A life where art feels so much like breathing

KATE WALLACE
THE TELEGRAPH JOURNAL, SAINT JOHN
Saturday, May 30th, 2009

For all the estimable artistic talent that might have made him famous anywhere in the world, Fred Ross has held a deep connection to Saint John and its people. At 82, the work is still coming strong, and his love and admiration of the place, its people and a glass of fine wine show no sign of waning.

In his uptown studio, the revered Saint John artist Fred Ross is making some of the best and biggest and most ambitious work of his long career.

Rumours of his decline have been wildly exaggerated.

In fact, things are really picking up. On Tuesday, Lt.-Gov. Herménégilde Chiasson will present Ross with the Order of New Brunswick, and at the gala to celebrate the artist, The Lady in Black, an exquisite eight-foot-tall acrylic, charcoal and pastel painting recently acquired by the Beaverbrook Art Gallery will be revealed.

Ross was to receive the honour in October, but he broke his hip.

“It was the sex and drugs,” he says, with his familiar mischievous, sidelong glance.

Ross is teasing. The real story is much less exciting. He tripped on a carpet in his living room, and was in the hospital for several months, a low point for someone so energetic and gregarious.

“Even now, I refer to this leg business as my setback, but you’d be surprised how many people think, ‘Oh, it’s the end of the line for Fred.’ But it ain’t that.”

The fall did force him into a nursing home, which he refers to as “Hotel California.”

“I’ve always dealt with healthy people, so now, in a home, it’s like you’re faced all day with illness,” he says in his uptown studio, where he still works three or more days a week. “But I’m lucky, I can escape whenever I wish.”
Ross moved to his current studio this winter because he needed a place with an elevator. It’s too small, and the light is not quite right, and while it feels cramped next to the massive studios he has had in the past it bears his imprint, and is full of his things: a strange old rocking horse that he has used as a prop in paintings, a charming little doll one of his granddaughters made, a small library of art books, a worn velvet settee.

“I have to be surrounded by my paintings, my books, my girlfriends,” he says, nodding at one of several nudes hanging on the wall.

Judith Mackin, a friend and former model of Ross’s, marvels at his energy. “What a ferocious fighter,” she says. “Here he is, 82 years old, and all he cares about is a new studio.”

Ross is still adjusting to his loss of mobility. Being able to walk is “essential,” he says, although no one thinks about that until they lose it. “That’s what I wasn’t prepared for.”

Fortunately, he doesn’t need to be able to walk or stand to paint, even if the canvas he is working on is more than one-and-a half times his height. The challenge of painting isn’t really physical.

“The hard road is to say, ‘I’m going to do bigger things, better things.’ It all depends on the mind, because it’s all mental.”

To complete the Lady in Black, and its companion painting of the same size, The Wedding Dress, which was purchased by Roy Heenan, chairman and founding partner of Heenan Blaikie in Montreal, Ross put the long canvas on its side and painted horizontally, working on the monumental work through the fall of 2007.

Waggish, erudite and charming, Ross’s body may be on the mend, but his intellect and sense of humour are sharp. His 82 years fall away in conversation, as he chats about books and ideas, art and life. “Unbeknownst to me, time has crept up,” Ross says.

He and his friend Herzl Kashetsky, another of Saint John’s most prominent artists, joke about the current mania for emerging artists.

“Let’s get together and start a trend,” Kashetsky said to Ross one day: “The submerging artists.”
But there is nothing fading or murky about Ross’s work or his mind.

“The way his brain works, in terms of humour and observations, it’s not like he’s an old man who had his time and now it’s over,” Jay Isaac, a nationally recognized young artist who grew up in Saint John, says. “He reads so much and he stays up-to-date about what is happening in the art world. He’s not stuck in some tired, conservative realm of art-making, he’s actually really well-informed about what’s going on.”

“He’s fun. And he usually has good gossip,” Judith Mackin says.

“He’s also the first person to take someone to task if he thinks they aren’t living up to their argument. Everyone’s like, ‘He’s 80-something, you should treat him with kids gloves.’ He would find that condescending. There’s nothing about Fred that’s 82 except his age: he still admires women and he will never turn down a glass of wine.”

She first met the artist in the late ’90s, when he and his late wife, Sheila, began attending events at The Space, the defunct cooperative gallery Mackin ran in Saint John until 2001. “You always hear about him, but you don’t realize he walks among us,” Mackin says.

Since 1949, Ross has exhibited in more than 80 group and solo shows. His works are collected by major Canadian galleries and museums, and are part of prestigious public and private collections in the U.S. and Europe.
He was named a Freeman of the City of Saint John, holds an honourary doctorate of laws from the University of New Brunswick, and is a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and the Order of Canada.

Yet, to Mackin’s surprise and delight, Ross would take part in group exhibitions at her new, upstart gallery, “even though he was miles and years and decades ahead,” of the artists his work was shown alongside.

Ross has mentored many young artists through the years, including Isaac, who doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t know Ross. His sister, a ballet dancer, posed for Ross for years, and Jay was a teenager when he began to take an interest in the artist who worked on the upper floor of the building where his parents had their antique business.

“He would always intimidate me with ideas of how to be a good artist, and I took these things really seriously,” Isaac says from Toronto. “Fred would say, ‘You have to attain honesty.’ And that one thing has stuck with me my whole life.”

They had sweeping conversations about traditions in art history, and technique.

“He was always a draughtsman, and he was always interested in formal things about making art,” Isaac says. “He was never an abstract artist, he was always a representational artist – everything was supposed to be considered.”
Alan Klinkhoff, of Galerie Walter Klinkhoff in Montreal, has represented Ross for more than three decades and shown 11 solo exhibitions of his work. He says the artist’s dedication to his hometown has been Saint John’s gain – and his and, to some extent, Ross’s, loss.

“My frustration, I can’t help but say, in the last 33 years is he should have been much better known much earlier in his career,” Klinkhoff says. “That he isn’t celebrated as much in Vancouver and Edmonton and Toronto as much as he is here in Montreal and even more so in Saint John is a bit of a shame.

“There were so many people who should have been buying his work in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s who were deprived of the opportunity because they didn’t see it, because he was showing everything down the street.

“There was this huge audience that deserved to see his work, and he didn’t care much. He was much more interested in cultivating, not a clientele, but art in Saint John and in New Brunswick.”

It wasn’t until after the 1993 exhibition The Art of Fred Ross: A Timeless Humanism, curated by Tom Smart, who also wrote the accompanying book, that his place in the Canadian arts firmament was cemented.

The National Gallery of Canada only acquired its first Fred Ross in the mid-’90s, even though he had made some of the 20 works now in its collection more than four decades earlier.

“In the collecting history of the National Gallery, they are buying work by equally as distinguished artists of his generation in the ’40s and ’50s,” Klinkhoff says. “I always found it frustrating they got onboard relatively late. Some of these institutions were blind to the significance of his work. Because he insisted on sharing his work primarily with his neighbours.

Saint John is “an interesting study,” Ross says, “because it is a seaport town and working man’s environment in one of the poorest provinces. Usually art follows great wealth to Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto. When wealthy people have bought everything else, they start buying paintings.”

The Port City has been Ross’s home all his life, but his vision was never provincial. He has travelled extensively, and reads voraciously.

As he says in Painting a Province, a 1963 National Film Board short about New Brunswick’s leading artists of that time, he would have been making the same sort of work if he was in New York or Toronto. In Saint John, he could develop independently, away from the pressure a big city exerts. “The thing about art is you can paint it anywhere and send it anywhere.”

The film shows a handsome Ross, thick, dark waves of hair stacked above his smooth brow, as the youngest of a generation of New Brunswick artists who found international acclaim: Alex Colville, Jack Humphrey, Miller Brittain, Claude Roussel and Lawren Harris. Ross’s inclusion with the senior artists of that time shows the depth of his talent.
His mentor and friend, the late artist and teacher Ted Campbell, saw it more than 60 years ago. Ross first met Campbell in 1944, as a student in his class at the Saint John Vocational School, where Ross would accept a teaching position a decade later. Campbell took the budding young draughtsman under his wing.

“He challenged Ross to view art as a vital continuum and to place himself within it,” Tom Smart wrote.
Campbell guided Ross through the composition and completion of his first large-scale work, Annual School Picnic, a mural he executed in a school stairwell in 1946, and the first of several large, figurative murals he would make.

Campbell drew the young Ross into his inner circle, including him in the creative, free-thinking scene at his uptown Saint John studio, a mecca for art in all its forms in the city. The period is widely looked back upon as a golden era in the arts in Saint John.

Herzl Kashetsky says Ross is a living connection to this storied period in the city’s past. Kashetsky would have loved to have had the chance to talk and share his work with the likes of Miller Brittain, Jack Humphrey and Ted Campbell.

“They’re history now. I can’t do that.”

But Ross did.

“He’s not only part of the community, he’s part of the history of Saint John.”

Campbell instilled in Ross the importance of drawing, in particular rendering the human form, and the value of the history of art.

“The strength of Fred Ross’s work is that he draws with paint,” Peter Larocque, curator of fine art at the New Brunswick Museum, says.

Campbell didn’t just give Ross a formal education: he exposed him to a cosmopolitan circle whose interests and influences stretched well beyond the Port City.

“Ted’s philosophy was ‘see the originals,'” Ross says. “See the real thing, because they have a magic all their own.”
He followed Campbell’s advice, travelling to Boston, New York, Washington and Mexico to see great art and make some of his own. It was in Mexico City, in 1950, where he met Diego Rivera. The famed muralist was working in the Palacio Nacional when Campbell prodded Ross, then 23, to meet the master. He climbed the scaffolding, introducing himself as a young artist from Canada. Could he make some drawings of the artist at work?

Rivera agreed.

“I felt that I was in a very important spot and I’d better make the most of it,” Ross says.

When Ross was done, Rivera asked to see his drawings, praised his skill, and signed them. Today they are in the National Gallery in Ottawa.

Ross looks back on those days with fondness, saying: “I was young and beautiful and the world was my oyster.”
While Ross’s youth held its share of adventures, including travel and study in Italy, he was not what you would call a bohemian, although there is a quixotic, fanciful side to his character.

For most of his adult life, Ross was a family man who led “an ordinary life.” In 1954, he married Sheila, a dancer from England who established a ballet school in Saint John; the couple had three children. Ross speaks of his late wife, who died in 1998, with deep affection.

“Every husband thinks his wife is beautiful, but in my case it was true,” he says. “We were a great team. We were married for more than 40 years.”

After he left teaching art at the Vocational School in 1970, to paint full-time, the couple worked in the same old building on Prince William Street, Fred painting in his fourth-floor studio while Sheila ran the Ring Gallery two stories below.

Kashetsky points out that Ross didn’t retire, that he made the decision to leave a comfortable, secure position to pursue his art full-time. And, as Ross puts it, “in this racket, there are no guarantees.”

“That was a major turning point in his career and a courageous one,” Kashetsky says.

While Ross says it is only in recent years that he has made good money, he always projected an air of success. “The most important person to young artist is collectors, and they are scarce articles.”

Ross has a particular affection for that special breed of collector who has more enthusiasm than money, but making a living as an artist is about more than being able to pay the bills by selling paintings.

“Other things come your way that money can’t buy,” he says, including the chance to meet interesting people he likely wouldn’t have otherwise, and the upcoming Beaverbrook gala.

“If I was an insurance salesman, I wouldn’t be having this much fun. I would have gotten my gold watch 20 years ago,” he says. “I’m very fortunate. If I was in any other field I’d have been put out to pasture long ago. But in art, age enhances you somewhat. Artists go until they drop.”

Ross is insulted when people treat art as a “little hobby” to keep him busy in his old age.
“To certain people art is unimportant, and that’s a shame, because it is their loss. (For others) art is like breathing. It is something essential to their lives, and they are a different kind of cat.”

He remembers seeing a cartoon in the The New Yorker showing a writer seated in front of his typewriter. “How do you write?” he is asked. The reply? “You sit in front of a blank page until little drops of blood come out on your forehead.”

“Art is the same way,” Ross says. Confronted with a blank canvas, “the pressure’s on, you have a million choices and you can only make one, you have to boil it down to one choice.”

Each painting is a problem, “and you solve the problem the best way you know how.” The way he “solves” a painting is shaped by his travels, his teachers, his art books, his environment and his past.

“So if you want one of my paintings, you’ll get a bit of Fred Ross, you’ll get a bit of the individuality of me. One thing an artist does if he’s been around as long as I have is he creates a language of some sort. The challenge is to learn the language, to understand how to unlock the artist’s symbolism and choices.”

Common objects in Ross’s work include flowers, musical instruments, ballet slippers, vases, theatrical props, antiques and the oriental rugs that provide a rich, textural backdrop to many of his works.

“All of these objects in themselves are fascinating,” he says. “Then I put them in a setting where I think they look beautiful.”

He says the still-life works are more relaxing to make than his paintings of the human figure. “I don’t agonize over them as much.”

Kashetsky praises Ross’s technical skill, the way he applies the traditional grounding of his practice to the people and objects around him, creating images that are purely his own. Kashetsky especially loves The Sleepwatcher, which is in the collection of the Beaverbrook. He sees an “exceptional spirituality” in it.

While the painting’s subjects are quotidian – an antique sofa and simple furniture, the folds of a rich old fabric draped over a chair, Sheila and one of the Ross children posing in front of the massive windows in the family’s old Saint John apartment – Ross’s compositional skills imbue the work with a transcendence.

“He takes all of these things and creates a scene with them that is artificial, and yet it is not,” Kashetsky says. “That’s image-making.”

Even though a generation separates them, Kashetsky says he and Ross, who have known each other since the early ’70s, share the idea that art is about creating images that express something of the human spirit, the human condition. Ross, he says, “has stuck with his belief in image-making” throughout his career.

Ross has seen a lot of trends and movements come and go.

“I can remember when the general attitude was Fred’s 300 years behind the times, or too stupid to realize it,” Ross says with a shrug. “Things change. If you live long enough, everything comes back. If you live long enough, you don’t have to change.”

He points to the conceptual art movement, Marcel Duchamp’s famous gesture of painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa, as a reversal in the art world.

“It made the idea more important than the finished product,” he says. “I don’t relate to that. It is what you see that I produced that you judge me by.”

Kashetsky, too, believes product trumps process. “Nobody cares what you go through to make a painting,” he says. While he admires Ross for his tenaciousness, it has nothing to do with his legacy as an artist. “It is the work,” Kashetsky says. “In the end, that is what speaks for you: the work.”

And Ross is an artist who wants his work to be seen.

“I may be in here painting a Rembrandt,” he says. “If your work isn’t known and appreciated, why do it?”
He gives his paintings very short, direct titles “because I don’t want to guide the viewer in any way.”

For the Lady in Black and The Wedding Dress, his founding concept was the duality of darkness and light. “When I met Bridget, everything developed from there.”

Bridget McGale was his model for the commanding canvas. Originally, when Ross approached her at a party about posing form him, she was somewhat taken aback. “He said something like, ‘I’ve been watching you for a number of years.'”

When she agreed to pose she asked: “What should I wear? Who am I in this story?”

They tried different looks, experimenting with stripes and scarves, eventually settling on a big black hat and a long, sweeping dark coat she brought out when the weather turned cold.

“Then he asked me, ‘Do you have a dog?'” She did, a large German shepherd who is in the painting, curled at her feet.

“It’s not really a portrait, is it? It’s me. That really is how I look, but his work is really a tapestry of his own life, even if he’s painting someone else,” she says. “It was something so outside of my life. It is me, but it is so outside of me. I can separate myself from it.”

Ross says the relationship between model and artist is quite unusual, and jokes that he can’t convince his artist friends that painting from life – especially when the model is a comely nude reclining on an antique sofa or draped over a luxuriant Persian carpet – is a chore. “See, I don’t get any sympathy. I say, ‘Guys, I worked hard! I painted for hours today.'”

These works are among the most powerful and challenging of Ross’s oeuvre – and the most sought after by serious collectors.

“There’s a tension in his work that a certain community of art admirers respond to,” Alan Klinkhoff says. “In some cases it’s a sexual tension. It’s a very discerning group of collectors. It’s a group of collectors who are not timid in their admiration of the route, the direction that some of Fred’s work goes towards. They are very much a cognoscenti or connoisseurs.”

There is no protocol for approaching potential models, especially for life drawings.

“It is tricky, because you can’t just go up to somebody and say, ‘Hi, how are you? And will you pose in the nude for me?”

It is very delicate situation, Ross says, “not as breezy as it appears.”

Often his models are friends. “If you’re not at ease with your model, the work doesn’t go well.”

When he asked Judith Mackin to pose for him, “the joke was, ‘you might feel differently once you see me naked,'” she says with a laugh.

She remembers going to his studio on Sunday mornings, walking past the genteel red brick houses and old trees on Germain Street, the only soul on the streets at that hour, then climbing the four flights to his gallery, where she would undress, and don someone else’s housecoat. She would pose for him, the only sounds his shuffling about and the warbling of pigeons.

“All of a sudden you realize you’re being immortalized in a Fred Ross painting, and it’s got nothing to do with you, you’re just the inanimate object, but to know you’re going to be part of his body of work.”

The body of work continues to grow.

“If an artist ever sits back and says, There! I did it. I can stop now,’ I think there’s something wrong,” Jay Isaac says. “I don’t think any artist ever feels relaxed in that they’ve finally accomplished everything they needed to accomplish. Fred could keep on going for another 50 years, and still be asking questions and coming up with new answers.”

Ross is, as ever, simply concerned with making and sharing his art. As for any thought of a legacy, well, he’ll leave that to the critics, the collectors and the great decider – history.

“I sensed early on that it is intangible and it evaporates with time,” he says. “If you read history, you realize there’s an ebb and flow, partly for reasons beyond your control. That’s why I never give it a moment’s thought.”

Kate Wallace covers provincial arts for the Telegraph-Journal and is a frequent contributor to Salon.

© Copyright Kate Wallace and the Telegraph Journal

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