AXTELL — For Savanah Ellis, May 7 is opening day. That’s when she will unveil her artistry on the basement walls at First Presbyterian Church.
Her deft hands and her paintbrush have transformed that room into a tapestry of Mother Nature, with a woodland scene, visions from the sea, a snowy mountain peak and Calvary, with Christ’s garment fluttering from an empty cross on a lonely hill.
A sketch of the Last Supper adorns the wall over the counter where church suppers were once served. Small Bible verses dot that wall, too.
“My goal, always, is how can I reach people through my art?” said Savanah, a junior at Hastings College who hopes someday to be an art museum curator.
She was approached in February 2021 about sprucing up the church basement by her brother, the Rev. Logan Ellis, pastor at the church. The church had received a grant from the Nebraska Presbyterian Foundation for a project connected with community engagement.
Initially, the church governing board (the session) had requested funds for a new outdoor playground to be used by Wyldcatz, the church’s community after-school program for grades K-6, “but the foundation told us to dream bigger, so we thought, ‘Let’s take this basement space and transform it.’ Axtell doesn’t have a great place for kids to gather. We wanted to create a space for kids, where they could play and enjoy activities,” Ellis said.
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Envisioning an idea
It was a promising idea, but that church basement was cobwebbed and full of boxes. Dug by church members around the time the church was founded in 1883, it was the site of potluck suppers and children’s activities until the church built an addition south of its sanctuary several decades ago. The basement had to be cleaned out before Savanah could begin painting. “Don’t let him fool you,” she said. “It was a mess.”
Ellis sat down with his sister and envisioned what she might create. They first talked about four separate murals, one on each wall, “but I said, ‘I’m going to create a whole model,’ and when I told Logan, he was enthusiastic,” Savanah said.
She spent seven hours creating a tabletop model of what she envisioned. It was quickly approved by the session.
At last, the space cleared, Savanah purchased $500 worth of indoor house paint and supplies from Menard’s. “The nice thing about the walls was they didn’t require a special paint. We had to prime them, but that’s normal,” Ellis said — even though covering those periwinkle walls with a white base coat was a chore.
Finally, last May, Savanah covered the floor, raised ladders, opened the cans of paint, dipped her brush into the paint and got to work.
She worked at her own pace, four to six hours some days, and 14 hours straight other days, mostly weekends. “It’s hard for me to leave a project. I want to get it all done. I’d get in the groove and I’d keep working. It wasn’t best for my physical or mental health, but it’s what I do,” she said. “As an artist, that’s who I am.”
She worked around her summer job at the Beaver City pool, and she took a month off after the family dog died. “I was really sad. I couldn’t paint,” she said.
In August, when classes at Hastings College resumed, her painting resumed, too. She painted primarily on Saturday nights and Sundays.
As she painted, children would come down and watch Savanah create mountains and the ocean and the brook in the woodlands scene. “The kids watched it unfold step by step,” Ellis said. “It was awesome to watch their different reactions.”
Savanah made alterations as she painted. She restarted the first scene three times. She changed the background twice. The painted trees “weren’t working, but on the third try, they clicked,” she said.
The woodland scene had no animals at first. Then, on a whim, she added a bunny. As she looked at it, she said to herself, “I think it needs a friend,” so she painted a second bunny.
She has an online pen pal in the Dominican Republic, and he has informally adopted that bunny as his buddy. There are a few “hidden messages” in the project, too, which she did not divulge.
“I’m happy with it, considering the scale and size. A few things could’ve been done better; I may come back and re-do them in five years,” she said.
She also produced a four-minute video of the project from start to finish.
Desire to create
Savanah, of Beaver City, has been creating artwork since she was a child. In the fourth grade, she made weaver bowls out of yarn wrapped around rope. She was assigned to create just one basket, but she made about 15 — so many that the next year, the art teacher asked her to help others. She also spent many hours in the art room at Southern Valley High School, from which she graduated in 2017.
She did her first mural in collaboration with another high school student. She painted a pumpkin patch in Beaver City and a mural at the Oxford Theater there. She did a mural of shipwreck and the famous Great Wave at the pool in Beaver City.
In Hastings College, she did a unique mural on the floor of the Black Box Theater at the request of a friend, a drummer who did his senior music recital there.
“He came to me and said, ‘I have this idea.’ I did four murals, but put them together as one big mural called the Burst of Life,’” she said. She worked on that floor for 40 hours over just three days.
“I woke up at 9 a.m. and got to the theater at 9:30 a.m. I didn’t take any breaks. I had to get it done,” she said. She worked 14-hour days without a break. “At 2 a.m. I went home, ate tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, took a shower and fell asleep at 4 a.m. The next day, I’d do it all over again.”
“Everything hurt. I was so sore, but it has a special place in my heart, even though I knew after his recital it would be painted over,” she said. “I always go above and beyond. I always say, ‘I’ll do it,’ and then I do more than I anticipate.”
The basement walls will likely win raves from the community, but Savanah’s art must also pass muster with the faculty at Hastings College, where she is in the Honors Program. Honor students must do what’s called a capstone project, a major year-end undertaking, so she will also have an art show titled Sonder in the church social hall next weekend.
From 3-6 p.m., visitors can see her paintings from 2016 to the present. They include her family home in Beaver City, the church, human figures, flowers and more. She will speak about her work at 4 p.m. At 6 p.m., an open house begins for the Hastings College community, with a presentation at 7 p.m.
“Sonder” is a noun that means “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complete as your own,” she said. “I want people to think about that in their own way as they see this exhibit. This is not a universal exhibit. Everyone has something special about them. They are the main character in their own life.”
Ellis’ diverse interests are as rich as the color on the church basement walls. She’s fascinated by South Korea and its art, too. She’s double-majoring in studio art and international relations, with a minor in history. While she hopes to become a museum curator, “I would love to do museum installation work someday, too,” she said.
Savanah will spend the summer with her sister in Omaha and work at The Upstream Brewery in The Old Market. In September, she will travel to the seaside village of Lahinch in County Clare, Ireland, which has a sister program with Hastings College. During her two months there, she will paint — what else? — a mural.