Since the summer of 2016, Cathy Ross has been an artist in residence at Covenhoven, the stately mansion of the Van Horne estate on Ministers Island. She grew up in Saint John and now lives in Ontario but counts herself lucky to come back to St. Andrews every summer - something she’s done for about 50 years. When she was around 10 years old, her father, Fred Ross, began teaching at Sunbury Shores Art & Nature Centre. Since that time, Cathy has nurtured her painting practice in the environment she feels most connected to.
Her relationship with the Van Horne estate is not transactional. She is given a private room of her own for the summer (one of her studio spaces used to be the nursery) and can paint whatever she desires.
“You really feel the history and the old souls that were here. You feel their presence,” says Cathy.
In a strange turn of events decades ago, most of the house’s original possessions were auctioned off, so the furnishings currently in the house were donated from around the province to fit the estate’s historical period. Even so, that leaves Cathy with an inspirational trove of old, well-worn items once cherished by children, women, men, household staff, cooks, and more.
“My paintings are almost like portraits. I create a simple background, but I love focusing on the object, with all its imperfectness. Especially things that are handmade. I think of the hands of the person that made it.”
I visited her in summer, and it was a magical time to explore with her. As she foraged around the house for her next subject, all the seasonal employees nodded and waved with recognition. She returned the greeting as she slipped over the rope cordoning off certain spaces where tourists cannot venture.
“I paint everyday items that people used, and what appeals to me visually, whether it’s the shape, the colour. And because I spend a lot of time with these things, I feel like I know them so well! When I see them in a room, everything else just looks like stuff, but when you see what you know so intimately, it’s like recognizing a friend in a crowd of strangers.”
Painting minute details, especially those in clothing or a bouquet of flowers, can be an arduous task, one requiring great skill and patience. Some may think Cathy paints details simply because she can, because she’s so amazing at it, but that is not quite the case.
“It’s not detail for detail’s sake, it’s about understanding all that I’m seeing. Like with hats, it’s looking at what the light does on it, or getting the feel for the texture, or what happens with the buttons or folds, it’s about understanding the object really well. And the details happen to add to that. I get a lot of pleasure from that, from painting the stitching on clothes, weaving in and out, the wear of something, the discoloration, all in these ordinary things.”
“The details help explain the item” she said, motioning to a finished watercolour of the undersides of her mother’s beloved character shoes, which have specific locations of wear on the soles.
When her children were younger, Cathy’s favourite time of year was winter, specifically from January onward, after the busyness of back-to-school and the holiday season. “I found that time very productive. I really looked forward to that quiet time to get a lot done without much distraction.” Painting, she said, suits her character. “I like the solitary aspect of my profession. I have control over how I set it up, and I can come back to it whenever I like.”
Her still life paintings fall into two categories: botanicals and objects. Her work is cyclical, still to this day, wherein she paints flowers, fish, lobster, and other classic Maritime fare in the summer, then transitions to apples, leaves, and later-blooming flowers in the fall. In winter, she picks from her vast collection of family heirlooms.
“It gives me peace of mind. Because you’re working with the seasons, you always know what to expect, what’s your plan for the next painting. Even though you’ve done things before, you’ve had that long separation, and it’s always a delight to see things come back. Each season brings its own gifts.”
Cathy’s keen eye for vintage items and the way she immortalizes them in her paintings comes not only from her artistic background, but from her heart. Her deep reverence for those who came before her is admirable. It keeps her grounded throughout the year. It is a gift to be able to see the beauty in the ordinary, and it is thankfully one we can all cultivate. We need only pay attention.
Véronique Thériault (she/her)
Communications, Sales, Social Media at Gallery 78
This article appeared in CreatedHere Magazine's Issue 18: ode to studios in December 2021.