My friend Ross was a firefighter for nearly three decades before retiring a few years ago to paint full time. He says riding the city streets for countless hours on a fire truck gave him not only a thorough look at the district but also a special perspective. After a shift of two days and nights at the firehall, he’d spend two days in the studio making art. This cocktail of co-operation and teamwork spiked with solo, creative problem-solving became his life. The studio time, he says, was a way to quietly debrief the life-and-death emergencies of firefighting.
Ross’s paintings have long won hearts and souls with their soft, blocky character and deep palette. He’s a style-man — delivering a comfort and mystery combo that invites the viewer in for a pillowy landing or getaway. His large oils express a kind of loneliness and absenteeism, though they almost always include a strip of hope in the form of light defined by a hard shadow. A location-driven artist, Ross goes to the trouble to name the corner, trail, park or alleyway, as if he’s painting the portrait of a local personality — only in the form of a stand of pines or boxwood.
“Painting is a series of adjustments,” says Ross. “As important as executing an idea is admitting when it isn’t right and then modifying elements of the creation until it works.” He says firefighting is not much different when unforeseen events can force a change of approach. In both jobs, sacrifices are required. “Sometimes it’s necessary to let the house burn and to protect the structures on either side with water,” says Ross. In painting, the whole thing may need to be scrapped. “This is painful, as is watching a fire consume a structure. Yet both failed fights result in tremendous learning for a successful next round.”
PS: “Once I began to paint trees (forests, specifically), I needed an escape route, a way out, a trail, an open space, to offer my canvas (and my audience) freedom. Manmade footpaths became an efficient way through a landscape. In architecture they are called desire lines, and in a painting they are a vehicle to lead the eye — and the psyche — deeper into my work.” (Ross Penhall)
Esoterica: When Ross’s paintings started to sell, his friends asked him when he would quit his day job. But Ross never thought to give up his double life. Having two careers, he says, has developed his discipline and commitment, allowed him to explore his passions and provided structure, emotional balance and steady support for his family. This month, Ross released a book of his paintings called, Ross Penhall’s Vancouver, Surrounding Areas and Places That Inspire. As part of his longstanding involvement in his community, he’s giving part of the proceeds to his favourite charity. Artists For Kids connects Canadian artists with the North Vancouver School District to build a permanent art collection for young British Columbians. It also provides enrichment programs for students, scholarships and an art summer school. “I am alive and outside is green and waiting.” (Ross Penhall)
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“Current major forces, both in education and in our society, tend to ignore the value and contribution of art. We must, more than ever, support and encourage the arts in everyday life.” (Gordon Smith)