You know that feeling when you meet someone and it feels like you’ve known them for years? Like the stories they tell are the same stories you tell? Like you are connected in some ethereal way beyond this place and this time?
If that uncanny and familiar sensation could be bottled and sprinkled all over someone’s art, when seeing it for the first time actually feels like the millionth time, as if you’ve made it yourself or you thoughts and memories conjured them up sneakily behind your back- that’s what it was like for me when I was recently introduced to Ross Smart’s art.
Many of Ross’ creations are on view in the front windows of the River Gallery School of Art on Main Street in Brattleboro, and as if the doll house-scaled models and warped yet representative illustrations (of what seems like solely houses, buildings, and boats) weren’t inviting enough, welcoming the random passerby into a miniature world of nostalgia and wear, there was also a sign that invited the public to a free Artist Talk.
I was sold and immediately cleared my schedule for Thursday evening. I felt destined to be in that room.
I was met with a very warm welcome by the ARTist and his many friends, and after spending time investigating the dusty crevices and hidden treasures in his work, Ross started to speak.
He masterfully painted his audience a picture of his childhood 100 miles away in New Hampshire, countless hours spent exploring the white elephant of a house, built in the 1790’s, that his parents had bought for the family. Ross remembers in striking detail, the farm animals, the hay bales, the ladders that weren’t long enough, his BB gun, and his active imagination warning him of escaped mental patients who were traveling the same dark and forgotten path through his new family home.
Ross said, “I was always looking for clues, trying to figure this place out. Or maybe trying to figure my own life out.”
That struck a chord. A deep, resounding chord.
Ross started to talk about the doll-less doll-house pictured above, and in all of it’s broken-down perfection and eerie emptiness, which seemed a perfect mirror for, and physical manifestation, of what sorts of things occupy the attic of Ross’ mind.
The structure of the house was made from an old trunk that he had seen in a free pile, molding and deteriorating with time. He finally salvaged it, and the lining inside reminded him of the wallpaper in his friend Byron Miner’s old house in New Hampshire. This house is full of hiSTORY, as the pictures on the walls are saved and repurposed from Ross’ grandmother’s old needle sets, and the newspaper bits are from old circulars from the 1920’s. He sites the silly stories that these articles are telling and says, “You can’t really see all the details, but I know they’re there.”
Another chord, deep and guttural, but a different note.
Ross made all of the furniture himself, from things like chop sticks, cigar boxes, a spool, his great aunt Haddie’s ring, a watch band, old jewelry, buttons, skewers, and an endless list of physical articles that Ross has saved over the years, embossed and laden with memories of where they came from and how he remembers the circumstances of procuring them.
Ross even speaks of the person who, by hand, made the leather trunk, a person he didn’t know, but acknowledges and honors the work that they put into something that has lasted through the decades. He even brought the audience’s attention to a place where, at some point in the past, the leather had torn on the case, and someone had nailed it back on. A detail that most may overlook, but Ross had noticed and admired.
What Ross is doing is much more than ART. Ross is an historian, like his grandfather before him, who from the vantage point of his front porch, watched the sun rise and set on his own town, having memories of the town church burning, and waiting all day until the flames reached the tower so that he could watch the bell come tumbling down. This powerful memory now lives on through Ross, and has been transferred to me, and now to you, and beyond.
Chord, struck and reverberating.
In addition the the boats made of driftwood and the tiny houses many of cigar boxes, Ross is also a skilled pen and ink illustrator, always starting with a single line, and seeing where it goes from there. He rarely has an end result in mind, and playfully references the Japanese concept of the “Happy Accident” as a common and recurring theme in all of his work.
Some may argue that properly integrating the “Happy Accident” concept into one’s own life would be fodder for a healthy and prosperous existence. I would personally argue that the rawness and honesty that this aesthetic choice lends to Ross’ work is one of the pillars of strength that it stands upon.
Coming away from Ross’ ARTist talk, I have a few theories.
During the question and answer portion, someone asked if Ross ever intended to put dolls in the empty house, and he said no. I don’t think it is much of a stretch to imagine that this is the house where the spirit of Ross’ grandparents now live. This thought simultaneously comforts and frightens me.
My next thought is to do with the fact that I seemed to be the only person in the room full of attendees that was not already Ross’ friend. Again, this thought has a duality, and I’m unsure if this is a sad or a joyous account. However, a prudent conclusion would be that, plainly put, to know Ross is to love Ross (and his art).
Finally, I consider the deep and somewhat unnerving chord that played throughout Ross’ Artist Talk, and how it felt so similar to the music that plays in my own head, and serves as a soundtrack to my life.
Someone once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” and as cliche as it may sound, Ross’ art rhymes with me.
If you are interested in viewing or purchasing any (or all) of Ross’ work, feel free to contact him directly at Rosstsmart@gmail.com / (802) 451-8736 or go visit the River Gallery School and see his creations up close and personal.
A million and one thanks go out to Ross. And a special thank you, in advance, for letting me tell your story.