BY RYAN WELLICOME
Artist John Ellenberger, also known as Little John, uses guns to create works of art; the kind of guns that don’t shoot, but spray.
Ellenberger is a an airbrush artist that has been perfecting his craft for almost four decades and his expertise is what led the City of Lacombe to employ his ‘guns’; to work on some of the City’s murals. He said when creating his artwork he attempts to share something real with the viewer.
“I try to make a story out of the painting,” he said.
Ellenberger is the talent behind some of the City’s murals, in particular, the children’s mural at the Gary Moe Auto Group Sportsplex’s outdoor water park. He is currently redoing the nighttime mural just off of 49B Ave.
He has been under contract with the City for approximately two months and has spent many hours on the mural. He was originally contracted to complete touchups on the lettering and buildings along with filling in any faces in the mural.
“They basically wanted me to bring it up to par,” he said.
A contractual amendment to redo the nighttime mural was then proposed. Ellenberger accepted.
He has completed extensive artwork on murals and and motorbikes across the country, from Ontario to Alberta. A sign painter by trade, his works have blanketed the halls of schools, sides of water towers, and interiors of science centres and grocery stores with bold, colourful landscapes and detailed scenes of history.
One such artwork was commissioned at an elementary school in Sudbury, Ontario.
Ellenberger filled the hallways with scenes of Canadian history that held particular significance. His employers saw educational importance in this work and wished to use it to teach history classes.
A self-expressed favourite of his is a portrait he created of a blacksmith in Pembroke, Ontario. The portrait brings to life a blacksmith shop with the smith hammering away while a girl peers in through a window. The piece is reminiscent of Lacombe’s own Blacksmith Shop Museum.
Ellenberger has brought motorbikes to life using the unique blend of glowing colour and smooth texture in his artwork. His motorcycle designs have included lifelike portrayals of eagles, wolves and lions. Even clowns busting out of gas tanks and fenders; if you can dream it, it seems he can do it.
Although this is how he makes his living, most of these works are specifically commissioned and they just, “Pay the bills”.
In his creative canvas artwork, his true passion lies – his art, his rules. For his personal projects, Ellenberger prefers to create scenes that are, as he explains it, surreal. Visuals that can coax the viewer into a state of reflection.
One such piece is of a young Indigenous man peering into a reflective pool; staring back at him is the reflection of a chief in his traditional dress. The piece and its meaning are a poignant, yet subtle commentary on some of the issues surrounding Indigenous culture today.
“You look in the water and reflect on what happened, or what could have happened,” he said.
One of his pieces is the result of 15 photos being stitched together. The scene is a landscape of a lake from his roots in Petawawa, Ontario.
His passion for art began when he was a small child; nine by his count. He received one of well-known television art show host Jon Gnagy’s Learn to Draw kits for Christmas, from there he said it just took off.
Ellenberger attended Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario in the late 1970s and graduated from a commercial arts course at Assiniboine College. In his earliest days in college, he explained there were few choices for art students.
“There was a hallway with two doors, one on either side. One was the program I took and the other was animation. I chose the wrong one,” he said. “I could have been working for Disney.”
For many years, he bounced back and forth between Ontario and the prairie provinces, running paint shops and completing murals until, in 2008, he settled in Central Alberta.
Ellenberger came to Alberta because, as he puts it, “Ontario was dead.”
The year 2008 was near the height of Alberta’s oil boom and much of the money in Canada’s economy came through Calgary<span class="Apple-converted-space