On Saturday and Sunday, November 5th and 6th, a unique interactive event named Hoopers Island First Chalk Arts Festival will occur. In partnership with the Dorchester Center for the Arts (DCA) and Kelly Ellis-Neal of The Bungalow by the Bay, the event’s purpose is to raise awareness for mental health. To appreciate how this all came together, you have to meet the artist who inspired it.
But this is not an ordinary story about an artist because Ed Krell is no ordinary artist. Even his choice of art form is not typical. Krell is a chalk artist. No, not the kind that draws on the sidewalk and whose creation is temporary, erased in less than a week by time and weather. His work is done with chalk on canvas and then sprayed with a fixing spray and lacquer that makes it last.
Like most stories about the extraordinary, it started unexpectedly, during a chance encounter at the Hoopers Island Fishing Creek post office when he praised a woman wearing ‘crazy bright pants.’ The woman was Kelly Ellis-Neal, who accepted his compliment and gave him her card. This prompted a brief discussion about art – big mural-sized art in particular.
Ellis-Neal, a realtor and entrepreneur, is a recent transplant to Hooper’s Island, where she and her husband bought master shipbuilder Jack McLaughlin’s home, which came with a 100-foot boat shed/pole barn. As an art enthusiast, she dreamed about the possibility of bringing meaningful art to the island. The impromptu meeting led to further discussions, and as Krell observed, their dreams intertwined. The exterior of the pole barn, located behind the post office on Ballpark Rd., became the canvas for the large chalk mural and blended Krell’s visionary, vibrant, psychedelic colors with images of Hoopers Island living.
The response to the unveiling of the mural surprised everyone. Soon people were stopping to take pictures with and of the mural, and a decision had to be made to have it lit at night. The mural also gained landmark status, and the unexpected notoriety became the impetus and started the ball rolling on the festival, changing the life of a man who was used to life changes and hardships, one of which included homelessness.
If you ask, Krell will say he’s been doing art his whole life; you might even have admired his black-and-white architectural precision drawings. He will also admit he had to take two to three years off due to an injury. What he may not tell you is that the injury led to 11 reconstructive surgeries, including a nerve transplant.
The injury cost him the use of his right arm, which also had to be fused to his side for a period of time. “I was always the guy with the megaphone in front of the crowd. And then, I had to ask people for help. It was very humbling.” Krell will admit he went into what he describes, as a dark place, emotionally and physically. Whatever he once aspired to be, the former right-handed artist was gone.
Krell credits a friend–nicknamed ‘81’—who encouraged him to start drawing again. “Draw with chalk on the floor,” ‘81’ told him. And Krell did, and then erased it and started all over again. Until he got bored and started drawing on walls and ceilings, and when he ran out of space, he started working on canvas. Then it became an even greater obsession. He found himself drawing every day, all day. And he got really good.
Krell calls it his ‘art groove.’ “Once I’m making really good art,” he says, “everything happening around me has that same vibe. It’s like I’m on fire. When I met Kelly that day, I was really on fire.”
That spark continued to grow as the collaboration expanded. “We started meeting more people who were interested. Musician Jon Jacob let Melissa Cooperman (DCA’s Community Arts Coordinator) know about me, and then John Lewis (DCA’s board member) got involved. Then there is Marianne Styles and her husband, Robert. So many doors were opened.” Suddenly the black and white right-handed artist found his art groove in his left hand, making colorful pictures of boats, crabs, and bridges.
“And then, of course, I burned it,” Krell added.
That’s correct. He would burn his paintings once he was done. “Not being a taught artist, I learned everything by trial and error. There’s nothing like an epic fail to teach you. Even when people wanted to buy it, it went into a campfire since I needed the wood to make my next one. I did what I needed to learn. So now let’s do it again, but better.”
Nowadays, he’s not allowed to burn his pictures. Krell’s partner Paul Ellwood ensures he doesn’t do that anymore, among other things. Ellis-Neal credits Ellwood for keeping them all organized. “This has become something bigger than one person can handle. If it wasn’t for Paul, keeping us on track, we couldn’t have come this far.”
Where Ellwood is the glue, ‘81’ is the reason why the festival is dedicated to mental health awareness. The last exhibit he did at DCA in July was called the “Story of 81” as a tribute to the friend who helped Krell during his recovery. But ‘81’ had his own difficulties, wrestling with schizophrenia and people’s misconceptions about the disease. He succumbed to mental illness in 2020 at the age of 24. Through his art, Krell wants to give a voice to anyone who is struggling. In that way, he also helps ‘81’s mother keep her son’s memory alive by opening up channels of conversations about her son’s disability.
“We’re keeping a mental health awareness kind of mantra and dedicating this project to helping out the moms and families, the caregivers, and the first responders. Anyone we can get involved to make them aware that some people out there are a little bit different, you know, and that’s OK.”
For the Chalk Art Festival, the mantra has developed into a slogan — Healing waves one chalk line at a time. “I believe that water heals. I believe art heals if we just listen to each other,” says Krell. “So I want everybody just to come and have a great time.”
DAC and all the people involved are dedicated to making this happen. Besides art and food vendors, there will be live music and other forms of entertainment, including a band of chalk artists from California, known as Chalk Mafia (https://www.facebook.com/chalkmafia/), chalk art workshops for all ages, led by Lori Antoinette of LAntArt (https://lantart.wixsite.com/lantart), as well as an opportunity for kids to learn how to draw their own cartoon character.
The two-day event is free, and Krell is humbled and grateful for the experience and support. But he is more interested in knowing that his art does something good for the world. “I want that, at the very least, it starts a conversation. My art allows us to create a space and openness for an honest dialogue.” He paused then and added. “I’m just getting started in this whole adventure. I wonder what it will be like a year or two down the road?”
Hoopers Island First Chalk Arts Festival will take place on November 5th and 6th from 11 am to 4 pm at 1125 Ballpark Rd, Fishing Creek, MD. For more information about the festival and the artist, go here. (https://edkrell.art/chalk-art-festival).
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.