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Full of Grace: A Conversation with Artist Elly Tullis

By Jillian Ewalt

“Oh, Mary, please help me sleep!” Elly Tullis prayed in the wee hours of the night. After her second child was born, she was exhausted. She would do anything for a good night's rest. At some point during those sleep-deprived midnight hours of early motherhood, Tullis saved an image of Mary on her phone. 

“A few weeks later, on New Year’s Day,” she says, “I felt a frantic need to paint.” 

She handed her new baby girl to her husband and started her first painting of Mary. She wasn’t sure why she was doing it, but painting the Virgin brought her an immense sense of peace. 

That sense of peace is present in Tullis’ work, which reimagines classical Marian pieces through a fresh, contemporary lens. In early March, the Marian Library added two of Tullis’ paintings to its collection: “A Rose Without Thorns (After Ingres)” and “Ave Maria (After Sassoferrato).” To celebrate the addition of these pieces and learn more about her work, I had a conversation with the artist. Excerpts from that conversation are shared here. 

On Her Journey to Painting Mary

“Attending Catholic school for 14 years, as a non-Catholic, kind of formed me into an outsider,” Tullis says. “I sort of kept God at a distance. Still, I prayed nearly every night and in moments of crisis or despair, even through adulthood.” But Tullis’ life turned upside-down when her first child was born. Sleepless nights left her distracted and exhausted. She stopped praying, stopped painting.

When Tullis found out she and her husband were expecting their second child, she was determined to get her life back on track. She started meditating every night, visualizing the life she wanted. When her daughter was born, she started praying again. During those sleepless nights, she remembers praying a lot of Hail Marys, petitioning the Virgin for a good night's sleep. It was then that she saved that first image of Mary on her phone — a piece by the Italian Baroque painter Sassoferrato.

“Throughout my life, even when I’d turned my back on God, I felt a connection to Mary,” she says. “Even though I didn’t realize exactly what I was doing, I always prayed for her intercession.” She began to consume Catholic theology. “What did Mary look like?” she wondered. “Who was she?” Tullis’ investigation into the person of Mary started with her paintings, but as she learned more about the mother of God, she also began to learn more about Jesus and the Catholic Church. 

“The Blessed Mother broke through this world and into my life and gently turned me towards her Son,” Tullis says. “When I was crying out to her and begging for sleep and for her to help me, she did what only a mother could do — she gave me the opposite of what I asked for, and it was exactly what I needed. She woke me up.”

On the Importance of Marian Art

“A few weeks ago, I probably would’ve said that Mary’s image is an image of hope and gentleness and holy motherhood,” Tullis says. “But amid this worldwide pandemic crisis, her image is more than that. She is the ‘Queen of Heaven and Earth,’ yet she was fully human and suffered greatly. We can turn to her with our sorrows and fears in this time of crisis, and she will intercede for us to her divine Son. Mary’s image is one of reverence, humility, faith, hope, solidarity and complete trust in the Lord. Mary shows us how to live faithfully with a vulnerable heart. Her image brings us comfort.”

About the Artist

Elly Tullis holds bachelor’s degrees in fine art (painting) and art history from Indiana University. Her work was recently featured in an exhibition at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art called “Theotokos: Contemporary Visions of Mary.” She lives in Indiana with her husband and two children. More images and information can be found on her website,


‘Ave Maria (After Sassoferrato)’

‘Ave Maria (after Sassoferrato)’ is the fourth piece in Tullis’ series on Mary. She referenced a painting of the Virgin Mary by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato and paired it with colorful patterns from Otomi embroidery and crewel work. Tullis’ love of sewing and her collection of bold vintage fabrics often show up in her paintings. 

Tullis points out the diversity of women in classical Marian art: “These artists had all used women from their own hometowns as models, and the majority of them possessed those intrinsic real-life human qualities that are too difficult for us to manufacture.”

Photo courtesy of the artist.

‘A Rose Without Thorns (After Ingres)’

“A Rose Without Thorns (After Ingres),” the 12th painting in Tullis’ Marian series, is one of her more abstract pieces. She remembers being so inspired by “The Virgin with the Crown” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1859) that she painted two pieces based on his original work. Tullis notes that Ingres was a master painter, and the posture of his Virgin Mary in the piece that inspired her painting is arresting. She is posed with her hands up as if she’s saying, “Stop,” or, “Wait, this crown isn’t for my glory. It’s for his.” 

For more information about the Marian Library's art collection, please contact Jillian Ewalt at


This is part of a series of conversations with artists. Others include:

— Jillian Ewalt is an associate professor and librarian for visual resources in the Marian Library.

Photo courtesy of the artist.
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