When illustrator Carson Ellis and musician-writer Colin Meloy began work on their fantastical young-adult trilogy, Wildwood Chronicles, the husband-and-wife duo traced Forest Park’s boundaries onto a large piece of paper and began to transform its sites into their own magical world. The Pittock Mansion became the dysfunctional government seat of South Wood. The Audubon Society became the Avian Principality. The zoo became a prison. And when the third and final novel, Wildwood Imperium, comes out on February 1, the creepy stone skeleton of a building along the Lower Macleay Trail will become the site of a Bloody Mary–style preteen ritual.
“Some people call this the Witch’s House,” Ellis says as we pause while walking one of her longtime favorite trail loops, Lower Macleay to Wildwood to Birch, to stare up at the fern- and graffiti-covered stone. “Which is really funny—it’s actually a WPA-era public restroom.”
Ellis is a veritable encyclopedia of Forest Park history. Indeed, having spent her childhood exploring forests in Westchester County, New York, she moved to Portland in 2000 in large part because of the 5,100-acre expanse. In 2010, she and Meloy bought a house above the St. Johns Bridge, on the edge of the park. After years of collaborating on art for his band, the Decemberists, the pair began to imagine the mossy landscape repopulated with kingdoms of talking animals, malevolent nobility, and romantic bandits. The first two Wildwood novels, with Meloy writing and Ellis providing imaginative illustrations and maps, hit the New York Times best-seller list, placing Portland’s crown-jewel park in the atlas of fantasy realms that runs from Narnia to Westeros.
It seems somehow poetic then, as the series comes to at least a temporary close with Imperium, that the two recently moved to a farmstead south of Portland to be closer to a school for their seven-year-old autistic son.
The Inside Wildwood exhibition at the Multnomah Country Library is the first show to combine Ellis's illustrations with Meloy's text (and a little Decemberists for good measure). Thru Apr 5
“I’ve been back a couple times out of necessity to get stuff, but it breaks my heart,” says Ellis, wearing an oversize jacket and gloves, her red hair and fire-engine-red lipstick vivid among the panoply of greens. This is her first stroll through the park since moving from forest to farm—and a much-needed break in a schedule of taking care of a new baby (the couple’s second son was born last March), illustrating three children’s books (including the first two that she’s written herself), and planning her next collaboration with Meloy, which she can’t yet discuss.
“I wasn’t ready to move,” she says. Nor are readers ready to leave the fabulous Portland landscape she and Meloy created. As we pass a random tree decked with ornaments, I tell her I can no longer run the Wildwood without thoughts of coyote armies in Napoleonic garb and evil ivy spirits.
“The possibility of talking animals and magical trees was the thing that made me like Forest Park to begin with,” she laughs. The books just allowed her to share that world with the rest of us.
Watch a slide show of Ellis’s fairytale locations
alongside their real-world inspirations below.
This article appeared in the February 2014 issue of Portland Monthly.