Eternal activist Eugene painter Jerry Ross, acclaimed in Italy, has always advocated for what he feels strongly about, whether politics or art.
Published: September 19, 2008
sketch: Colonel Broedlow, Wild West Division
At the 91st Division Headquarters in California hangs a life-size portrait of Colonel Rudolph W. Broedlow, regimental commander of the 361st Infantry Battalion Association. The painting was created by longtime anti-war activist Jerry Ross.
It’s one of the Eugene artist’s lesser-known works, at least locally, but it’s a portrait well admired by a group of veterans who combated Nazis during World War II in Italy.
Ross and his wife, Angela, both self-described “Italophiles,” make frequent trips to Italy for inspiration and to hobnob with such intellectuals as Pier Cesare Bori, a leading Italian scholar on Russian philosopher/writer Leo Tolstoy.
Ross even lived there for several months in a town called Livergnano. It was there where he met the group of World War II veterans revisiting battlefields.
When the vets happened upon one of Ross’s art shows in Bologna, Italy, and found that the artist was from Oregon, a relationship was formed. Ross learned that many in the regiment, known as the Wild West Division, were also from Oregon and that they get together yearly for a reunion at Camp Adair north of Corvallis.
It was the “classical World War II anti-fascism that I could relate to,” says Ross, who notes the irony of an anti-war activist befriending a group of war veterans. “I actually got in pretty close with the GIs” — so close that he became an honorary member of the association and was given a grant to interview the vets about their experience in the war for a documentary.
World War II veteran Phillip Scaglia recalls being interviewed by Ross. “Nice guy,” Scaglia says, speaking by phone from New York.
Scaglia had no idea Ross was an anti-war activist, nor that the man who interviewed him was one of the Buffalo Nine, a group of State University of New York at Buffalo students who were put on trial for their opposition to the draft during the Vietnam War.
He is familiar with Ross’ work as an artist, however. “I’ve seen his paintings of those towns in Italy,” Scaglia says.
Yes, those paintings of landscapes, cityscapes and portraits have earned Ross much acclaim in Italy. In 1996, he came in second place in a painting competition held in Livergnano. Another competition earned Ross a gold medal and a one-person show in Milan. He also went on to hold exhibits in Rome and Florence, among other Italian cities.
Ross has made an indelible impression on Eugene’s art scene, as well. He is one of the founding board members of the Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts (DIVA). He is one of the founders of the popular Salon des Refusés — a yearly showcase of art rejected from the Mayor’s Art Show.
Yet, even after accomplishing so much in Eugene, he still says it was easier to make his mark in Italy.
“I’ve had a lot of good recognition in Italy, but here it’s tougher than there,” says the 64 year-old grandfather of two.
Why is that?
“Because my style of painting expresses a certain kind of poetry that Italians are into,” he explains.
Ross paints in the tradition of the Macchiaioli and verismo. Founded by Tuscan painters, the Macchiaioli uses as few brush strokes as possible, yet creates landscapes that still are accurate.
Ross’ style is not totally lost on Eugene, as his work has received many local awards. His “La Vedova di Guerra” (“The War Widow”) won the Juror’s Choice Award at a Mayor’s Art Show and the portrait “La Mamma di Irene Grazioli” was the 2000 Mayor’s Choice Winner.
Still, he says, “Eugene is a tough nut to crack,” in part because of what he feels is a lack of venues for artists to showcase their work, and then there are the “taste makers” or private gallery owners who set the stage for artists whose work, they believe, will sell.
All these elements can make it difficult for an emerging artist to garner success, he says. Thus the call for Salon des Refusés.
Change of focus
After coming to Eugene in the 1970s, Ross “retired” from political activism and became an activist for the arts.
In 1991, after Ross was rejected from the Mayor’s Art Show, he set an easel outside of the exhibition’s reception in a form of public protest. Soon he was joined by other rejected artists and community members, after a local property management company donated space — and an alternative exhibit to the Mayor’s Art Show was born.
Ross, however, cannot be credited with the idea of Salon des Refusés. That would be Napoleon’s contribution to the art world.
In the 1800s, Emperor Napoleon III decreed that artists rejected by the jury of the official Paris Salon could organize their own show as an alternative exhibit. Of course, these artists were open to ridicule and were the targets of fruit hurled by art snobs.
“People threw apples and oranges at them,” Ross says. “But not in Eugene.”
Rather, the show has been embraced by the community. It was at the Salon des Refusés where one of Ross’s most acclaimed works, “Arrivo a Bologna,” received much recognition among his peers. The oil portrait of his wife commemorates their arrival in Bologna.
“Red Bologna,” as it is known, is the first Italian city to elect a communist council. In the portrait, Angela wears a Soviet-style jacket and red-starred beret.
Anymore, Ross isn’t much involved with the Salon des Refusés in Eugene. His frequent travels to Italy have made it difficult to participate. He recognizes it as another avenue for artists to share their work with the public, but local artists deserve more than the occasional show, he says.
He is currently lobbying to expand the DIVA, a nonprofit organization, to include a museum where local artists can have a permanent display. But he has grander visions of a full-scale, publicly funded art center/museum in Eugene’s city center.
It’s a vision that could be realized, Ross says. There are precedents all over the country, towns similar to Eugene with publicly funded art centers. If they can do it, Ross asks, why can’t we?
“If Eugene would mature to that level,” Ross says, “we’d have something really substantial.”
Nate Traylor is a freelance writer who lives in Eugene. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.