For Ellie Grace ’19, life involves a lot of bright hair dye, studio art classes and a deep desire to create community wherever she goes. Right now, this desire has led to her YouTube channel and her efforts to kick start a Photography Club at the College of William and Mary. In the future, Grace hopes that she will be able to create community through a career as an art professor, using teaching to make others feel welcome.
Grace, an art and art history major at the College, didn’t have a linear path toward her pursuit of art. When her chronic illness — postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome — left her feeling fatigued and frustrated with her coursework, she made the switch from classical studies to her new major.
“It kind of ended up being something that I was pushed into because of my illness,” Grace said. “It was really difficult for me to do any reading or papers … I had a natural ability to do art. I decided to switch over and it’s made me work so hard. It’s been the best decision for me, but it was all driven by my illness.”
Through this, Grace discovered a passion for photography. This semester, she’s taking a class with art professor Eliot Dudik and learning about zines, or homemade magazines. The zine she created, entitled “Lemon,” is her favorite project yet at the College.
In it, she is using objects found around her apartment, such as a bright yellow kettle she received as a housewarming gift and a dish she found at Goodwill. The dish, which resembles a trophy on top of a long column, holds her lizard — Flapper — and represents something Grace said she sees everyday and sees as an integral part of her apartment.
Grace has also taken on a role on the executive board of Photography Club, a student organization still in the works. Although it has been inactive for several years, Grace said she is working with other students to clean up the darkroom in Campus Center and create a space for others to learn how to shoot and develop film.
“I didn’t understand photography before, I didn’t have a passion for it,” Grace said. “It has given me a hope for the future, it pushes me into more fields of art, because it all influences my photography. … Also, the photo program in general has a strong sense of community amongst the students. I felt really alone in academics before.”
Grace is invested in both finding and creating communities where she feels supported and can support others. During her sophomore year, she experienced chronic fatigue from her illness and wasn’t doing well in her classes. In order to connect with others diagnosed with POTS, she created a YouTube channel, DreamingofPetals.
“I started a channel to connect with other people who were feeling the same way and be honest about my life and connect with other people who were like me around the world,” Grace said. “It’s an untapped area of social networking. YouTube communities are so different from what you can get on Instagram or Twitter, it’s a bunch of people who love each other and care about each other.”
While she’s thinking about re-branding her channel to focus more on her art, it currently features videos about her life, her apartment, explanations of her chronic illness and some of her most popular videos — a series on hair dye called “Is It Worth Dye-ing For!?!”
“I think that [my channel] has made me feel a lot more capable,” Grace said. “I think that I was having a really hard time in school when I started it, it gave me something to work on. [It showed me that] I’m not bad at working, I’m not bad at doing things. It gave me the confidence that I needed to switch majors and get back on track. It just improved my life on campus. It made me shoot for the stars.”
Grace’s art isn’t just available in the classroom and online — she’s been partnering with local business owners for recent projects.
After illustrating a sign at Culture Café, where she worked as a waitress, she was approached by one of the managers at The Sideshow, a gallery and shop in Colonial Williamsburg. She wanted Grace to create a portrait of her sons. After that, The Sideshow commissioned her to design an acrylic brooch, which shows a pinup style woman wearing Santa lingerie, and is now a final product available for purchase at the store located at 221 North Boundary Street.
“I am so happy how it turned out,” Grace said. “They had a great vision from the beginning.”
Her love for the art program goes even further — she sees a link between her proposal to her now-fiancé, Flora Valdes-Dapena ’19 — and her new major. Grace proposed to Valdes-Dapena Feb. 9, 2018.
“Honestly, my favorite William and Mary memory was my proposal to Flora,” Grace said. “We would go out to the abandoned amphitheater, it was a really calming place on campus to me. It’s also right where the art studio is, and now I know why I like it so much. It was by far the best thing, finding my future life partner and being here together.”
After she graduates in the fall 2019 semester, Grace is planning to move to Richmond, Virginia, to continue working on her art and pursue her dream of becoming an art professor.
“My dream is to eventually teach,” Grace said. “I would love to be a professor. I think that in a lot of ways it is similar to my YouTube, I really love it. A professor is able to teach and create a community, and make people feel like they belong. I want to make them feel like art is possible, that although it takes a lot of hard work, that anyone can do it. I want to create that environment for people.”