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Faces & fishes: Ross finds inspiration for exhibit in pages of magazine

Anita Ross (submitted photo)

WORTHINGTON -- Instead of putting the finishing touches on the paintings for her exhibit at the Nobles County Art Center, Anita Ross has been bedridden this week at her Twin Cities home, the victim of a hip fracture.

"I'm still going to do the show," she said via phone. "(Husband) Doug is going to take the work down to Worthington and will probably give my talk, too. I'd been having lots of pain in my hip, had been walking with a cane, and they finally did X-rays and an MRI, and they found the fracture. I have no idea how I did it. I didn't fall."

By her own admission, Anita isn't a good patient -- she's just too active a person -- and she's frustrated with having to direct preparations for the show from her mattress exile.

"It drives me crazy," she said with a painful laugh.

And Anita is anxious to share her work at the Nobles County Art Center, having enjoyed the experience earlier this year when Doug showed his own paintings there. The two met in Nebraska when they were both teaching art -- she at the high school level, he at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Now retired from teaching, they share a studio space in the former Northrup King seed building in Minneapolis.

Exposed to the performing arts at an early age, Anita didn't have much experience with artwork until a little later in her life.

"I grew up in North Platte -- western Nebraska -- and all the time I was in high school, it was music and theater," she explained. "The visual arts weren't much part of that, and it was all musicians in my family.

"I was married right out of high school and had three kids. Then I decided when the youngest was in grade school that I would go to college. I went to what was then a state college (in Kearney, Neb.) and I signed up for art classes and English classes, because I like literature and poetry. So I took a double major. But the art caught me, and I fell in love with it."

After graduating, Anita taught art at a junior high in Grand Island, Neb. When she and her first husband divorced, she moved to Lincoln and met Doug.

"I taught in Lincoln for 29 years, in the high school, drawing and painting mostly," she said.

As a teacher, however, it was hard to find time for her own artistic pursuits.

"I had the summers, but I didn't even really have the summers because I got my master's degree from the University of Nebraska during those next few summers, so I was working on that," Anita said. "Of course, I was making things for that, but not as far as pursuing my own thing. Besides, we had five kids, and they were teenagers, so life goes on. I loved teaching. I loved the kids, and I had so many good kids, but sometimes I felt like I gave them all my ideas. You do that, literally, when you're teaching. They're asking questions, and you nudge them in a certain way, and they come up with this, and you know where it came from. But that's just what you do as a teacher."

When Anita retired from teaching in 1998, Doug had already been commuting from Lincoln to his own studio space in Minneapolis. They moved to the Twin Cities full-time, and Anita sought her own work environment there.

"I decided I needed not to be with anybody, so for five years I was in a studio in a different building, because it was the first time I was alone as an artist, and I had to figure things out myself, and that was productive," she explained. "I did a couple of series that I'm not too sure I'd want to hang now, but it was productive. During that time, I would enter a lot of competitive shows, getting in some of those every year."

A bout with back pain and Doug's concern over her being in a secluded environment made her reconsider sharing a studio with her artistic husband.

"We decided to get a bigger studio at Northrup King, and I moved in with him," Anita said. "I made him divide it up by putting big bookcases in between, and it's worked out just fine. By that time, I wasn't as unsure of myself, and I could deal with it if he came in a lot. We just have different styles. He paints and doesn't care who's standing around. I get so engrossed that it bothers me if there's side movement or whatever going on."

While the Rosses don't necessarily work well side by side, artistic collaboration is part of their relationship, Anita noted, with both of them providing feedback on the other's work. When their schedules allow, Anita and Doug spend several days a week in their shared studio space.

"We try to get there as much as we can when we're in town. We travel a lot," said Anita, explaining that Doug is doing a series of waterfall paintings from each state. "But when we are in town, we get there three or four times, maybe even more, each week. It depends on what we're involved in. This is our work. We go to a coffeehouse early in the morning, have our coffee, and then drive into the studio. We're at work by about 8 o'clock, because neither of us can work later. We're morning people. We wear out about 2 in the afternoon. That's my limit."

During their travels, Anita relies on a sketchbook and transportable attributes of watercolor to capture the images that inspire her artwork. But when she's working in the studio, her medium of choice is acrylic, sometimes utilizing it in combination with collage. The Worthington exhibit will contain a combination of collage faces, based on the elements and the seasons, and what she calls her "funny fish prints."

"I started with a series of collage faces, just trying to look at a woman's face in a different way," Anita explained about how the exhibit evolved. "I went to Vogue magazine, and I would tear out pieces of paper that had pattern and texture and put it together, trying to make fun a little bit of the Vogue slickness, but then looking that maybe underneath the slickness there's a whole lot of things going on in a woman's head. Then I did that with the elements and the seasons. If you look at those faces, everything in them has to do with the element."

The fish prints evolved from an earlier confinement while she was awaiting back surgery.

"I couldn't get to the studio, so I started making collages of fish, using little pieces of paper that looked to me like fish," she said. "You know how you can look at the clouds and see elephants? Well, I look at magazines and see fish. So I would cut those out, and pretty soon I had 50 fish. What do you do with 50 fish? ... Nothing seemed to work. So I started scanning them into the computer. I would do some other collages and find a little teeny section of a picture that looked like it would fit that fish and blow it up bigger. I played with the computer and put those things together as my funny fish, and I'm still doing it."

When she got back in the studio, Anita worked on some paintings inspired by renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

"I studied her, and everything in the painting was about her life," Anita said. "Then I tried to do the same thing with Georgia O'Keefe, and it didn't work as well. I don't know if it was Georgia or it was me. I got stuck -- every once in a while you get stuck where you don't have an idea. I thought, what am I doing? I'm doing faces, and I'm doing fish, so let's start integrating them. So I started putting fish into the face or making the fish have a face, and it took off from that point."

Fish have consequently become a predominant theme in her artwork, but Anita isn't sure exactly why.

"I don't think it has anything to do with me personally," she reflected. "I think it has more to do with art, with the pattern and the texture and the shapes. I grew up in the middle of Nebraska, so my experience with fish is very limited. I've always thought they were beautiful, and I've always thought I'd like to go scuba diving or something and see them in the water, but as far as anything else, I think it really has to do with that there's so much variety, that it gives you lots of opportunity to do different things with it."

Throughout her artistic fish quest, Anita has accumulated a stack of reference materials on fish, which she utilizes so her depictions of fish "can be recognized as such." But she definitely puts her own spin on the subject matter and likes to have fun with it.

"I have found that the funny fish make people smile even if they don't have a clue what's going on," she said.

For her southwest Minnesota exhibit, Anita has created 15 paintings and a block of framed "funny fish." The exhibit will open with a reception from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Nobles County Art Center, located in the lower level of the War Memorial Building (Nobles County Library), 407 12th St., Worthington. The exhibit will continue through November. 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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