Story and photo by Will Geier.
Canada has a long history of iconic and revered landscape painters. From Tom Thomson to Lawren Harris, many artists draw inspiration from the great wilderness of Canada and, although their time has passed, Calgary-based oil painter John F. Ross embodies the spirit of Canada’s historic painters, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of the genre.
Ross has taken on the traditional Canadian settings, but juxtaposes these landscapes with a subjective narrative.
“Generally, the juxtaposition is born of an interest to invoke a narrative in the work and in the viewer, and invite the viewer to see a narrative that is not really obvious, but is there. The viewer can then extrapolate ideas and make their own narratives of what they’re seeing,” details Ross.
The similarities between Ross and the Group of Seven members extend past the artistic style as Ross – like many of the Group of Seven members – draws his inspiration from immersing himself into the Canadian wilderness and landscapes.
“I grew up camping, and then I got into mountain biking really early in my life,” recalls Ross. “I always have had that draw to get into nature. I spent a lot of time travelling Canada and a lot of my work references travel and the way we perceive the landscape as we travel across them. That sense of adventure into nature can really inspire the painting.”
Ross got his start while studying at York University and, through experimenting with digital art, caught the attention of the university by doing something new and daring.
Ross then decided to move out West and eventually started in the Memorial Hall studio space – a cozy and unique studio that is rented from the adjoining St. Stephen’s Church. Ross has found that, unlike the more established art scene in cities like Toronto and Montréal, Calgary’s art scene is more welcoming to newcomers. “It’s a lot more open-armed,” adds Ross.
Ross’ work is interpretive and often the narrative is left in pieces for the viewer to assemble.
“It tells a bit of an apocalyptic story, but not heavy-handedly. There’s just one isolated vignette of story,” clarifies Ross. “[It comes from] imagery that pops into my head or that comes together from a few different elements that I’d like to represent in some way. Then I construct little scenes from there.”
Often this imagery is of solitary animals and old buildings that create a sense of narrative.
“When I moved out to Alberta, I was really inspired by all these iconic man-made elements on the landscape that you don’t get out East like grain elevators and windblown sheds on the prairies.”
Ross’ most recent pieces – at 5 by 7 feet – are huge, breathtaking oil paintings that leave a lasting impression of colour, style, and narrative. The choice to go large scale was motivated by one of Ross’ favourite artists: historic Canadian landscape painter and Group of Seven Member, Lawren Harris.
“There’s a focus on pure landscape, free of symbolic imagery,” explains Ross about traditional Canadian landscape art. “I’m interested in doing something different by injecting narrative into the painting within a landscape setting. Painting on a huge scale can aid in that approach and that mission. It’s the same reason I isolate these large fields of colour: it breaks the picture plane. Going ‘big’ helps achieve the same goal.”
“It is a challenge and that is what’s good about it,” adds Ross. “Therein lies the reward.”
While Ross’ paintings may invoke a familiarity to painters like Harris, Ross has his sights set on creating something new within the genre instead of just replicating the style of the past.
“I think there is a strength in that tradition, but there is also a lot of room for something new.”