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Hope: Local artist battles mental health illness and creates mural

By Rebecca J. Barnabi
For Augusta Free Press

Ellen Morris
Ellen Morris. Photo courtesy Shenandoah Valley Animal Services Center.

Ellen Morris is the artist behind the mural at the Shenandoah Valley Animal Services Center in Lyndhurst.

Morris, who holds a bachelor’s degree in studio art from Bridgewater College, painted the 70-by-8-foot mural as part of her thesis to earn her master’s degree in fine arts from Radford University.

“I wanted to create a large — family of animals to represent the loveable nature of shelter animals,” Morris, 29, said. “They’ve had a rough life, but, if you give them the love they need, they’re going to give it right back.”

She painted the mural between May and November 2021 as representations of some of the animals in the shelter. The mural serves as a fundraising and awareness campaign for her thesis. This was her second mural. Her first mural she painted was 21 by 16 feet in downtown Blacksburg during the summer of 2020 after winning a design contest.

“I love working big. I love the movement you have to do when painting that big,” she said.

Morris was born in Waynesboro, grew up in Stuarts Draft and lives in Waynesboro now. Her mother is a local middle school art teacher.

Shenandoah Valley Animal Services Center
Photo courtesy Shenandoah Valley Animal Services Center.

“Art runs in my family,” Morris said. She added that she is lucky to have a mother “who was supportive in that.” Her love for animals and nonprofits made painting the mural at SVASC a natural choice.

After college, Morris worked as a graphic designer at Wintergreen Resort.

“But I felt like I wasn’t doing my full potential,” she said. So she returned to school to earn her master’s degree.

“I learned a lot about graphic design. I learned a lot about myself,” Morris said of graduate school.

Before painting the mural at the shelter, Morris painted pet portraits.

“I just thought: where around town could I use this skill [painting animals]?”

Morris is also a face behind mental health illness. She said she wants her battle with mental health illness discussed as much as her art.

“I didn’t want to accept the fact that this was holding me back,” Morris said of her diagnosis of major depressive disorder at age 18 and struggling with alcoholism.

Morris went to rehab in September 2021 for alcoholism and has been sober since.

“After a decade of feeling this depression, I was tired of feeling this way,” she said of her choice to seek treatment.

Recently, she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, a symptom of which she learned was a history of self-harming. Morris said alcoholism brought on her need for self-harm.

She entered rehab after TMS therapy was not an option and getting a service dog did not work out for her.

“I never really stopped trying and that has always given me hope,” Morris said of her struggle.

And hope is what the mural at SVASC was all about for her.

“Because, it’s such a hard thing to find when you’re going through debilitating anxiety.”

Morris found encouragement in her art when she began a GoFundMe page to buy supplies to paint the mural at SVASC. GoFundMe donated $300 toward her efforts as part of its “Gives Back” program.

“I was so honored,” Morris said. “It’s flattering to know I have the support like that.”

She used her graphic design skills acquired in graduate school “in a new way with this mural,” created a website for the mural and painted a series of paintings to sell, from which she will donate a percentage to SVASC.

“I know it’s easier said than done when trying to improve yourself, but hope is such a powerful thing,” Morris said.

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