Ellen Bepp was born and raised in San José, California’s Japantown community four years after her family returned from being incarcerated at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming during WWII. As a third generation Japanese American, she learned about Japanese art and culture from her immigrant grandmother who was a floral artist and kimono-maker and her grandfather, a calligrapher and photographer. In the late 1960s, inspired by the Civil Rights struggle and Black Power movement, she became involved in the Asian American political/cultural movement. In 1974 after taiko training under Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka of San Francisco Taiko Dojo, she went on to become a co-founding member of San Jose Taiko and later a co-founder of Somei Yoshino Taiko Ensemble. For her, taiko performance was a vehicle to express her Asian American identity as well as her creation of Asian-inspired ‘wearable’ textile art.
Gradually her mixed media work came to address issues of social injustice such as the World War II American concentration camps, the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings, and racism against Black, Indigenous and People of Color. Her work also reflects her interest in the folk art traditions of Asia and Latin America and led to her commitment to art-based relationships in Indigenous communities of Guatemala, Peru and Mexico as well as humanitarian and cultural exchange projects in Nicaragua, Cuba and Mexico.
Since the 1980s she has exhibited her work nationally, including at the Oakland Museum of CA, the Berkeley Art Center, the Euphrat Gallery, the Jamaica Art Center and the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art. In 1988 she co-founded 9-11 Studios, an artist-owned live/work complex in Oakland where she maintains her studio and continues to remember and honor the legacy of her ancestors through artistic expression.