Vibrant collection of Pritzker alum and retired faculty celebrates Black artists, community

For John E. Ellis, MD’82, retired faculty and member of the Alumni Board executive committee, his collection of Black artists' work is therapeutic.

The boy, stylishly dressed in aviator sunglasses, a tracksuit and sneakers, leans against a barrier outside the Loew’s Theatre in Harlem in a 1976 Dawoud Bey portrait. Another image, taken by Kwame Brathwaite in 1965, shows women and boys crowding a convertible at a parade celebrating political activist Marcus Garvey.

For John E. Ellis, MD’82, the photos are therapeutic.

“Some works are simply beautiful, others help me reminisce, some are matters of cultural pride, others are inspirational,” said Ellis, retired faculty at the University of Chicago’s Department of Anesthesia and Critical Care and an Alumni Board executive committee member. “I also like helping to support careers, especially those of younger emerging artists.”

Since moving to Hyde Park 47 years ago to enroll at the Pritzker School of Medicine — where he was the only Black student in his graduating class — Ellis has amassed more than 130 pieces of contemporary art by Black creators, primarily photography.

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He also became an arts ambassador. Today, he heads the board of directors of the Hyde Park Jazz Festival and he is a board member at the Smart Art Museum. Recently, the 66-year-old served as a juror at UChicago’s Arts + Public Life, an initiative that provides artist residencies, education, programming and exhibitions.

And he made a promise to the Art Institute of Chicago: the Kwame Brathwaite parade photo, loaned to the museum last year for an exhibit, one day will reside there.

From New York to Chicago

Raised in Queens by a family that valued the arts, Ellis’ first love was the stage. He acted regularly in plays while attending The Hotchkiss School, a boarding school in Connecticut, while preparing to enter Harvard University.

As a college sophomore studying biochemistry, Ellis appeared in “Simple’s Harlem,” a production based on Langston Hughes’ short stories, but he gave up acting to focus on academics.

In 1977 at age 19, Ellis enrolled in the Pritzker School of Medicine, which he chose for its “record of producing physician scientists.” (Ongoing progress to diversify medical education has been gratifying: “It’s amazing to me to see how many African-American residents and attendings are at the University of Chicago now,” he said.)

After a residency at the University of Virginia, Ellis returned for a fellowship with Michael Roizen, MD, then Chair of UChicago’s Department of Anesthesia and Critical Care.

Impressed by the breadth of research and advanced technology, Ellis joined the faculty in 1987 as a cardiovascular anesthesiologist, where he helped to create one of the first electronic records platforms for anesthesiology patients.

“It almost became the de facto pre-op note for the surgical residents — before there was Epic and all this stuff,” said Ellis, noting that the effort predated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

Cultural connoisseur

Amid the demands of medicine, Ellis stayed drawn to Chicago’s art scene.

He joined a young professionals group through the nonprofit Urban Gateways, where members would gather at the homes of established art collectors — including James Jones, MD, UChicago’s first Black physician granted admitting privileges.

A visit to the Isobel Neal Gallery in River North prompted Ellis to purchase his first work by his favorite artist, Roy DeCarava. The black-and-white photo of four boys on the fire escape and steps of a brownstone in 1950 captivated Ellis with its rich tones.

Decades later, he bought another DeCarava at a fundraiser for former President Barack Obama.

Chicago names are prominent in Ellis’ collection. Among them are Bey, a professor at Columbia College Chicago, and Amanda Williams, whose series “Chicago Is Iraq?” is represented. Both artists have been awarded the MacArthur Fellowship.

Supporters like Ellis are vital for their “commitment to supporting Black artists early on and developing relationships,” said Williams, a UChicago Laboratory Schools graduate. Her first solo museum exhibit, in 2017 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, was co-sponsored by Ellis.

Vivid, meaningful collection

Art lines the walls at Ellis’ sun-drenched 38th-floor apartment overlooking Jackson Park and Lake Michigan.

A corner of his living room is vibrant with a painting by Chicago-based Caroline Kent, flanked by “Chasing Snakes in the Grass” by Duhirwe Rushemeza and a Patrick Alston piece that invokes the “colors and abstraction one sees in graffiti,” Ellis said.

Bey’s photo “Couple in Prospect Park” is part of a hallway display near “Untitled (Altar No. 10),” a graphite-on-paper work by Nate Young of Chicago.

Ellis’ collecting style is simple. It comes down, he said, to buying pieces that “are meaningful to me.”

Ellis retired from practicing medicine in 2008 after his second surgery for cervical myelopathy. Between developing a continuing education platform for anesthesiology professionals and teaching, he continues to invest in art.

A work’s future valuation doesn’t drive the pursuit, and he has not sold a single acquired piece.

“I never tire of seeing the works that I have in my home,” Ellis said, with a smile.

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