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magazine home > archives > winter 2006 > features

Thanks to gifts from Humanities Tennessee, the Scheidt Family Foundation and philanthropist Dorothy Orgill Kirsch, a U of M filmmaker is shedding new light on one of the greatest American painters of the 19th century.

Strokes of genius
by Jamie Peters

Ross in Maine

Ross frames a shot of fog-shrouded Ten Pound Island in Gloucester harbor in Maine. Homer spent two months living in the area in 1880 during his "crisis" before leaving for England, where he would spend 18 months living in the remote North Sea fishing village of Cullercoats.

Winslow Homer, the iconic American painter who is most widely known for his evocative watercolors of the sea, spent a significant part of the last 25 years of his life painting in a small studio on the cliffs of Maine before he died in 1910.

Steven J. Ross, an award-winning University of Memphis professor and filmmaker, has taken his camera into the house and studio that once sheltered Homer during his winter seasons of self-imposed solitude that revolved around paints and brushes. Homer, who was born in 1836 in Boston, reinvented himself several times over throughout his career as a lithographer, freelance magazine illustrator, oil painter and, finally, master of watercolor paintings of the sea and lives in bucolic America.

What Ross, a professor in the Department of Communication, set out to detail in the last five years of making the documentary film is an artist of prolific output who had a unique gift of tapping into the issues of the time, including paintings of African-Americans during the Reconstruction that many critics and scholars consider the best of their kind. What he discovered were several revelations that debunk several widespread myths hovering around Homer's legacy.

Ross' journey led him straight to Homer's studio in Maine - both as a dinner guest and a filmmaker whose films have aired on public television. "We got permission to shoot in Homer's studio overlooking the ocean in Maine," says Ross. "In the dead of winter for four days I had an actor and hired a historical costume consultant to dress and make up the actor out to be Homer. But you never see his face and he's never doing anything that involved elaborate dramatization. You just see him working in these extreme conditions."

Ross, crew, and historian

Ross and crew interviewing art historian David Tatham on the porch of the North Woods Club, where Homer painted some of his greatest watercolors.

This past spring Ross attended a dinner at the studio and house as the guest of a Homer scholar as part of a special function the painter's descendants were holding. The property had just changed hands as a result of the family members selling the studio and house to the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art. "It really was this bittersweet kind of occasion," says Ross. "It was sort of a passing the torch of this little house and studio on the cliff that had been in the family for years."

This property plays a significant role in Ross' documentary film which, as its title Society and Solitude suggests, explores the many different facets of Homer's life. Ross' own journey to make this film began more than 20 years ago when he lived in Connecticut and first envisioned the project. But after Ross began teaching at the U of M in 1981, the lure of the rich Southern heritage drew him away from Homer and toward ideas related to this region. "So Homer seemed at that time to be a hard thing to do while you're on the Mississippi River and have all these other great projects," says Ross.

In the meantime, Ross made a number of documentary films that have aired on PBS, including Black Diamonds, Blues City, which details players in the Negro Baseball League. "All these great topics that have to do with the Mid-South and race relations and so Homer just kept being put on the backburner." Ross' films about the South garnered significant recognition. In 2000 Ross received an Emmy Award from the Mid-America chapter of the National Association of Television Arts and Sciences for his documentary Oh Freedom After While. The documentary details a roadside demonstration by evicted sharecroppers in the Missouri Bootheel.

Ross boomeranged back to the Homer project in 1999 at the urging of a Homer scholar. The film, which is basically completed, has been made possible by the filmmaker's fortitude as well as the generous help of donors, including nonprofit organization Humanities Tennessee's gift of $28,000, significant gifts from the Scheidt Family Foundation and the largest individual donor, Memphis philanthropist Dorothy Orgill Kirsch.

Dorothy Orgill Kirsch

Memphis philanthropist Dorothy Orgill Kirsch helped fund Ross' documentary on painter Winslow Homer. Humanities Tennessee and the Scheidt Family Foundation were among other donors.

Patty Bladon, development director of the U of M College of Communication and Fine Arts, brought Kirsch and Ross together when she discovered Kirsch's love for Homer's work. In the mid-1980s Bladon, who was then serving as assistant director for the Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis, heard Kirsch give a talk on a Homer painting for a class as a docent- in-training.

This memory sparked Bladon's introduction of Kirsch to Ross. "There's enthusiasm, intellect and a willingness ready to offer support," Bladon says of Kirsch. "Everything she does is infused with a deep passion and commitment when she is convinced of the rightness of a project or purpose."

Kirsch, a longtime and prominent supporter of the Memphis arts scene through her involvement as a patron and past board member of Playhouse on the Square and Ballet Memphis, first stumbled upon Homer's paintings a long time ago while strolling through a museum.

"A number of years ago, in a museum in another city, the guard said, 'What you want to see is downstairs,'" recalls Kirsch. "There was this amazing group of Homer paintings which I absolutely fell in love with. He's been one of my favorite artists ever since."

Ross' film, which is shot on film and digital video, aspires to peel back the surface beauty of Homer's paintings and explore thematic ideas buried within the elegant compositions and brushwork. "Because his work is so easily accessible you don't have to look at it like a Pollock painting," says Ross. "It's a picture and because we can accept it like that it's easy not to dig further when in fact there's this great treasure trove of hidden and parallel meaning and incredible vision that's at work there."

To shed light on this enigmatic artist, Ross interviewed many notable Homer scholars and went to Gloucester, Mass., and the Adirondacks to capture the painterly quality of Homer's work. "The myth of Homer is this guy who spent the last 25 years in forbidden Maine. But the first part of his life was a chronicler of the American scene," says Ross.


Ross utilizes a digital camera to record sound near Ten Pound Island in Gloucester harbor in Maine during filming of his documentary on Winslow Homer.

The film explores one area in which scholars have hardly touched on: Homer's love life. Ross interviews one scholar who had found a batch of letters Homer had written to a woman, who appears to have spurned him.

Sometime in the 1880s, after detailing the strife of life during Reconstruction through his paintings, Homer moved to Ten Pound Island just offshore of Gloucester, where he undertook strikingly original work in watercolors. And then he abruptly moved to England and lived in a fishing community for 18 months.

"This could have been caused by his relationship with the woman or his work wasn't selling well because he was refusing to go along with commercial trends," says Ross. "Part of this crisis could have been a political disillusionment. He was so tied up to what this country was about that any of those reasons could have been valid and they all were probably valid."

Like any great artist, Homer's lasting body of work shows an individual working through his conflicting desires, which in this case were a proclivity for isolation and the need to observe the outside world. Homer's works endures because it reaches right into the heart of what makes indelible art: an ability to distill the essence of other lives and natural surroundings through a personal vision of the human condition that is wholly unique.

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