On and of the Mesa :: Johnnie Winona Ross, Carole Sue Ross

“Of all the memberships we identify ourselves by the one thing that is most forgotten, and that has the greatest potential... is place. We must learn to know, love, and join our place even more than we love our own ideas.”                                                                                                  -Wendell Berry

                                                                                                            Snow Canyon, Utah         

As artists, and writers, we carry within ourselves a sense of place that uniquely defines and grounds us to our lives; a point of reference, perhaps, that allows for meaning and the opportunity of personal being within the larger grasp of a more impersonal world.  Perhaps place is as simple as a response to a certain area or geographic region, or a more spiritual embodiment within our hearts and minds.

It may not always be easy to recognize our need to have a sense of place, to connect to it, or even to learn to trust our instinctive desire to seek it out.  As creatives, our course so often leads to no discernible plateau of worth, or even sensibility, when we pit ourselves against contemporary norms of material success.  Surely, our strength lies within our hearts and souls.

Johnnie Winona Ross, Carole Sue Ross      Southwestern Gothic           Arroyo Seco, NM    

It's impossible to talk about a sense of place in regard to contemporary art without thinking of my friends, Johnnie Winona Ross and his wife, Carole Sue Ross.  Moving their lives and practices after many years in northern New England to the southwest United States, has allowed them to connect to a deeper sense of home and work.  They are emphatic that they will never leave.  

They built their home, PocoCasa, and workplace, Dry Creek Studios, in the austere landscape of northern New Mexico's high plain.  Johnnie Winona Ross and Carole Sue Ross make non-objective art derivative of the nature that surrounds them, and rich in an essence of the cultural history of the native lands and people.  Place is visible in the choices they have made as life partners, as stewards of the fragile southwestern environs which they have come to love, and as artists.  Their lives and works have everything to do with spirituality and heart.

Set apart from their home, Dry Creek Studio is a sweeping, cantilevered structure with clerestory windows that open to all four directions, the largest facing north and south. The building is divided into two separate studios: Johnnie Winona’s faces east, toward Taos Mountain, and Carole Sue’s faces west, toward Pedernal Mountain -- sacred mountains often painted by Georgia O’Keeffe.   Separate doorways and porches keep the spaces individual and private.


Carole Sue designs and nurtures PocoCasa’s beautiful gardens and plantings of fruit trees, sage, chamiso, juniper, aspen and pine. Flagstone walkways connect the buildings and wind around terraces and a ramada. Acacias border a seasonal pond where birds nest.

Johnnie Winona Ross

     Johnnie Winona Ross at Dry Creek Studio

Johnnie Winona Ross is very interested in the nature of painting, and in process.  His vocabulary is rich in paradoxical components that imbue his quiet, pristine surfaces with a tension of both chance and structure.  I am very moved by this.  They are strong, yet personal; formalistic, yet profoundly spiritual.

"....I look for the feeling that being in the landscape gives me, a feeling at the small of my back when I see something beautiful and consider it sacred. That's what I go for in my work, and I try to achieve that by keeping things minimal, almost meditative."     

                                                           Johnnie Winona Ross  Black Creek Seeps, 2009 acrylic burnished on linen, 36x34.5 inches

Indeed.  Traces of viscous pigment flow vertically from top to bottom, scraped back layer upon layer,  held by luminously white horizontal bands.  Ross’s paintings are firmly grounded, yet float between opaqueness and translucency.

This process of painting, scraping and repainting establishes a subliminal dynamic between counteractive elements - presence/absence, structure/freedom, resistance/release, richness/ austerity-that ultimately allows an elegant integration of romantic irony to permeate his surfaces.  The viewer is quietly entranced by his purity of form, light and the suggestion of what lies beneath.  This is the artist's process, his hand.

"....Repeating the mark, or the drip, scraping, burnishing, builds a physical history within the painting …… when you see worn stone steps, whether at an Anasazi site, or the Met, it is interesting to consider the scores of people that have used or are using the steps in roughly the same way; or seeing the keys on an old piano, worn with use. You realize that you are just part of the stream of history, a large or small part, but you are only  moving  through.”         

Dry Creek Studio 2009

Ross is a consummate painter.  His depth of experience is clear, from start to finish of each piece, as all aspects of his creative process bear the same touch.  From his preferences for particular substrate materials, to the final, meticulous polishing of surface with a traditional burnishing stone of native Pueblo potters, Ross approaches all with the same integrity and sensitivity.

"... There is a beauty in that a craft, a care, are conscience decisions being made that maybe help one to be aware of the possibility…. that the overall effect of the painting somehow transcends the everyday physical world... (This) is a philosophical choice...."

 Johnnie Winona Ross at James Kelly Contemporary, Santa Fe

Johnnie Winona Ross exhibits regularly in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, and throughout Northern New Mexico. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants, including a Gottlieb Foundation Support Grant.  His work can be seen at The Stephen Haller Gallery, New York, James Kelly Contemporary, Santa Fe; Richard Levy Gallery, Albuquerque; Barry Whistler Galley, Dallas.  He also works with Tamarind Press and Santa Fe Editions, and has a beautiful book out, Johnnie Winona Ross, published by by Radius Books in Santa Fe, foreword by Douglas Dreishpoon and essay by Carter Ratcliff. 
         Dry Creek Studio

“Nature informs my work. I spent so many years working in a place that I didn't respond to, thinking it didn't really matter much. I lived in Maine; I was in NYC a lot.  I found I was traveling to the Southwest every chance that I got.  The light, the culture, the archeology, the desert, mountains. It was austere, real, exposed, but mysterious; it was not a casual place that you just were.

"It was spiritual to experience a rock art panel that was 2000-5000 years old, that is more affecting then any piece of art that I’ve ever seen.  In 1994, I spent another year on grant at Roswell, my work really solidified, it wasn't like it really changed, it just became more powerful, it began to have that feeling of 'experiencing the rock art panel', or 'experiencing the desert', it became still, real, and a unique experience.  My studio has 12' glass doors that face a 13,000' mountain, to one side of that is Taos Mountain, the sacred mountain.  It is an unobstructed view.  That view feeds me, every time that I look up.”

Carole Sue Ross

                                                   Carole Sue Ross Tilting Series 2008, Stoneware, Pit-Fired

Inspired by the exceptional quality of light and the open horizon of the land, Carole Sue Ross creates delicate smoke-fired ceramic vessels that rely on gravity, balance and weight. She molds the shallow clay pots by hand and fires them with eucalyptus wood or sage to color the surfaces.  Her finished pieces are cohesive, visual groupings of these beautiful vessels, each taking into consideration the color, size, and direction of their respective tilting.

                                                                                                   Carole Sue Ross             Vessel  detail

"I create work that relies on gravity, balance and weight which also contains similarities and contrasts. … The process involves a traditional way of forming the clay in direct sunlight. After the walls are manipulated to their thinnest state, I scrape and carve the exterior to form an organic-like open vessel. The clay pieces are created as sculpture, without a traditional foot which allows gravity to determine how each rests on the shelf.”

I am very attracted to the fluent color transition from within the vessels that radiates throughout the space that surrounds them. Color, for this reason, as well as the sensitive form, seems central in the luminous quality and consistency of these small, responsive pieces.

                                                                          Carole Sue Ross   Untitled Series    2008, Stoneware, Pit-fired

"With the initial forming, many layers of terra sigillata are applied. This mixture both seals and leaves the work with a satin smoothness and iridescent finish. The system of working is reminiscent of the process used by early Pueblo people going back to the eighth century.  After bisquing, pieces are fired numerous times in a pit. Depending on the combustibles used - eucalyptus, sage, seeds - the resulting smoked areas ad patterns are both spontaneous and controlled."

                                                                             Carole Sue Ross   Tilting Series #5,   2008, Stoneware, Pit-fired

Carole Sue Ross’s work can be seen at Cervini Haas Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ.  You may run into her work at Cafe Loka in Taos, New Mexico. 

Reuniting their hearts and being, Johnnie Winona Ross and Carole Sue Ross achieve work imbued with glowing meditative presence, revealing the austerity and subtlety of the desert landscape reduced to its experience, of mystical aura and natural formal beauty.

Must be the Land of Enchantment.

Thank you Johnnie Winona,
Thank you Carole Sue


Diane McGregor said...

Fantastic post, Kate!! I'm going to share it on FB. And the quote by Wendell Berry is right on. Thank you so much for sharing the life and work of these 2 outstanding artists (and friends).

Fiona said...

Kate this is beautiful evocative writing and the work by these two artists is absolutely exquisite. So pleased to see it. The ceramics are so delicate and remind me of oyster shell. The paintings too have a stillness that I really love. There will be obvious suggestions of a connection with Agnes Martin but the process sounds very different and no doubt producing wonderfully rich surfaces which are hard to see in digital images. So frustrating I can't see this work in the flesh - same old problem. But I would rather see it on screen than not at all. F xx

Unknown said...

Hi Kate,

Thanks for capturing the boldness and the confidence of their move west.

I am thinking that being in right relationship to place could be an important battery and well spring of support for some of us. If the lay lines nourish, the fount is plentiful- if one is resisting the lay lines, one has signed up for a bit of strife.

The wisdom is in recognizing this and boldly acting.

Eva said...

Kate I really enjoyed the article and I also enjoyed reading about my old friends Johnie and Carole! Thank you!

annell4 said...

This is a wonderful piece about these wonderful artists. I share their place, and I have known their work, but I do not know them. So again I loved what you wrote about them! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Hi. This is many years after this post, but I am a painter who has returned to graduate school late in life and career. I was doing research on some of the teachers I had way back while doing my undergrad work. Johnnie Ross was one of them. What a surprise to see where he is now and what he is doing. Do you have contact information for him? I was going to mention him in this bio I am putting together and would like to at least let him know that.

Wonderful piece of writing.

Thank you

Kit Donnelly