By Cricket Desmarais
While some of us in the Keys are fumbling our way through a few New Year’s resolutions,
others are experiencing everything as new. Just ask Michael Ross, who arrived quietly on the
island from southern Mississippi in mid-October 2022, hired by The Studios of Key West as their
new director of exhibitions and education. The gentle artist, curator, and instructor is a good fit
for the position that requires exhibitions to be hung with precision as well as practical and logistical support given to exhibiting artists and workshop instructors.
“The best part is seeing ‘new’ art arrive for each exhibition,” he says. “It is like unwrapping
Ross had many gifts to unwrap for The Studios’ most recent members’ show, “Transformations,” which features work on all three floors. His own piece – “Ancestral Warm” — represents two decades of exploration in abstract collage and the concept of “house.” His first was born in a moment of frustration when painting — paper torn, but then reassembled, the edges lending to something so satisfying he hasn’t stopped doing it since.
As a classically trained painter with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Mississippi and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University, Ross still thinks of himself as a figurative painter. He has exhibited broadly, with shows ranging from galleries in Japan and San Francisco to private, dynamic installations in his small San Francisco studio with unframed papers, filling the space and placing collages adjacent to each other as if in conversation, some as tall as him.
“I did a whole collage series of life-sized torsos with a house where the head would be – almost
like masks – and taking on a sort of masquerade,” he says. “The houses feel like people to me. In my heart of hearts, they’re all people.”
It quickly becomes clear that what he’s after isn’t so much about “house” as it is “home” – one simply the container, a refuge for memory; the other, the life force within it.
“I think we regard certain people in the same ways that we regard home. When you get home,
you relax, you can feel safe, but you can also feel free around certain people. You feel
connected. You feel empowered,” he said.
After nearly three decades in San Francisco, Ross – the “baby” in a family of eight children – went home to Laurel, Mississippi in 2017. His collages found form on fabric, first as homage to his beloved mother, with her Sunday best cut and pressed into shapes to make a giant blanket. He is currently sewing a series of house-shaped fabric quilts – work that will be exhibited this spring at TSKW as an installation suspended from the ceiling that can also be worn as a cape or cloak or maybe even a cocoon — tangible metaphors for how we adorn or retreat into the homes we make or are or are becoming.
“Transformation is not always comfortable, but it is so necessary,” he says. “I can tell even in the
adjustment that this is a good place for me and where I’m supposed to be. Even though I’m still
navigating. I haven’t had to do that for a while. I lived in a place that I’ve known for so long. And
then when I left, I went to a place where I grew up. I think it’s a perfect time for a different chapter, and I look forward to further learning about Key West and … how would I say, coming
to meet? It’s almost like I’m meeting the Key West Michael as he’s forming.”
In the meantime, Ross finds a sense of familiarity in the island’s foliage and trees, even though
they are unlike anything he has ever known.
“There’s something about them. They’re beautiful and unusual; something about them seems
comforting. And it seems connected somehow to something, they seem a part of the identity of
the buildings. I think it must speak to me on what I think is the resilience of the people here.
“Friends asked me if I was afraid to come here because of hurricanes and I literally thought,
‘Yes, I’m afraid of hurricanes, but I’m gonna do what the people do.’
“Roads have led me here and that feels evident. I like it. It gives me perspective.”