Johnny Dawson-Ellis has been a swimmer, a foxhunter, a cage fighter, a rugby player, an aerial acrobat, and an artist. He is also paralyzed from the waist down and should be, for all purposes, confined to a wheelchair. That is, if your definition of “confined” includes performing on a platform suspended a few hundred feet in the air overlooking Brazil at the opening of the Paralympic Games, walking at the Riverwalk at the London Marathon, or following a hunt around on his quad bike. This is a man not limited by circumstance.
Courtesy John Dawson-Ellis.
As with many artists, Dawson-Ellis started drawing and painting at an early age and in earnest around age thirteen. However, his athleticism almost overshadowed his artistic talents, as his school teachers wished him to continue down the path towards collegiate rugby. With his typical good humor, he decided to “paint against their wishes.” This contrarian move proved to be wise and valuable to his future.
From his studio in Kent, England, Dawson-Ellis describes his introduction to foxhunting “A girlfriend of mine hunted. I was 25 at the time and having never hunted before, I wanted to know what it was about. I followed along in a car and I wanted to be part of it.” In daredevil style, he jumped into the sport. “I went off straight away and learned to ride.” He became so enamored of the sport it consumed him entirely. “I threw everything I had into hunting. I was so hungry for an education that I quit my job to focus on hunting; I was practically living at the kennels.”
His high octane attitude is apparent as he recalls one of his favorite moments during a meet: “There was a line of hedges and as I got to the last hedge, the horse catleaped and started going down. I managed to roll, land on my feet quickly and run to the back of a pickup car that took me to my horse, who’d gone on.”
The rough and tumble riding appeals to Dawson-Ellis’ thrillseeking side, but he has a deep appreciation for hounds as well. “Really, I just love the sound of the hounds running through the forest," he says, "I love to hear them in full cry. It makes my hair stand on end.”
By his third season, says Dawson-Ellis, he was itching to become a whipper-in and found a Master who would vouch for him. He was happily on his way to a career in hunting. Poet Robert Burns once said, “The best laid plans ... oft go awry.” So it was, in May of 2009, before the next season began, a car collided with Dawson-Ellis’ motorcycle. He was left alive, but with a number of broken bones and a severe spinal cord injury.
Courtesy John Dawson-Ellis.
“I had a small moment, upon waking in the ICU, where I thought my life was over, but suddenly, I was so incredibly grateful that I was still here, that I was still alive.” Then, he says, what followed were thoughts of hunting. Let us clarify: They weren’t thoughts of not hunting. They were only thoughts of hunting and of ways he could stay with the sport that had taken over his life. Once the hospital allowed, Dawson-Ellis returned to Park Farm at Linkfield for a day of following. “It was a bit of struggle at first, as I was only just learning to maneuver my chair,” he says. Since that first day out, he has stayed in touch with hunting by attending meets and following on his quad bike. He has helped direct parking as thousands descend upon Chiddingstone Castle in Kent on Boxing Day and has donated finished artwork and commissioned paintings to hunt ball auctions.
In addition to confirming his love of the sport, Dawson-Ellis says that the accident also affected his painting. “I hadn’t really been painting in earnest until after the accident. I mean, I messed about here and there, but nothing too seriously. After the accident, I began to paint with a passion that I’d never tapped into before.”
James Van Praagh, Joint Master of Old Surrey Burstow West Kent, has known Dawson-Ellis for a few years as an active supporter of the hunt. “I met Johnny during hunting, as he is often present on a day and at all of the hunt functions that take place. He is a very active supporter and enthusiast of the hunt.” Also a fan of Johnny’s art, Van Praagh owns two pieces of his artwork and purchased a commission during their last hunt ball.
“I own a painting of myself jumping one of our bigger hedges on my favorite horse. Johnny was on the landing side on his quad bike and actually took a photo which he liked so much he decided to paint it. When I saw it, I had to have it. He caught the horse in all his glory and it gives you a real sense of the size of the fence and effort. The horse is so accurately depicted! It is not generic in any way. It is an amazing piece of artistry,” says Van Praagh.
Courtesy John Dawson-Ellis.
Working on four or five pieces at a time, Dawson-Ellis likes to leave them and come back with a fresh set of eyes. “My art is a longterm goal for me. It is not a chore. It is a passion; it is a love. I’ll just get into a zone, forget to eat.”
He has also been riding. “It was completely and utterly different than before, obviously,” he says. Though his personality isn’t one to lend itself to taking slow lessons around a ring, his ultimate goal is to find a horse that he can work with in order to again ride independently.
When Dawson-Ellis isn’t busying himself with painting or the goings-on of the hunt, he finds other ways to channel his energy. In 2012, he performed high-wire acrobatics in Brazil's opening ceremony of the largest Paralympic games in history. Perhaps one of the most striking efforts Dawson-Ellis has made is toward actively walking again. With the assistance of ARGO medical technology's "Re-Walk," he can stand upright, walk and even climb stairs. It’s hard work, but it’s good for him both physically and mentally. Dawson-Ellis says of the Re-Walk, “Being on the same level as people again is fantastic.” It’s a funny quote coming from a man who is head and shoulders above so many of us.
To learn more about Dawson-Ellis' work, please click here.
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