Dan and Lee Ross start most of their days sitting on a bench in their home in Hovland, Minnesota, looking out at Lake Superior. They see animal shapes in clouds moving along the horizon. When ice sheets form on the lake and wind creates leads in the ice, they see animal forms in those. “We see things everywhere we’re looking,” Lee says. Then they talk about the art they will make that day, or ideas for art, or upcoming shows or commissions.
The Rosses, sculptors and printmakers, have been creating art together for 45 years. Everything they do is a collaboration, from design to finished piece.
The two met in 1972 as college students at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. For years, they made the rounds of juried art fairs and invitational shows, traveling the country and winning fans and customers.
They were noticed by Sally Johnson, director of Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis, who approached them at an American Craft Council show in St. Paul. “Ancient Materials – Modern Designs,” their first show at Groveland, opened in April 2016. It was followed in April 2019 by “The Hill That Walked Away.” Their latest, “Untying Time,” will open this Saturday, March 13.
Made from clay, stone, paper and ink (and, more recently, glass), their work is ancient and modern, weighty and delicate, totemic and playful, monumental and small enough to hold in the palm of your hand. It’s thoughtful and meticulous; you can tell the artists take great care. And timeless, a quality with special meaning today, when many of us wonder where last year went and what next year will bring.
We spoke by phone on Wednesday, the day after the Rosses loaded “Untying Time” into their van and delivered it to Groveland Gallery. By driving from Hovland to Minneapolis, “we broke the Silver Bay barrier,” Lee said, sounding pleased. “We felt like we were bears, emerging from our cave.” Like most of us, they have stayed close to home during the pandemic.
As always, this conversation has been edited and condensed.
MinnPost: How did 2020 start out for you?
Lee Ross: It looked like it was going to be a normal year. We were scheduled for some shows, and we had a big commission that had been in the works for a couple of years but would be finished in 2020. A large stone monolith. That kept us busy. And we knew we had the Groveland show, too.
For a while, you weren’t sure if something was going to happen or not. Like the Fall Studio Tour. Because it’s in our home, we decided it wasn’t safe to be part of the studio tour, so we backed out of it. Some people whose studios are more public stayed in.
Dan Ross: They had been open all summer, too, so they had gotten used to it. But we just didn’t want to risk it. We did an online version.
MP: What did you lose between March of last year and now?
We took a hit financially, but it’s nothing we couldn’t weather. We’re fortunate to be at a stage in our careers where we don’t rely on doing art fairs.
Dan: We had a radius of about 30 miles. We went back and forth to Grand Marais, and we would run up to the Gunflint Trail every now and then, but otherwise we pretty much stuck to the immediate area.
Lee: For us, 30 miles is like not moving at all. We’re used to driving across the country. We traveled to Yellowstone quite a bit, sometimes four times a year, to study the animals. In the last few years, we’ve been driving to Newfoundland to rent a print studio. That’s 2,600 miles.
MP: How has the closing of Canada’s border affected you?
Lee: We shop in Canada, and we travel in Canada quite a bit. Our closest movie theater is up in Canada. That was a big change. Another part is the fact that the Canadians were no longer coming down. A lot of the traffic on Highway 61 was Canadian traffic. The highway was totally dead. The animals knew that. Deer would be in the middle of the highway.
Dan: With no Canadians coming down and no one coming north, it was bizarre. You could just walk around on Highway 61.
MP: So no shows and no travel. What did you do instead?
Lee: We looked at it as an opportunity. We decided to get some equipment that we’d been dreaming of for 12 years. We wanted an air compressor and a sandblaster, and to upgrade our studios so we could do some things we’ve been wanting to do.
We got a grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council (ARAC), and the stimulus check [in 2020] helped pay for upgrading equipment we were able to use for the Groveland show. We’ve been trying new things. Experiments.
Dan: We’ve been sandblasting all kinds of things – ceramics, copper plates, glass, stone. We used it on some of the stone pieces at Groveland.
I was surprised by how busy we were. We just stayed busy. We were finishing that stone piece and getting orders for prints and doing the website. We just kept at it.
Lee: We live kind of an isolated life. Because we weren’t able to travel, we spent a lot of time at our local park, Judge Magney State Park. It’s a little state park on the North Shore that doesn’t usually get many visitors.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we had the whole place to ourselves. We would always play this guessing game – how many cars are going to be in the parking lot today? Normally it was five or six. By August, people were piling up here in droves, and there would be over 100 cars in this little parking lot.
We were constantly keeping track of all the COVID updates. I have a sister in New York who got it pretty bad. I have a sister in California and a brother in Minneapolis.
Dan: I have a 94-year-old mother in assisted living in Madison, Wisconsin. I haven’t seen her for a year. I’m going to try and get down there after she has her second shot.
MP: How have you kept yourself motivated?
Lee: Our main motivator is curiosity. That doesn’t go away.
Dan: We have a lot of ideas that we wanted to pursue, and this just freed up time for us to follow through on some of those.
MP: Has the pandemic affected your art?
Lee: Yes! Time really changed during the pandemic. We ran the print studio at the Grand Marais Art Colony, and we were unable to go in there because of COVID. When they finally opened it up, we walked in and saw the calendar on the wall. It was open to March. This was December. Everything had stopped for nine months.
Because Dan and I collaborate, we have to talk about everything. For us to be literally on the same page when we’re working, we have to understand what the other person is thinking, so it’s all verbalized. With most artists it’s internalized, but with us, it’s all verbal.
The next morning, we started talking about time, and the fact that our house sits on a billion-year-old foundation. We’re looking out on Lake Superior, and it’s full of water left over from the glaciers from 10,000 years ago. The stones on our shoreline have drawings on them from the glaciers.
Dan: When you start digging into it, it’s mind-boggling. Thinking about the weight of the glaciers, and how the earth is now springing back. The bottom of Lake Superior is springing back.
Lee: We started examining how time was measured by other cultures – the length of the shadows, by looking at the stars and constellations at different times of the year. We started pulling that into our work and thinking about it on our daily walks.
MP: Were there other ways your art changed over the past year?
Lee: When we couldn’t get into the print studio, I started looking at some of our unresolved prints and cutting them up and doing these little collages that related to the precariousness of life. People balancing on a teeter-totter or walking across a bridge.
When we started working on the Groveland show, with time as the theme, the prints got larger. They’re really big! When we were loading them into the van, they barely fit.
We added lines. We started drawing lines on top of the prints and pieces of the collages. Again, that was part of time. The lines were tracing our steps, tracing the paths that we were taking.
Each print is a story of one of our hikes, or someplace that we go. The titles of the prints together tell a story: “Blocks of Time.” “Untying Time.” “River Flows Under the Ice.” “The Sky Begins at Your Feet.” “Where the River Meets the Lake and the Lake Meets the Sky.” “The River Changes Course.” The last print in the show is “The Lifting of the Fog.”
MP: What do you mean by “Untying Time”?
Lee: Trying to solve the mystery of time. Examining what time is. Time was really strange this year. It went really fast. Everything was gone from the calendar. Every day was blending into the next day.
Dan: It was hard to determine what day of the week it was.
MP: The show includes three animal prints, all called “State Fair.” Can you talk a bit about those?
Lee: We can’t help but do some animals. I grew up near the State Fairgrounds, and I would go every day to the fair. I loved hanging out in the animal barns. I loved Ye Olde Mill.
Dan and I went two years ago to the animal barns and got some great pictures of the kids with their animals – how carefully they groom them, how they put these special blankets on them. It’s a tender thing to see.
Dan: The State Fair prints were partly about time, and to help people with time.
Lee: Because the State Fair is a part of people’s calendar. The end of summer.
MP: Within the context of the rest of the show, the “State Fair” prints are playful.
Lee: As artists, we allow ourselves to do that. There are some days when you feel playful, and other days when we’re trying hard to get an idea on paper. Working together, you have to do both.
Dan: The creative process takes different routes. Sometimes you go in thinking you’ll do a totemic thing and you end up doing some kind of animal. Just go in there and let’s see what happens.
MP: Have you made any plans yet for 2021?
Lee: We have the Groveland show. Dan has another stone commission he’ll be working on. We’re signing up for the studio tour at the end of September, which sounds like it’s going to happen. If we can’t have it inside, we’ll do it outside. And I have a glass show that opens on March 31 at the Johnson Heritage Post in Grand Marais. It’s a show with a group of women on the North Shore.
Dan: We already feel like we have a pretty full schedule again.
MP: What’s the first thing you’ll do when you can do whatever you want, without any restrictions?
Lee: Travel! I wasn’t really feeling like traveling, but this week, with being able to hop in the car and go down to the cities, I’m thinking about Yellowstone. I want to go out there. We love going to Newfoundland, with the whales and the icebergs and the puffins. We’re usually out there in the month of June. We’re hoping to go up into Canada again, too.
Dan: It takes about five days to get to Newfoundland.
MP: What else would you like people to know about your show at the Groveland?
Dan: That this is what we came up with, during this time period of the pandemic. Not being able to go anywhere, we focused on this immediate area. Most of the prints were inspired by our daily walks in the state park.
Lee: Yes, and sitting on our bench, looking out at the lake. We’re doing that right now. We’re looking back in time and appreciating what’s right in front of us.
On Tuesday, when we were driving home [from Minneapolis], I wrote this:
The gouges in the riverbed and the lines left by the glaciers
The water erodes a bowl in the basalt riverbed
On the shore of Lake Superior, the glaciers left drawings
Over time, even solid things erode.
“Untying Time” opens Saturday, March 13, at Groveland Gallery. Dan and Lee Ross will be there from noon until 3 p.m. Gallery hours are currently noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, by appointment. To make an appointment, call 612-377-7800 or use the contact form.
Groveland features two exhibitions at a time. Also opening March 13, Holly Newton Swift’s “Exploring the Transitory,” paintings and drawings of the northern Minnesota wilderness and North Shore.
Both “Untying Time” and “Exploring the Transitory” run through April 17, 2021.