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Local artist Ross paints life broadly with a fine brush




Ernie Ross doesn’t mind speaking about himself or his work, but he’s not one to jump into the spotlight, and certainly not on the merits of anything but his own work.

Probably that’s why he mentions, almost as an aside, that he’s related to famed TV host and landscape painting instructor Bob Ross. Mildly concerned that he might seem to be name dropping, he adds that they’re second cousins and they only met briefly at a show in Roanoke.

“He was a soft-spoken man, give you the shirt off his back. He was real gentle. And patient, that was one of his main things. He was a real patient person,” said Ross of his famous relative (who he didn’t know at the time he was kin to). The celebrity painter, comparing their work, said he’d never be able to finish a painting quickly enough to make money at it if he put as much detail into his work as Ross did.

This meticulous attention to said detail is what renders his work on nature subjects and landscapes so realistic. He comes armed with some of his work, one piece of which is a cheetah painted close up, another of which is a winter landscape. Both are realistic and finely done. Another shows a tangle of metal wristwatches against a green background, though the subject matter in that case is hardly surprising: Ross only lately retired from Gardner’s Pawn Shop in Pulaski.

Some of his work is on wood, some on paper. His preferred medium, he says, is “anything I can find.” Perhaps this egalitarian attitude toward creativity explains why an artist whose works have sold for as much as around $1,000 is perfectly willing to paint a toilet seat lid, which he’s done before and sees no reason not to do again if he feels like tackling it.

“I’ll be sitting behind the counters at the pawn shop and I’ll be doing these,” he says, thumbing through a small portfolio of copic marker pictures drawn on regular-sized paper. A lot of the marker art falls under the definition of surrealism or comic book style and some is reminiscent of M.C. Escher’s work. The strong lines and bright colors have inspired more than one customer to ask if he can design tattoos for them – “It happens quite a bit,” he says – although they must take it to a tattoo parlor for the final work. Gifted at different styles and mediums, Ross doesn’t work on human skin.

“I started when I was in fifth grade,” he said of his art career. “I’ve had art classes in school and stuff like that.” Mostly, though, his talent is natural and self-directed. He was born in Shorts Creek in Carroll County as one of several children. His parents passed away when he was young, and he was raised mostly by his sister and her husband out in Colorado, staring in 1955. Later he moved back to Southwestern Virginia, married a local girl and settled in.

Before then, he managed to meet another well-known public figure. Living in Colorado in the 1970s – Ross has resided in several states – he presented the late Ted Kennedy, on a tour of Mercy Hospital where the artist worked, with a portrait of Kennedy’s brother, Bobby. Ross says the picture brought a tear to the senator’s eye.

He leaves most of his worked unnamed. “I just get it to where it looks like I could get in there and run around,” Ross says of his stopping point. Others, he says, are free to name it for themselves if they like. “Sometimes I’m not as sophisticated as a lot of your artists. I’m just an old hometown boy, you know? The Lord gave me a little bit of talent, and I enjoy it, and I let other people enjoy it.”

Ross spins the story of his life, fleshing out little touches here and there, but really more interested in letting his work stand for itself, and for him.

“It’s a wonderment, you know? I’m the creator, and when I paint, I can create whatever I want to,” Ross says. “It gives me a lot of pleasure. It’s God’s gift, and the pleasure I get out of it when other people look at it, and smile, you know, and stuff like that, it makes me happy. If it makes somebody else happy, that’s what I’m trying to do.”

To inquire about Ross’s work, call Gardner’s Pawn Shop at 980-1163.