a vision. I have a lot of fans who like science fiction, and they have no problem going into things like alien physics.”
His otherworldly hieroglyphic designs, he says, came about as he was a left-handed child trying to write with a fountain pen. The ink would smear, so he started writing from right to left.
“Very quickly stuff started to look Chinese,” Ely says. “I love what things look like when I don’t understand them.”
He says he enjoys looking at various fields of science, even if he doesn’t understand them, “just to stay in touch with the fact that we know so little.”
But he doesn’t regret not becoming a scientist.
“What I am doing is really what I chose, and there’s nothing better I can think of that I’d rather be doing,” Ely says.
He remembers discussions about whether physical books would ever become obsolete after the arrival of the Internet but says, “There are people who will always like the hand-held paper object.”
Ely keeps plenty of books on shelves in his studio, along his staircases and throughout his Colfax home. Some sketchbooks lay open on work tables with designs for space ships comparable to what DaVinci had done with the helicopter.
Should inventors one day stumble on his books, perhaps they will take a few notes for future space travel. But Ely says he’s not sure there is much potential in his sketches for realistic machinery.
“I think of all sorts of weird machines,” he says, adding that he feels everyone should keep a journal or sketchbook – something to keep thoughts and experiences intact.
“I think they’re vital,” he says. “Experience is a real fantastic teacher.”