We had the good fortune of connecting with Michael Ross and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Michael, what do you think makes you most happy? Why?
I believe in cultivating a joyful disposition. That way, when things that make you happy happen, you can fully enjoy them and revel in them. And then when sad or hard things happen, you can feel them fully yet also make it through without falling apart. Here’s what works for me: It starts in the morning: usually running, sometimes yoga. This wipes the fog out of my eyes and gets my blood flowing. It’s easier to be happy when you feel good in your body. Sometimes I say a little prayer, usually while looking out of my window onto the trees and sunrise or dawn outside. This reminds me of how beautiful the world is and how lucky I am to be in it. It’s easier to be happy when you feel grateful. I make paintings and I also work on house renovations, but either way, having a good workday makes me feel content. At the end of the day, I like to sit quietly and look at what I’ve done and think about what I’ll do tomorrow. This reflection allows me to absorb and digest what’s been done and what will be done. It is a great joy to feel like you did a good job. Nobody can tell you that you did well–you have to know that for yourself. After that, I can come home and enjoy the company of my fiancée. It doesn’t matter what we do. Connecting with her and having a witness to hear about my day, and hearing about her day, makes every day more meaningful.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Although I am a painter, I’ve spent most of the last year renovating an old house that I bought here in Athens. The house sat abandoned for five years and was neglected for years before that, so I’ve been working down past the foundation into the bare earth, rebuilding pier columns and replacing rotten structural beams before securing load-bearing walls and roof lines. In painting there are endless possibilities, so it’s easy to start a painting with a rough plan and then get caught in a trap of endless revisions, scraping out paint and trying something else. That can be really demoralizing. Carpentry requires a more linear approach: one board must be installed before another in a logical sequence that prevents the whole structure from collapsing. I’m starting to see the benefit of this more practical way of thinking in my painting: it is more clear and direct, and as a result it is faster, and there is a joy in moving through projects more quickly. Likewise I admit I often approach carpentry like an artist. I know the feeling I want in the finished house, and I know the tasks I must do in the day or week ahead, but I have no blueprints and I just have to have faith that all of the pieces will come together in the end. In painting as in carpentry, the goal is the same: to create light-filled, beautiful, meaningful visual spaces. When the house is finished, it will also house my studio, and Abigail’s studio, and be an exhibition space for our work, so the totality will be a “gesamtkunstwerk.” When the house is finished, I plan to build a large Neoclassical aviary in the front yard, so I can keep rescued birds and make paintings of them. I paint subjects that inspire me from what I encounter in the world, such as birds, trees, plant details, landscapes from travels, people that I know, or stories that resonate. Sometimes I make small paintings where I pour all my attention into a small area and finish them quickly. Other times, I make wall-sized or mural paintings, and create a more immersive, dramatic experience. Regardless of size and scope, I have to connect with the subject matter of the painting. So even when I paint commissions for other people, I include subject matter from my own experience.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
If you’re coming to visit me, we’re going on a group run with the Athens Road Runners. Here we’ll start our weekend morning early, running (at talking pace) for a six-mile tour of town. There’s no better way to see a new town than on foot at a quick trotting pace. Then a cup of coffee (free for runners but tip your barista!) at Hendershots, one of the chillest coffee bars in town, where your runner’s high will merge blissfully with caffeine compounds. But we’re still in Covid times, and it’s January, so bring your mask and prepare to freeze your butt off in the courtyard outside. The rest of the day? We’d take in the current show at the Georgia Museum of Art (the state’s official art museum), go visit my construction-site of a house in the West Hancock neighborhood, and marvel at the non-stop chatter of the local blackbird flock. If we’re lucky, we’ll see them yammering away in the crown of the giant pecan tree in my backyard, or maybe on the lawn of the neighbor’s yard, where we’ll also get to catch up on the local gossip. For a little snack, pick up some pecans, find a rock, and have at it. Hungry for lunch? Well it depends on the budget, and if I’m buying, it’s Taco Stand. Two bean burritos with hot sauce is enough to keep me going for half a day. If they’re buying? Hm. some local mid-budget favorites are White Tiger (better in the warm months, when you can soak in the neighborhood vibe from their picnic tables), Viva, or Tazikis. I’m no longer a bar person, but if we’re still out by evening, we’ll stop in at Condor for a sip of liquid chocolate. And while you’re in town: join me for a day or overnight trip to the mountains, especially if it’s late spring/early summer, when the rhododendrons and mountain laurels along the creek beds explode in white and pink flowers. The Bartram Trail anywhere from Warwoman to up past the North Carolina border is lovely, or hike up the Coosa onto the Dunkin Ridge from Vogel State Park, or really anywhere in the miles and miles of mountain wilderness in north Georgia. Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I’ll give my shoutout to the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd School of Art. It was a really tough 3-year MFA program that transformed me into a professional working artist. I learned how to balance making art with real-world career demands. I worked with a number of incredible artists and art historians, including Art Rosenbaum, Margaret Morrison, Stefanie Jackson, Dr. Alisa Luxenburg, and Dr. Asen Kirin. Through a combination of studying artists from the past and the contemporary art world and developing my own practice, I got a much better sense of my own place as an artist and what drives me in my work. After I graduated in 2016, I thought about moving to somewhere like New York, but realized this town (Athens, Georgia) is the perfect place for me. It’s affordable to live here, and as my old friend Jordan MacHardy liked to say, “cheap rent makes for good art.” In fact, I’ve been able to buy my own place here, something I never could have done in previous places I have lived, like San Francisco and Washington DC. Here in Athens, I have also been able to maintain some of those art school connections, I have found a collector base for my work, and I met my fiancée here, who is also an alum off the Dodd.
Other: https://www.etsy.com/shop/hancockhousepress is the Etsy account I share with Abigail.