Written and photographed by Cesca Janece Waterfield
Artist and teacher S. Ross Browne is talking about an ordinary day: “I was walking down Marshall Street and this giant hawk landed on a parking deck on 7th. There was this brother walking down the street and I said, “Yo, man! Look at that!’ We stood there, enjoying this hawk. Afterward, he said, ‘I was having a hard day. Thanks for showing me that.’”
Ross seems to regularly reveal the extraordinary hidden among our daily routines. Although he suffered tragedies growing up, he sought expression with drawing, painting, sculpture and study. Today he shares what he’s learned about creativity and healing by providing Art Therapy to patients at the Medical College of Virginia (MCV). He’s painted important figures in Richmond history, including the Honorable Oliver Hill, civil rights activist and attorney who died in 2007 at the age of 100. Everything he does seems to ask us to take notice of the extraordinary that we may have overlooked.
Friends and Family
Originally from Mount Vernon, New York, Ross began drawing before he could write, at age two. In California in 1977, he was crossing a gangplank to a Naval ship with his young mother Linda, when she collapsed and died, succumbing to complications from a misdiagnosed childhood illness. He was adopted by his uncle, Dr. Lindley Smith, then a surgeon at MCV. The family was close-knit, led by a man who valued art and books.
“It wasn’t like we were rich,” Ross says. “I have five brothers. But culture was important to him. I would read as many of the encyclopedias that I could, but also about Chagall and Van Gogh among others.” Ross attended local schools including J.E.B. Stuart, John B. Cary Model School and Thomas H. Henderson.
“I was always drawing,” he remembers. “We learned anatomy by drawing perfect bodies like the Hulk, Iron Man, Silver Surfer, Scarlet Witch.”
When his parents divorced, he was sent to The Miller School, a military academy in Charlottesville. It offered no art program at the time. So the dean commissioned Ross to paint a portrait of the school’s namesake, and immediately developed an art program. Ross still finds the gesture meaningful.
“I’ve been fortunate to always have surrogate families,” he says. “The Oliver Hill family, they’re like another family to me. Their children are like my siblings. The family at Miller School, the dean of the school became another father to me. He gave me love and support. Family isn’t always about blood.”
Ross had one very influential “patron” – his adopted mother, Carol P. Smith. “She was my most ardent supporter and is probably responsible for my skill level being where it is today,” he says. “She framed all of my work growing up and personally purchased many of the books I learned art history and technique from.”
Design for Healing
After college at VCU, Ross shared studios at 6th Street Marketplace’s Arts on the Square with artists including P. Muzi Branch and Lynn Wilder. He studied the work of favorites John Biggers and Frank Frazetta and was thriving creatively.
Then when Ross was 25, his brother Karl killed himself, after struggling with addiction and depression.
“I survived through family support,” Ross remembers. “I went to New York for a little while. I was teaching for the Fresh Air Fund in the mountains of New York. That helped a lot. Staying busy and living.”
Although he lost his desire to paint at that time, he’d been a graphic designer since college, before the field’s domination by computers. He began designing full time and the work helped him cope with his loss. Today Ross says, “I love graphic design as much as fine art.”
“An Artist Who Happens to Be Black”
In his bio Ross declares, “My art isn’t defined by, but can be influenced by issues with race.” Sometimes the simple act of painting a person can be ground-breaking.
“I like doing portraiture, especially when it comes to black people,” he says. “Back in the day, that’s the only way that you showed that you were a part of history, that you mattered.” He shows “The Entitled,” a striking painting of a Moor woman named Simunetta da Collavechio, the mother of the famous Italian royal Alessandro De Medici. It’s an image that would not have existed in the woman’s time.
“Her granddaughter was painted out of history,” Ross says. “She was very outspoken. She talked about being a woman. She talked about being black. But [history scholars] don’t talk about that. I am taking history and interpreting as an artist. I don’t know if she had dreads. But I gave them to her. She definitely didn’t have the Middle Passages on her tunic.”
As part of a recent fundraiser, artists were asked to paint chairs. “Finally I took a saw and took it apart into pieces and put it together as something else,” he says. “I added wire and all these other things. It looked like an African idol. It had wings and breast armor, just using all the pieces of the chair.”
Sabrina Squire, well known television news anchor for NBC 12, emceed the event. She bought the piece.
Originality in the Ordinary
Ross enthusiastically promotes young Richmond artists. While talking about some of those he’s mentored, he stops mid-sentence to announce: “Stanley Rayfield. You’ve got to mention him in there. He’s going to be the next big thing.”
He has taught at the Smithsonian Institute, Weed and Seed, Project Ready and Art 180. “I love the enthusiasm, the light going on,” he says. “I like teaching adults too, but my enthusiasm gets contagious, and so my young kids get into it. I’m a big nerd and I let it out. I’ve always added an element of therapy into my teaching, because a lot of kids think it’s cool to hold everything in. You’ve got to express yourself. It’s better to do it with pad and paintbrush and canvas than with a gun or a knife.”
He encourages students to articulate their unique vision, even if it’s unsettling. “I could easily just draw what’s popular,” Ross says. “But I’m constantly a student of art and of history. I want to challenge myself personally on canvas, with sculpture, with writing, whatever. Yeah, I want to make money. But I want to produce work that means something, produce a work that tells of my experiences or other people’s experiences.”
When those experiences include trauma or illness, Ross knows that art can be effective therapy. It worked for him, and he’s committed to bringing its restorative process to others.
“I’m partnering in a workshop with breast cancer patients and survivors,” he says. “I want to use what I’ve learned in doing art therapy and working with patients.”
Most of all, he is alert to the possibilities of each moment. “Every aspect of life has art to it. I don’t even have cable TV. I love the artistry in writing, in reading. I love the artistry in food. If anything I’ve learned from my life and the tragedies I’ve been through, life is definitely fleeting. You’ve got to grasp it, smell the roses, and share that experience with others.”
For S. Ross Browne, that’s just an ordinary day.