“I’m interested in weird,” says Truro artist Ellen Anthony. “So much of our culture is about ‘getting it right’ and ‘doing it well,’ and I’m just not into that. Take me to weird and let’s discover what’s going on there.”
Best known for creating the Quirky Circus, a silent one-woman puppet show that ran on the Outer Cape from 2000 to 2012, Anthony is now, at age 74, taking stock of what she calls “the second half” of her life.
On Oct. 20, 1984, Anthony was 37 years old and working as a public affairs director for a television station. She woke up from a dream one day and asked herself, “Do I want the rest of my life to look like this?” Her answer was no. She quit her job and moved to her family home in Truro to take a break and heal. She has been living there ever since.
“What I feel choked up about is that I was obedient to my soul,” says Anthony. “It’s so rare to listen to a dream and believe there is instruction inside.” Anthony stopped searching for answers. “I am grateful to know that not knowing is the best of anything,” she says. “To make something quirky and weird, you have to stand in the darkness for years getting interested in your ignorance. It’s such an investment, ignorance.”
Much of what Anthony has done during the past 37 years has been about finding joy. Since moving to Truro, she has — among other things — completed a low-residency M.F.A. in writing at Vermont College; worked as a children’s librarian at the Wellfleet library; visited an ashram in India; played 16-year-old Joan of Arc in a theater performance when she was 45; and created a product for Terrapin, a robotic toy company in Provincetown.
Quirky Circus grew from a simple dog puppet that she created. “He was straight out of my heart,” she says. “Quirky Circus made me happy, and it made the people who came to see the show happy. Some people came to the performance eight times.”
Anthony introduced the puppet to the late Wellfleet painter James Lechay. “Jim was almost 90 years old,” she says. “I brought my dog to him and put him on his lap. For a long time, Jim was silent. Then, finally, he said, ‘This is so ugly, it’s beautiful.’ What a brilliant doorway into fresh authenticity that is!”
Over the past three years, Anthony has discovered a passion for painting. Her grandfather was the artist and illustrator Edward A. Wilson, and her mother was the painter Perry Wilson. Both worked in the studio space now filled with Anthony’s own canvases.
“My grandfather’s cigar smell is still in the stairway. He’s present,” Anthony says, and adds that, though he was recognized in his day, he was “not a happy artist.” Growing up, Anthony was not interested in becoming an artist. “It didn’t look like much fun,” she says. “Same with the theater. Both my parents said never go into the theater. They said, ‘It’s a hell of a life.’ ”
Anthony’s father was the actor and director Joseph Anthony; her mother was an emerging actress before she had children and then turned to painting. “Both my grandfather and my father were very successful in their fields, yet ended up here in Truro imploded and empty,” Anthony says. “I was lucky enough to see that in each of them and to know that I didn’t want that to be my ending or my middle.”
Painting was, initially, the opposite for Anthony — a way of escaping pain. In 2018, she fell and injured her left shoulder; it was frozen for six months. “You just have to lie down on ice for your life,” she says. “I couldn’t do that all day long, so I started to make color move around. It took me completely out of this consciousness and taught me so much about how much control we have over the body, because the minute I stopped painting, the pain came back. The experience helped me to sharpen what I’m searching for.”
Since her injury, Anthony has created more than 200 paintings. “I’m less than four years into this little exploration, and it’s so hard not to ask myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ To wonder, ‘Is it any good?’ ” she says. “I won’t let myself go there. I’d rather have what I do be bold and wrong, messy and half dangling off the page.”
Some of Anthony’s paintings are abstract; others are inspired by the landscape of the Outer Cape. “I’m drawn to paint where a grain of sand meets the vast ocean,” she says. “Maybe because I want to be there, always — in that emptiness, spaciousness, and connection to all.” She recently spent two weeks in the Margo-Gelb dune shack, sponsored by the Outer Cape Arts Residency Consortium. “Painting in the dunes teaches seeing and being and painting,” she says.
With Anthony’s self-defined second half of her life coming to an end, she planned a celebration for Oct. 20, 2021. She is open to what comes next.
“It has been a very important guidepost for my life to know that I will die one day,” she says. “All life’s dances and swirling challenges are cyclical. I’m going to celebrate because I feel so proud to keep opening the boxes.”