Justin Ellis remembers creating art with his dad and brother, the three of them sitting on his grandmother’s floor. His dad illustrated hyper-realistic cars while his brother drew comics. Justin just wanted to become as good as both of them.
His father and brother eventually stopped drawing, but Justin kept going. He went to art school, not minding the inevitable reviews of his work. “I guess people are afraid of critique,” he says, “but I love being ripped apart and put back together.”
In his 32 years, Justin has faced some crushing setbacks. But he became even more determined to succeed. Today, he’s a full-time artist; has three paintings displayed in Truist’s headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina; and he just completed his first solo art exhibition.
His rise to artist-in-residence
After art school, Justin spent years working in retail and restaurants. But he kept drawing during his breaks. “It didn’t matter what job I was at, I always found myself moving toward artwork,” he says. His dream was to be an artist full time. “My managers would tell me to stop drawing, and I felt that in my spirit,” he says. “There’s no way I could stop drawing. I told myself that one day I was going to have an illustrated series that I can showcase to the world.”
At one point, he was working two jobs in two cities, commuting back and forth almost daily. But then he lost both jobs. And then his apartment. Justin put everything in a storage unit, determined to overcome this obstacle. He was homeless for two months, telling himself, “I need to do whatever it is, if that’s donating plasma, selling my art on the side of the road, working two or three jobs, whatever, I’ll do that.”
Art was put on the back burner while he caught up on his finances. Then one summer afternoon in 2020, he found himself walking past a boarded-up building. It was the Brooklyn Collective, a nonprofit in his hometown of Charlotte that showcases local artists. The boards protected the windows in anticipation of protests after George Floyd’s death.
Something told him to paint those boards.
That led to Justin becoming artist-in-residence at Brooklyn Collective and a gallery artist at Sozo Gallery in Charlotte. And all of that led to Truist finding out about him. And now, three of his paintings are on display at Truist headquarters.
Inspiring and supporting local artists
Amanda makes interior design decisions for Truist. When it came to the new headquarters in Charlotte, she says the conversation centered on doing something different, because Truist is a different kind of bank. A bank that cares about the community—everyone in the community. They wanted to use diverse local and regional artists whose work didn’t look like traditional corporate art.
They found about 20 artists from different backgrounds and genres. Amanda and her team requested three paintings from Justin. “I found his biography—and his work—super interesting,” she says.
“We really wanted to bring art that had color. I love that about Justin’s paintings. I also like that, because of the use of lines, it leaves a lot to interpretation. It doesn’t just spell it all out for you.”
All three of the pieces are on the 34th floor of Truist headquarters, where there’s a community center for teammates to unwind.
Justin created the paintings specifically for Truist.
Amanda says that all of the artists chosen for Truist headquarters reflect the caring spirit of Truist. “We decided we wanted the interior to feel like a warm hug, so we chose pieces that were inviting and welcoming.”
Justin’s partnership with Truist led to his next venture: Festival in the Park, an art fair in Charlotte that’s, as he puts it, “very competitive.” Truist, a sponsor of the event, supported Justin by auctioning one of his paintings. “I’ve always come to the show just one of the crowd, but actually to be a part of the experience was amazing,” he says.
An artist who’s going places, yet rooted in family
Justin now paints for a living. “Truist invested in me so I can continue to pay for my art,” he says. In December 2022, he opened his first solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Collective. Among the works on display were 25 pieces of his father’s, from more than 30 years ago. His mother’s talents are included as well. “My mom is a huge crafter, so I’ve collaged her work and my dad’s work together to create one [piece],” he says.
He knows his journey is just beginning. His next goal: to expand his artistic reach beyond Charlotte. But even as he moves on to new experiences, he will always stay true to his roots.
“My grandparents say that when you leave this house, you’re a representation of us, and I’ve always wanted to be the best representative. I’ve always wanted to be the best Justin I can be.”