Tom EllisMany Lake Monticello residents have looked out across from the marina and seen a little village with a working train on a dock. Some may wonder at the unique idea, some think it’s clever, but others know it’s Tom and Kay Ellis who live there.

A civil engineer in his past life – designing water and sewer systems, treatment plants and other municipal facilities – Ellis currently loves to tinker and create. He is self-taught in the craft of woodworking and carving. Recently Ellis won second place in the intermediate category of the annual Fluvanna Art Association’s People’s Choice Award Show for his wooden sculpture Rivanna Food Chain.

“I was inspired by James Audubon,” said Ellis, who started out painting nature scenes and landscapes but discovered a love for wood. He is now experimenting with adding wood carvings to his paintings in a combined interest. His painting of a couple of geese flying in the background shows Ellis’ humorous approach as a wooden goose peers out into the painting in the foreground like a bas-relief. Another painting has a flower stem protruding in three-dimensional form. He admitted he enjoys merging the two mediums for some interesting results.

Ellis’ living room has a bank of glass windows overlooking the lake; surrounding the windows up to the ceiling is a landscape mural with carved geese flying above in the sky. Ellis points out other details of the mural, including fishermen and woodland creatures. It is clear that Ellis is a lover of wildlife and nature, and shows respect for the vast natural environment through his various pieces.

“I begin with a slab of four-inch thick basswood and then cut it up for what I need,” he said. He uses photographs of what he wants to carve as the model for his project. “I then do the layout and use a band saw. Then I begin chipping away with chisels, hammers, gouges. I use a dremel tool and a wood burning tool.” He compared his approach to woodcarving to that of a stone carver; he looks at a slab of wood in the same way, envisioning an image that starts to emerge when he begins to carve.

“Uncovering the image, I don’t know if that’s the mystique,” he said. “But it’s fun.” It takes Ellis up to two weeks to complete a project. He said once he starts, he can spend most of the day carving.

He explained how he gets the high gloss shine that makes his pieces look like ceramic, saying, “I use acrylic paint but about 10 light washes, build them up, and mix colors to get the ones I want. Then I protect it with polyurethane.”

Ellis’ house is chock-full of his birds and fish but also contains an out-of-place piece – an animated blond tap dancer. “That’s my wife, Kay” Ellis said. His wife burst out laughing and admitted back in the day she was a tap dancer. In a lighthearted way she shared the hardships of dancing and the toll it takes on the dancer over the years. She also shared her memories of growing up in a small town, attending Washington-Lee High School with her future husband, along with actor Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine. Not long after graduating high school, they married.

Sitting in the far corner of the room between the windows was Jesus walking on water – a piece he showed in the Fluvanna Art Association’s Judged Show last spring. It made a strange contrast to the dancer’s tap shoes and top hat, but Ellis’ living room is an extension of his creative vision.
“I am doing a trilogy on Jesus,” he said. “Next, I think I will have him riding the borough into Jerusalem.” But carving faces is a challenge. “Faces are hard to do,” he said. “I want to learn more about constructing them in wood.”

Ellis’ workshop is also his engineering room, where he repairs and works on his large scale locomotives for his outdoor trains on the dock.

“Watch this,” he said, then a spark of lighting and a rumble of thunder was heard. “I’m thinking of adding these sound effects to the trains.” After building everything he could build as an engineer, he said he finds it irresistible to spend time carving, crafting his wooden sculptures, and tinkering with his trains. And all of it uses his imagination as he takes an idea from “what if” to reality.

Though it is only in the planning stages, his next project will be similar to the Rivanna Food Chain, with an underwater rock scene, a blue gill, and a mean-looking pike called “Bully.”