If you think the days of a postmaster routine, then you should meet Mark Ellis. Mark melds artistry with career to enrich the lives of all around him. Many know him only as the man who lives in the "Peace on Earth" house, this address having sufficed through the years to direct tourists, letters and truck deliveries to his home.
He grew up in Tupper Lake, one of six children whose mother made a point of exposing them to the arts: albums of classical music placed by the record player, books filling the shelves, artwork on the walls, and close attention given to family heritage. Maybe it was her cultural sensibility that inspired thirteen-year-old Mark and his brother Bob to save a world in decline. The world they chose to save was an eight foot wide photo of our blue planet, displayed on a billboard in Tupper Lake. It was part of an advertisement for the 1967 Montreal World's Fair. The gorgeous swirling white and blue earth had remained intact for several months before slowly beginning its escape from confinement. Mark and Bob watched as, inch by inch, the edges curled up and the planet pulled away from the commercial message beside it. Two boys on a rescue mission, they snuck out one night and helped along the peeling process, finally freeing the planet from its billboard imprisonment. Victorious, they dragged their treasure home through the dark woods, remounting it on their bedroom ceiling. But the weight of the world became too much and the planet soon fell crashing to the floor.
Next it was decided to mount the planet above their parents' porch roof as a Christmas display. After a couple of years, the pursuit of other goals took precedence and the planet (at their home as elsewhere) was relegated to the attic, where it lay forgotten for many years.
Mark Ellis and his Earth decoration
(Photo —Caperton Tissot)
In 1987, a few years after Mark graduated from SUNY Oswego with a major in education and a minor in art, he took a job at the Lake Placid Post Office. Did he leave his teaching experience behind? Not a bit. Because of his background, he was designated to train new employees and lead school children through the post office on pre-Christmas tours. The following describes a typical elementary class visit to the post office.
"Want to write a letter to someone who will soon visit us and has a long white beard?" Mark asked the children. "Santa Claus!" they shouted enthusiastically. Together they composed a letter, put it in an envelope and pushed it through the mail slot. Mark had stationed a helper inside to grab the letter and shoot it back. ZOOM!! The envelope came flying back out of the slot to the children's delighted shrieks and whoops. And so the lesson began; "Why did it come back to us, did we leave off a street address, zip code, stamp?" After each correction, the envelope was pushed through the mail slot again, only to repeatedly fly back out to the accompaniment of great hilarity. Finally, the address properly completed, the letter was accepted and sent quietly on its way. What child would ever forget such a lesson? His teaching internship had taught him that you need "to draw on things that are a little out of the ordinary in order to really capture children's attention. In fact, to do that, you have to start off with a bang," he says.
In 1999, Mark was promoted to postmaster in Upper Jay where he now delights in serving over 500 residents in the surrounding community. "I know how rushed people can feel. I try to make my post office as welcoming as possible, especially during the holidays," he explains, "That's why I'm always doing something in the lobby to catch people's attention." The Upper Jay Post Office lobby is to Mark what canvas is to an artist. One time, when winter seemed long and depressing, he set up a lawn chair, a couple of palm trees, hyacinths, tulips and a sound track of waves breaking on the beach. Customers actually parked themselves in the chair while reading their mail. In the middle of another eternal cold spell, Mark had taken a vacation in the south. While there, he dug up a hunk of lush, green lawn, brought it back up north, planted it full of crocuses and placed it in the lobby window.
But special to Mark is the Christmas season. One of his earliest holiday displays was a mural stretching around the walls consisting of eight-by-ten-inch reproductions of the Christmas stamps issued since the 1960s. Another of his many displays featured a 1950s style living room, complete with overstuffed chair, aluminum Christmas tree and big box-style black and white TV playing a rerun of "The Honeymooners, Christmastime with the Kramdens."
Mark has a passionate interest in photography and has amassed a collection of vintage 16 mm films. In recent years, inspired by this, he has set up the lobby to replicate a movie house with six theatre seats, an old-fashioned popcorn machine and 16 mm projector playing classic films such as Miracle on 34th Street.
Photography is much more to Mark than collecting old films. He also makes pin-hole photos and exhibits them in shows. Plans for this year are to build a camera obscura in his front yard. This is a dark room into which a person can walk. The only light comes from a pin hole in one wall. The pin hole displays an image by collecting dots of light which are directed to a focal plane inside the room where they spread out to project, for instance, an image of the outside landscape onto a white board. Mark's construction will be only the ninth that he knows of in the U.S.
In 1993, Mark, cleaning out the family attic, re-discovered the old blue-planet photo. Deciding it was time again to focus attention on the world, he took it to his Saranac Lake home. For Christmas, he mounted it in his front yard with a "Peace on Earth" sign and the addition of a multitude of stars. He didn't realize how much the community had come to value this beautiful display until last year when an ice storm destroyed it all. A number of residents approached him, begging that he set it up again.
So, this year, Mark recreated the scene by painting a new blue planet on plywood, rebuilding the peace sign and restringing 800 feet of wire with each star-light in a separately spliced on socket. It required ladders and tree climbing to hang the wires, some as high as forty feet. Enormous work goes into making and maintaining this extraordinary exhibit. "I do this kind of thing because I think people really need it," he says.
Thousands drive by his yard on Lake Flower Avenue, spirits lifted by his display; some stop to take pictures, leave thank-you notes or baked-goods; all are grateful to the resident of the "Peace on Earth" house for his generous gift of hope for a more tranquil world.
Based on an interview with Mark Ellis. Caperton Tissot can be reached at tissot@