Canada’s Rembrandt of the North is represented well at the Thunder Bay Museum in the show, Susan Ross: From the Lakehead to the Arctic. Accompanying Ross’ works are paintings and drawings by other artists she knew well and had influence upon, including her active nephew, Patrick Doyle. Available in the Museum’s shop is a wonderful book in hard and soft cover by the prolific James R. Stevens, titled, Ten Generations, Then an Artist: The Susan A Ross Story.
With loving attention to detail Ross had the ability to capture those emblematic and small moments of humanity where words go unspoken. The ability to do this has always made for great art. It includes the ability to draw and paint, but paramount to begin with is the interest, the moral and empathic ability to see the value in what people share between each other, even in quiet repose.
Although often sad and sentimental, the beauty of her subjects are captured with a deft handling of various tools. Whether with a stylus for her etchings, a piece of charcoal or graphite for her drawings, or a brush for her paintings, Ross’ approach was to use a certain degree of spontaneity to capture the detail without getting caught up in it. She trusted in her abilities and allowed what was before her to speak. The subject is what she focused on, not herself or commitment to artistic ideology, but the people she clearly loved and respected.
Ross’ etchings are exceptional. And comparing her works to that of Rembrandt’s or the 19th Century French artist, Honoré Daumier is not done lightly. Rembrandt captured some famous sentimental moments, but Daumier’s is a little closer to home. Daumier’s love of the poor and hatred of the rich got him into trouble quite often, even kicked out of the country, but when he wasn’t skewering politicians or lawyers he could do the most amazing sentimental works.
Third Class Carriage by Daumier is more like a sketch with some paint than it is a full blown painting. This is one of his most brilliant works featuring working class people enduring the numbness of long distance travel on a cramped and crowded train. The mother feeds her child while the older woman sits in quiet contemplation, deep in thought, hands clasped as if in prayer while a boy sleeps against her bulky frame.
The painting has the perennial quality of applying to all kinds of people all over the world, no matter their culture. It’s something we can all identify with. It something we wish we could avoid, but know that life will always throw situations like this at us no matter what we do.
The same is true for many of Ross’ depictions of people. Here there is no fine art formalism concerned with style, but the functional effectiveness of bringing people alive, in their world in a way in which we can easily identify and identify with. What is here is not just the indigenous people she met on her extensive travels, but everyone, all of us.
Stories are told in this show for us with the use of foreground and background, with faces and hands, with clothes and blankets and canvas and gripped pillows. People gaze at each other, beyond one another and they look away from another’s attention, staring off into space, every one of them each telling a story of love and hardship, of wanting and relief.
Loneliness is here, loss, separation, anxiety, and the thankfulness that comes from living closely with family and a community that shares the basics. As small as this show might seem at first, the expanse of it is a wonderful introduction to the world captured by Susan Ross.
Susan Ross: From the Lakehead to the Arctic is on display at the Thunder Bay Museum till June 17.