Until just a few years ago, Glenda Ross was uncomfortable describing herself as an artist. She is a potter. On the farm, she grew up in a world where everything must have a purpose, and pottery allowed her to combine utility with art.
“Even when I thought I was planning aspects of my future, life always derailed me,” Ross said. “I hung on for life and luckily for the most part I was happy with where I landed.”
Ross and her husband, Kelly, moved to Osage in 1984, where their four children graduated from high school. She first had to teach art before she could become an artist.
The King of Norway
Ross grew up on a dairy farm near Spillville, the eldest of 10 children. They raised pigs, chickens and cattle, and grew and stored as much food as possible.
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“My parents instilled in me the value of a strong work ethic and a belief in doing your best in any circumstance,” Ross said. “We all went out to do chores and help with fieldwork. One of my father’s claims to fame was making maple syrup from the trees on our property, a tradition carried on by my mother, my brothers, my nephews and my nieces.
Her mother was also well known for her cooking skills, earning her the distinction of honorary grandmother for young people in the area.
“Growing up, creating and buying art was considered a luxury, something you did in the little spare time you had your work done,” Ross said. “Any farmer in the area would tell you that his job was never done. Making art wasn’t something we had a lot of time for on the farm and certainly wasn’t considered a responsible career choice.
In this vein, Ross quotes Picasso: “The purpose of art is to wash the dust of everyday life from our souls.” Ross graduated from South Winneshiek High School in 1973. Ever since she was young, she dreamed of going to college. She started working at a factory in Cresco, where she met a recent college graduate, Diana Drtina. Drtina became a guide, teaching Ross about ACTs and applying to college. At that time, Ross loved arts and crafts and wanted to help people with special needs. In 1975, at the University of Iowa, there was a new major, therapeutic recreation. Drtina suggested it to Ross, who wholeheartedly embraced it, while earning a primary education degree.
Because Ross worked to put herself through college, it took her longer to graduate, which she did in 1980, seven years out of high school.
Indirectly, Drtina was also responsible for the start of Ross’ artistic journey. Drtina had earned her journalism degree in Iowa and was writing an article about a Decorah woman well known for the arts of Norwegian rosemary and porcelain painting. Drtina dove into researching her subject and convinced Ross to take classes as well.
Each design involved painting layers of a ceramic glaze paint, with baking between each layer, until the design was completed on porcelain plates, vases, and cups.
Their artwork has brought royalty to Iowa. While they were taking the course, the King of Norway visited Decorah.
“He arrived unassuming and visited us like he was taking the class himself,” Ross said.
Even though there was little pocket money at university, unexpectedly she continued to learn porcelain painting on the side. She met her husband, Kelly, in Iowa City. One day, after they decided to get married and they were driving to see his parents, they started discussing their finances.
“I can still see, in my mind, the exact street we were on when I turned to him and said, ‘I’m not going to have to give up my china painting, am I?’ “Ross said. “I was not an artist and my initiation into the world of art did not begin until after the age of 40, but porcelain painting was the small spark that ignited the fire of artistic creation there. all these years.”
After college, Ross taught Title I reading in school districts in Amana and Norway before her husband got his medical degree. Subsequently, she was a stay-at-home mother. Her husband wanted to be a doctor in a small town, which brought them to Mitchell County.
Eventually, Ross began to aspire to pursue his career as an artist. Chinese painting had left its mark, but Ross had no teacher. She had no oven, cooking equipment or knowledge of how to use them. To satisfy this urge, Ross started a master class in oil painting with a woman from Stacyville. Ross now had four children and she set up a small gallery in her kitchen for their artwork. At the same time, she worked as a substitute teacher at Sacred Heart School in Osage.
“When I was teaching, my favorite part was working with hands-on projects, especially ones that involved art or science,” Ross said. “When we took our family to various museums, I was always drawn to art-related exhibits and wanted to try and do them myself.”
Ross didn’t consider herself an artist yet, but she desperately wanted to change that. The desire grew strong enough that she and her husband decided, once the kids were all in school, that Ross would go back to college for an arts education. She then began teaching the subject at Sacred Heart. At the same time, she attended a workshop co-taught by Cyndi Spears, the local elementary art teacher at Osage Community Schools.
Along with John Luse, a high school and college art teacher, Spears became her mentor.
“I will never be able to thank them for the knowledge and confidence they instilled in me,” Ross said. “A pivotal moment in this period came one day during one of Northern Iowa University’s art education classes. Our Elementary Art Methods teacher took us to the sculpting department to each assemble a wooden armature to use for a small clay head and bust.
“When we walked into the carving area, there were students learning how to carve a marble-like stone called alabaster. I remember walking across the room thinking, ‘Oh my god, I could follow a sculpture lessons and learn how to carve stone. I didn’t realize such an option existed until this day.
Ross took the sculpting class and found she felt more comfortable working in three dimensions. Subsequently, Ross taught at Nora Springs and Osage, before establishing her pottery studio at home in 2013.
Despite all her accomplishments, Ross still did not consider herself an artist, or even a potter. For 25 years, she taught art to people from preschool age up to age 99, sometimes in a single class.
“Yeah, I had done some successful art while attending UNI for arts education hours and, in the summer, continuing education classes,” Ross said. “However, these pieces represented an exploration and experimentation with a variety of materials rather than a concentration on any particular art.”
For a while, she turned to sculpture. She became interested in pottery because she had to teach it.
“Some art educators are able to teach and produce art at the same time,” Ross said. “I am not a fast artist. In fact, a teacher called me his student “snail”. Juggling family, church and community commitments with teaching and later some health issues, a choice had to be made. At the time, necessity chose teaching. As long as I was responsible for teaching others, it had to be my first priority.
Her transition from teacher to artist only began in 2018, when she took a class with famed ceramicist Steven Hill.
“This class was different,” Ross said. It wasn’t about learning someone else’s techniques, it was about developing your own. “The greatest benefit of years of teaching and learning ceramics and pottery is that you can never learn all the different aspects in one lifetime. There are countless numbers of clay bodies and glazes, as well as techniques for handling them. Currently, Ross is concentrating on clay.
She thinks it doesn’t matter if she is called a teacher or an artist.
“The most exciting part is creating a personal piece of art from the supplies in front of me,” Ross said.
fine arts council
Like many artists in the area, Ross is a member of the Fine Arts Council of Mitchell County (FACMC), headed by Pat Mackin.
“Glenda has been a generous and active participant in many Mitchell County Board of Fine Arts activities and has been a strong leader in supporting our projects,” Mackin said. “She is also an amazing artist. She has exhibited her amazing work in a number of our shows.
Ross joined FACMC to share her appreciation for creative work.
“Whether it’s acting in a play, being creative with a singing voice or an instrument, writing creatively, carving wood, sewing wonderful fabric designs, drawing, from painting, engraving, sculpting and painting a model train world – the list goes on – the act and art of creating is the most awe-inspiring experience of all.
“As a member over the years I have been introduced to Simon Estes and other outstanding musicians, basket makers, engravers, painters, writers, quilters, woodcarvers, gourd artists, actors, metalworkers, photographers, graphic designers and more, directly through the Council of Fine Arts.
Ross believes that rural areas can often be sources of isolation for artists, and FACMC helps combat that sense of isolation.
Besides FACMC, Ross surrounds himself with mentors, students, family and friends who share his creative vision. “It means the world to me to have this opportunity, surrounded by their affirmation.
“I believe that everyone has creativity in themselves but contrary to popular belief, it is not always easy to use it. Creating art involves many hours, lots of practice, hard work, and lots of failures, even for naturally talented people. Chess is frustrating, but some of the best art is the result of learning from mistakes. As Picasso said, “unless your work gets you in trouble, it’s no good.”
Jason W. Selby is the Mitchell Country Press News community editor. He can be reached at 515-971-6217, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.