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Northwest Missouri State University


Student Spotlight

Will Ellis greets Northwest President Dr. Jasinski on Northwest's commencement stage Saturday after completing the requirements for his bachelor's degree. (Photo by Todd Weddle/Northwest Missouri State University)

Wil Ellis greets Northwest President Dr. Jasinski on Northwest's commencement stage Saturday after completing the requirements for his bachelor's degree. (Photo by Todd Weddle/Northwest Missouri State University)

April 29, 2017

Art exhibition, graduation puts stamp on 38-year pursuit for Ellis

Northwest faculty joined art student Will Ellis Thursday night to view his senior art show at the Shenandoah Public Library. Pictured left to right are Stuart Robinson, Bobby Tso, Ellis, Sarah Sipling and Martha Breckenridge. (Submitted photo)
Northwest faculty joined art student Wil Ellis Thursday night to view his senior art show at the Shenandoah Public Library. Pictured left to right are Stuart Robinson, Bobby Tso, Ellis, Sarah Sipling and Martha Breckenridge. (Submitted photo)

Wil Ellis finally hosted his senior art show Thursday night, completing the requirements for a bachelor’s degree in art that he began when he enrolled at Northwest Missouri State University nearly 38 years ago.

“This degree has been a long time coming,” Ellis, 56, said. “It makes me feel great that I’ve actually achieved what I’ve worked so hard for.”

Ellis, whose degree emphasis is printmaking, showed a series of prints at the Shenandoah (Iowa) Public Library along with a drawing and a collection of jewelry he created. The one-night exhibit was open to the public, and members of the Northwest faculty attended, including Ellis’ academic advisor, Assistant Professor of Art Dr. Martha Breckenridge, who gave Ellis the nudge he needed to finish his degree.  

“It’s almost one of the greatest joys I’ve had here to see him with all of the problems he’s had through the years to be able to pull this off,” Breckenridge, who retires from Northwest this spring, said. “Wil’s an inspiration and he’s a student that the younger students look up to. He’s always there working. He helps them. He’s humble. He always thinks, ‘this could have been better,’ but it’s fabulous work. We are so proud of him.”

Ellis walked away from Northwest at the conclusion of his freshman year in 1980. He tried returning in 1989, then as a parent, but a severe back injury forced him to step away from his studies again in 1991.

In 2012, Ellis returned a third time to Northwest to finish his degree. But he began suffering seizures a year later and his attempt was cut short again when a doctor eventually diagnosed him with multiple sclerosis and epilepsy in fall 2013. He resumed coursework in spring 2014, but his health challenges forced him to step away once more, accepting incomplete grades and lacking the degree program’s requirement to participate in an art show.

“When the seizures and everything were getting so bad that I wasn’t able to finish out my classes at the trimester, I was crushed,” Ellis said. “I was so close. I was in tears as I was gathering my stuff. It was rough.”

Ellis figured the opportunity to finish his degree was spent and he slipped into depression. But, last fall, Breckenridge did some investigation into Ellis’ case. She discovered Ellis could complete his degree if he showed his art. He only needed a venue to display it, and the art faculty agreed to make the trip to view and grade it.

“When this opportunity was given to me to put on this show, it actually ignited that flame again,” Ellis said. “I’ve been up there pouring my heart out in my studio ever since this has happened. It just completely rejuvenated me.”

Ellis expressed gratitude for Breckenridge and Phil Laber, who retired from Northwest last year as professor of art, for their instruction and support.

“Both of those two individuals were two of the most important reasons why I was able to hang on and keep pushing toward this degree,” he said. “They were very instrumental, not only for guidance in the courses but also their support in my personal life.”

Printmaking is Ellis’ passion – one he found while working at a print shop between stints at Northwest in the 1980s. Ellis developed an interest in the process and associated it with his interest in making jewelry, which uses some of the same tools and techniques. Ellis credits Laber with helping him perfect those techniques.

Ellis’ art show featured a series of 10 prints that he admits are dark in nature but are illustrative of the emotions he felt after receiving his diagnosis. One print, titled “Angst,” depicts a screaming face with fingers pulling the flesh of the individual’s cheeks.

Ellis also avoided using any color in the prints.

“I used all black and white because to me black is a very strong so-called color,” he said. “With the emotions that are expressed and the possible emotions people could perceive when they look upon them, I wanted that force to come exploding off the page.”

Said Breckenridge of the show, “It was excellent. Everybody was excited. It was a nice venue in Shenandoah. It was beautifully arranged and the work is spectacular.”

On Saturday, Ellis crossed Northwest’s commencement stage in Bearcat Arena. Northwest President Dr. John Jasinski shared Ellis’ story during his opening remarks, and Ellis received a standing ovation from the crowd as he received his degree. He graduated with honors cum laude.

“The great thing I love about Maryville, in general, is the instructors there,” he said. “All of the professors genuinely care about the students, and they go over and above what they need to do to help students. They just put forth every amount of effort they can, and I love the school for that. I recommend Northwest to anybody that’s talking about going to college.”


For more information, please contact:

Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
mhorn@nwmissouri.edu | 660.562.1704 | Fax: 660.562.1900

Northwest Missouri State University
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