GABRIEL Ellison, who died last Tuesday, aged 87, was one of Zambia’s pioneering artists with some of the most famous designs associated with every-day life.
And yet Mrs Ellison, herself, remained a little-known figure, and perhaps not appreciated as much.
This may be largely because Gabriel Ellison was not one to blow her own trumpet or to walk in the limelight.
“She was a very private person,” says Cynthia Zukas, who was a friend of Mrs Ellison’s.
A private person, yet her works scream from the walls of many public as well as private buildings; from the hallways of State House and the sacred walls of the Cathedral of the Child Jesus.
One of her biggest mosaics can be found on the front wall of Protea Hotel on Cairo Road.
But without doubt, her most common art pieces are the national flag and the Coat of Arms.
When Northern Rhodesia was granted independence in 1964, the administration asked Mrs Ellison to design the national flag to replace the Union Jack. She also designed the Coat of Arms and other national emblems.
In the Parliament Building, Mrs Ellison designed the mace, the rod that symbolises the Speaker’s authority, as well as the Speaker’s seat.
And yet, it seems, it was the little designs that Mrs Ellison is most well-known for – the postage stamps.
For about three decades, Mrs Ellison designed Zambia’s postage stamps. To the dot.com generation, that is a small adhesive piece of paper of specified value issued by a national post office to be affixed to a letter or parcel to indicate the amount of postage paid.
Yes, back when the mail box was not an icon on an electronic screen, Mrs Ellison was the group admin who kept us connected, and her little art works – stamps – found themselves in virtually every home.
Mrs Ellison’s stamp designs usually depicted life, especially in rural Zambia, although it is said that some of her human forms actually depicted life around her, even her own maids and gardeners.
Wildlife was also a common theme among her designs – birds, beetles and flowers.
Some of the designs were commemorative, marking important events.
Her stamps became well-sought-after by stamp-collectors or philatelists world over.
“I think internationally it was her stamps that made her famous,” says Mrs Zukas, herself a great artist. “Stamp collectors all over the world used to literally queue up on the day that Zambia produced a new stamp, I mean they were beautiful and quite unique.”
So powerful were her stamp designs that they inspired one village boy who came across them to become an artist.
Now an accomplished artist himself, Victor Makashi counts Mrs Ellison among his mentors in art.
Mr Makashi also says the stamps became tools of communication because of what they depicted.
Among the people who admired her art works was first republican president Kaunda. Actually it is said that soon after independence, Dr Kaunda had requested Mrs Ellison to give him lessons in painting and that he (Kaunda) affectionately called her “teacher”.
Mrs Ellison also authored a number of books and did illustrations for children’s books.
Gabriel Ellison was born Gabriel Ryan in Lusaka in 1930. Her parents met on an apple farm in Canada and later moved to Mexico, where they owned a cattle ranch. During the revolution in Mexico, her Canadian mother was threatened by the regime and the family escaped to England with only two mules and a dog.
In 1910, the family moved to then Northern Rhodesia, her father being part of the public administration.
Gabriel spent her childhood living on various farms and mining areas. During school holidays, she often travelled back to Britain to take up private studies in art.
She later worked in the graphics department in the Ministry of Information.
Ron Found had worked with Mrs Ellison in that department and the two would travel to many countries to mount exhibitions on behalf of the government.
Mr Found though says Mrs Ellison wasn’t much of a traveller.
From 1960 to 1972, Mrs Ellison headed the Visual Art and Exhibitions Section and travelled around the world to international trade fairs and exhibitions. Their work won them a number of awards, including two gold medals in Leipzig, Germany.
Mrs Ellison’s husband, Tony Ellison, was a policeman in the colonial administration.
Mr Found, who had been acquainted with the couple, describes Tony as “very English”.
Tony Ellison had been in the British army during the Second World War and when the war ended in 1945, he came to Zambia. He first served in the mounted police unit at Lilayi before working for the Ministry of Finance.
He later became director of the Zambia State Lottery, perhaps because Mr Ellison himself was a fun of gambling.
According to Cynthia Zukas, Tony Ellison was a great fan of his wife’s works.
The couple never had any children, but Mrs Ellison was very fond of children. She is also said to have been very fond of her servants.
“If there were people who were very close and who she loved, it was her servants and the people in the townships,” says Roy Kausa, who was her friend, although he also remembers her as a moody person.
“But she had a lot of time for her house servants,” adds Mr Kausa.
Mrs Ellison also loved animals, especially dogs and horses. For years, she served as chairperson of the canine club and won awards as a dog trainer.
Mrs Ellison was not just a good artist, she was also a brilliant cook, says Mrs Zukas.
“Whatever she did, she did with perfection,” she says.
Mr Found still speaks about the elaborate birthday cake Mrs Ellison once baked for his daughter.
“When it came to catering, no-one would fault her,” he says.
Mrs Ellison was honoured by both the British and Zambian governments for her contribution to the arts. She was awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire) by the Queen of England, while the Zambian government awarded her the Grand Officer of Distinguished Service.
But Mr Kausa thinks she was still not given the honour that she deserved for her service to the country she loved.
Yes, Mrs Ellison did not just design symbols to give Zambia its identity, she identified herself with it, and her love for the country of her birth was unquestionable.
“You could never say a bad word about Zambia. She was always 100 percent Zambian. She was truly a Zambian and she thought Zambia was the best place in the world,” says Mr Found.
After the death of her husband in the 1990s, Mrs Ellison lived for years alone in her house in Kabulonga.
But she later requested to live with Mr Found and his family and sold her house.
“I think the house was becoming too much for her,” says Mr Found.
But it seems moving in with a family did not help her much either.
“She was getting more and more infirm and not able to look after herself very well. My wife would send food to her and more often than not she would give it to her servants, so she wasn’t eating well either,” says Mr Found.
After staying with the Founds for a couple of years, Mrs Ellison decided to go and live with her sister in Johannesburg, South Africa, but it is said that her sister’s upstairs home was not ideal for her and so she ended up in an old people’s home until her death.