“So did you paint this?” I ask Arrow Ross, pointing toward a heavily layered piece that resembles Jerry Garcia.
With a twinkle in his bright blue eyes and a thumb fumbling his signature rainbow suspenders, the 80-year-old photographer and ceramist is clear. “No, I am not a painter,” Ross clarifies. “That’s a painting from a friend of mine, Sergej Andreevski, from the No Boundaries Art Colony.”
Ross points to a mixed-media creation as his own self-portrait. However, Ross is most well-known as a Wilmington photographer. The Arts Council of Wilmington and NHC will celebrate his 25 years in Wilmington as part of “RETRO,” opening Thursday, May 23. Ross will cram 60 photos onto three walls in the gallery’s small space.
“They’re all put together as an 8-foot-wide collage,” the Denmark-born artist tells, arms outstretched in animation. “The big prints are 16-inches-by-20-inches and go together so it becomes huge.”
The photographs will include stark black and whites from his days living in the Ozarks in the ‘70s with seven families on a hippie commune. He also will showcase time spent capturing the everyday life of a small village in Macedonia in the ‘90s, plus his travels in the 2000s to India with local philanthropist Paul Wilkes who built Homes of Hope, an orphanage and school for young girls.
Seven books Ross has made of his photography will be on display and available for purchase as part of “RETRO,” which also feature photos on the walls. And, in light of his five-year love affair with pottery (he’s been taking classes at Cape Fear Community College), some of his ceramics will be on display, including interesting shaped bowls, large towers and even a bench being held up by birds.
“But this stuff isn’t for sale,” he clarifies of his pottery. “They’re my personal pieces, so the emotional price is worth much more. While photography is seeing and capturing a moment or action, with a piece like this, you get a lump of clay and say, ‘What now?’ And I just let my fantasy run loose.”
Ross made his living from behind a lens all of his working life. It began in youth when his sister found a box camera in the forest and gifted it to her brother. At 15 he began a four-year apprenticeship under a Danish photographer, and would run errands, sweep floors, and do whatever was asked of him. Ross wanted to move up the ladder and actually help in the studio.”
It was equivalent to a BA,” he notes. “When the apprenticeship ended, I was trying to get to America and I couldn’t get in, so I ended up in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, with a job at a newspaper.”
It was during the country’s apartheid state, with police and politicians controlling everything. Ross worked with journalists to document the political upheaval. “And then I got fired for Communistic activity,” he tells, “which was asking for overpay.”
He moved on to England and worked in a museum photographing artwork for catalogues before hitchhiking across multiple continents—back to Africa, through the Middle East and home again to Denmark. He began working for an artist who was obsessed with Nordic art.
“He was mad because in Southern Europe they said Nordics didn’t have art of their own,” Ross tells. “So, for a couple of years, a French photographer and I traveled to all museums and documented Nordic art for art books.”
Along the way, Ross was married and divorced, and still desired to get into the United States. So he called an au pair he met back home, who he knew had gone to New Orleans to work for a family. He hoped she knew photographers who would take Ross on for a three-month work visa. As luck would have it, he ended up at PBS in their new film department.
“They needed someone who could do a combination of film and still photography,” Ross says. “So they asked: ‘Do you do film?’ I said yes—because in America you can lie. So I worked with a photographer and learned how to cut 16mm film, and for two years I was there. But I was in a union, and a technician took a strike for a pay raise. New Orleans only paid half of what the commercial rate was. After two weeks, they hired nonunion crew and our union did nothing.”
So off to Hollywood Ross went. He began working on a small indie film, “The Perfect Arrangement,” funded by the mother of the director/lead actor. “Film is film, and it was quite an experience,” he reflects. His work in the industry was short-lived, and in 1968 he decided he wanted a simpler life in the country. Ross moved to the Ozarks to live on a hippie commune with seven other families; while there he was married and raised his children. “It was good when the kids were there,” he explains. “But when they went off to high school and left, all us divorced people left, too, and it died out.”
Photos of the time period show women giving birth, men building structures, and family celebrations and weddings, including Ross’ own. In 1992 his ex-wife moved back to her home in Raleigh, NC, with the kids in tow. Ross followed and shortly after met an art dealer who turned him on to Wilmington, NC’s beaches. After visiting and meeting artists at Acme Art Studio (“the artists’ country club,” as Ross calls it), he made the move southeast in ‘94. Ross bought a dilapidated house on 5th Street next to Acme for a mere $8,000 and renovated the historic home himself over the next few years. By this time, Ross was making a living doing weddings and portraits, while also feeding his artistic side.
The arts council gifted him grant money to do 15 portraits of local creatives. Pictures of Thalian Hall’s executive director, Tony Rivenbark, Cucalorus Festival executive director Dan Brawley, jewelery artist and entrepreneur Mitzi Jonkheer, and other ILM notables will come full circle as part of the collage on display in “RETRO.”
Also on display will be the transition Ross made into digital photography during the mid-‘90s. Ross began treating his photos much like mixed media, often taking pictures of himself in various positions, manipulating them in Photoshop and inserting them into other photos. For instance, “Red Room” features two doors and a hand reaching out, as Ross is entering and exiting in the same space. The outcome dances in surrealism and prompts intriguing questions of self-examination and societal examination. “A photograph never lies?” Ross asks rhetorically. “But what about today? You can certainly make them tell the story you want them to tell.” It’s a far cry from his darkroom days, where black and white was the rule of the roost. Ross misses the magic of developing film—and especially the smell.
“The chemical baths in a closed room and the picture emerges and comes to life before your eyes,” he describes without hesitation. “Grey tones, then black, and you start seeing the image, and in the three minutes it takes to develop the piece of paper, rocking it … it’s mystic.”
Ross is no longer interested in photography; he says he has stretched the envelope. He’s starting to feel the same about ceramics, too. Yet, it doesn’t mean he wants to stop learning. As of now, he hopes to explore new forms of expression. Once “RETRO” is over, he will sojourn to the Ozarks for an annual camping trip to visit families he shared time and space with during the most wonderful days of his life.
“I’m looking for my new passion,” he expresses.
“Who knows? Maybe you will be a painter before it’s all said and done,” I suggest.
“I don’t know … maybe.”