“I always hope to suggest ‘going beyond’ the landscapes”.
E. Robert Ross is first and foremost a nature lover, channelling his lifelong devotion to hiking, canoeing and camping into realist paintings of the Canadian landscape. His inspiration is direct, his aim is to transport the viewer into the scene he has captured. Throughout his four decades long career, Ross has dedicated himself to depicting the “underlying spirit of nature that ties the landscape together with our human existence”.
Ross has aimed to make accessible what he sees and feels during his extensive travelling through the Ontario wilderness, and painting has proved to be an ideal medium for this expression. Originally inspired by landscape photographers such as Ansel Adams and the Sierra Club Photographers, his work has remained hyper-realistic, rather than impressionistic or abstract such as seen in the Group of Seven. Starting to paint shortly after his high school graduation, Ross dedicated himself as a full time painter in 1975. His success quickly skyrocketed, and the Art Gallery of Hamilton hosted a solo exhibition of his landscapes, The Wilderness Spirit, in 1978.
Remaining consistent in subject matter and style throughout his career, the one significant change has been subtle. In his early years, he was committed to capturing specific areas that he had travelled to to perfection, carefully taking every detail of a scene onto canvas. As the years went on, Ross focused more on translating the feeling he experienced while at certain sites, painting images of open seas and skies without any location attached to them. Ross shared, “the biggest change is that I’m starting out with an idea and doing a painting based on the idea”.
In depicting the Canadian landscape, he has naturally contributed to environmental activism. His love for the Earth has occupied both his recreational and professional lives, and led him to become a member of the On the Edge collective of artists who have gathered for the sole purpose of raising awareness of environmental issues. In a 1994 article for the Hamilton Spectator, John Levesque wrote:
Ross sees his art as a social mission, particularly in an age when so many artists willingly alienate themselves from the natural world with obscure and oblique ‘conceptual’ work, in which the artists themselves are the primary topic of the work.
“I want to portray the wilderness because I think it’s valuable for people to see it… In part its a reaction to the deep depersonalization and artificiality of the world around us. The more complex the world gets, the more we need this sort of art. We all have a connection to unspoiled nature because we’re a part of it. By painting these scenes, I can tap into the relaxation of it. This is what I want to do for people.” – Ross, Hamilton Spectator, 1994.
In keeping with his attempts to connect humans with nature, Ross voyaged not only into the wilderness, but inwards to the heart and the mind. His introspectives works of night scenes began with his Darklight show in 1990, with many featuring the image of the moon prominently. Paul Benedetti wrote for the Hamilton Spectator about the series, “Ross has eliminated specifics until the scenes become archetypal, not pictures of places on earth, but places in the mind”.
Ross has remained a full-time, active painter since the 1970s. Although he has exhibited primarily in Southern Ontario, his enormous output has allowed him to gain his income fully from his art making. His beloved landscape works remain iconic in the Hamilton-area, as he continues to work today.
The following oral history video was filmed in November 2018 at the Hamilton Public Library, central branch sound studio, for the Building Cultural Legacies project as part of a series of conversations between emerging and established artists, organized by the Hamilton Arts Council and the Hamilton Public Library and funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
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