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Scenic overlook: Artist captures scenes from northern Minnesota on canvas

Douglas Ross stands next to a painting based on a photograph taken along the north shore of Lake Superior.

WORTHINGTON -- The images that line the walls of the Nobles County Art Center should seem familiar to anyone who has traveled the North Shore of Lake Superior. Artist Douglas Ross has boldly re-created the trees, water and rocks of that scenic area in acrylic paint on large canvasses.

"We have traveled all the way up to the top of Lake Superior in Canada," noted Ross about his study of the region to the north.

Ross' exhibit opens this Sunday at the local art gallery. He now lives and works in the Twin Cities -- a return to his roots after years of teaching in Nebraska.

"I like to tell people -- because it's true -- I was born in Hollywood," he explained. "My mother was from Minnesota, the Farmington-Rosemount area, and my father was from Wichita, Kan. They met out in California, both went out there to seek their fortune, although it didn't work out that way. I started school in Phoenix, Ariz., which at the time was smaller than Lincoln, Neb., or Duluth."

Eventually, Ross' father took a job that brought the family to Minnesota and later Omaha, where he graduated from high school.

"I never liked Nebraska," he admitted. "When I graduated from high school, I said, 'I'm never coming back here again.'"

Although he briefly considered geology because of a fascination with rocks, Ross pursued an interest in history, focusing on the medieval period at Carleton College in Northfield.

"I had always had an interest in art, too," he said. "When my medieval history professor told me I needed to take a course in art history, I decided that's what I wanted to do."

With a four-year degree already achieved at Carelton, Ross went on to a two-year studio art course at the Minneapolis School of Art and received his master's degree from the University of Minnesota.

But his focus at the time wasn't painting.

"I ended up in sculpture, focused on sculpture," he said. "And then, even though I had vowed never to return, the best job I could get was at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. So I ended up there, teaching sculpting and drawing, for 32 years."

Throughout his teaching career, Ross continued to fabricate his own sculptural works.

"It was welded steel," he said, "painted with color, bright colors."

Toward the end of his tenure at the university, Ross was encouraged by a friend to take a studio space in Minneapolis, where there's a more vibrant arts community than Lincoln, he noted.

"It's in the old Northrup King seed building," he said of the dedicated studio space. "There are close to 200 artists in the building. I had a studio there starting 17 years ago, would spend my summers there. And then I took a phased retirement -- half pay but full benefits and no committee assignments -- so I could work there into the fall."

Ross commuted between Minneapolis and Lincoln, where wife Anita had an art teaching career of her own at the high school level.

"The studio was this great big empty space," he recalled about his first impressions of the former Minneapolis warehouse. "I had this big roll of photographer's paper, maybe 12 feet wide, and I did a drawing on the floor. I couldn't do anything that I could relate to doing a sculpture, but I could do a painting.

"That first painting was not a landscape," he later noted. "The first one was a painting of a wine bottle, just to see if I could get color on canvas."

While the sculptures that had dominated his artistic endeavors up to that point were all abstract, Ross' paintings are based in reality, although with a defined expressionistic quality.

"During the time I was in graduate school, very few artists were dealing with landscapes," he reflected. "It was all abstract, and I was influenced by that. Then in maybe '64, '65, '66, a new art style burst on the scene -- pop art -- with Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and it went from abstraction back to more figurative, but that wasn't really my style."

Ross found his own painting style by drawing from nature.

"I work from photographs," he explained. "Because I work large, it's hard to take an easel out there, and then if I do something like Pigeon River Falls, I'd have to hike in, carrying all my equipment.

"I use the photographic image as a springboard, a point of departure," Ross continued. "What I'll do is sketch it out very quickly ... and then lay in areas of color without looking at the photograph."

Ross utilizes both traditional white and black canvas, finding that the black fabric sometimes works as a better backdrop to his images.

"When I used the black canvas, I don't have to put paint on in certain areas," he said, referencing a painting of rapids that utilizes the black background.

Except for repairing one of his sculptures that is part of the collection at the University of Minnesota, Ross has stayed with the paintbrush, leaving his welding torch sitting in the corner of his garage.

"My sculpture was abstract -- less accessible, more difficult to understand," he reflected. "Painting is more accessible, particularly to people who are familiar with northern Minnesota."

Although he's continuing in the nature theme, Ross has recently expanded his artistic horizons beyond the state he once again calls home.

"I am doing something different now, taking a break from northern Minnesota," he said. "I'm doing paintings of waterfalls from each of the 50 states. At the moment, I have 14 done, and I've photographed 23 states."

Online research initially showed that two states -- Delaware and North Dakota -- did not boast a waterfall.

"But since then, people have found them there," Ross noted. "In North Dakota, you only see it during the spring, during the runoff.

"I've been having fun with it so far. I only ruined one pair of shoes in Pennsylvania -- all for the sake of art."

The opening reception for the exhibit of paintings by Douglas Ross will be from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday in the Nobles County Art Center, located in the lower level of the War Memorial Building, 407 12th St., Worthington. The exhibit will continue through Jan. 31. Hours are 2 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, phone 372-8245.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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