The Handshake Interview with Ken Ellis
by Shannon Milliken / Art by Ken Ellis / Photography by Kevin Kane
If you have ever been to Chicago’s Ukrainian Village bar and bastion of cool, Rainbo Club, then you may know Ken Ellis. With his impeccable selections in music and reliable drink slinging, the night always seems to go better when Ellis is at the helm.
If you have not seen Ken Ellis, then you may have seen his art. The man behind the bar is also the man behind the elaborately stitched quilt paintings displayed every October in the club. For this interview, I met Ellis at his home in the Near West Side neighborhood, where he waxed nostalgic on Rainbo Club lore, his days as the unofficial Punk Rock sheriff, and how he keeps himself coming back to making art. – Shannon Morley Milliken
The Handshake: Let’s start with your anniversary show at Rainbo Club.
Ken Ellis: It was a retrospective. I have actually been showing my work at Rainbo for the past twenty-five years every October. So I did one new piece for that show, and then I showed a group of pieces that I have shown in the past twenty-five years.
It was good. I got to see pieces I hadn’t seen in years because people who had purchased them in the past brought them in for the show. The pieces are like my kids. I’m telling you, I spend a lot of time with them. We get to know each other well.
HS: Your art has been the backdrop of many good memories.
KE: Yeah. They even used some of it in the backgrounds of High Fidelity. John Cusack and Lisa Bonet sit on the back couch and my art is right there.
HS: How long have you been at Rainbo?
KE: Since it opened. Dee [Taira] and Gavin [Morrison] opened the place. We just had our twenty-fifth and the whole place’s seventy-fifth anniversary.
It’s so strange now, because we have kids coming in that weren’t even born when we first opened up, especially on the weekends. You can tell how young a person is by what they’re drinking. A lot of the young cats will order whiskey sours or Long Island ice teas. You can just tell they just turned twenty-one years old. We’ve never really been known for fancy drinks. Some people get mad at me when I say we don’t do vodka and Red Bull. We’ve also got our seasoned drinkers, though, who just prefer their scotch on the rocks or scotch straight up and beer.