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Visual arts

Fulgurites, asparagus and zaniness

Remembering the newspaper art of Nolan Ross

Artwork by Nolan Ross.
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Published 9/30/2009

Just open a daily newspaper in any major American city today and you'll find it's not just the quality, length and subject matter of the stories inside that's changed. Where did the creativity go? What about the screwball columnists and cartoonists?

And what would become of an artist like Nolan Ross, a prolific and gifted Detroit Free Press cartoonist and graphic artist from 1972 to 1988, in today's dailies? Ross' work is visually reminiscent of Robert Crumb's pen work, but less subversive, given the subject matter, which ranges from property tax and schizophrenia to Coleman Young, from the Detroit salt mines to Alan Greenspan and asparagus. 

In 1997, Ross, 54, succumbed to his battle with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease — a genetic brain disorder often confused with Alzheimer's disease — but not without leaving a legacy of work. Nolan Ross' brother Carter, two years his elder and the first of three to study at the renowned Interlochen Center for the Arts, has more than 1,000 pieces from his brother's career, many of which will be exhibited for sale at the Park West Gallery in Southfield for one night only on Oct. 3; proceeds will benefit the advocacy group Michigan's Children. His work has never been exhibited before.

"From the moment he came into this earth, he was an artist," Carter Ross says, noting that the Ross family patriarch, Art Ross, a chief designer of Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs, and an accomplished fine artist, forced pens and pencils into his sons' hands.

"I wanted to draw things just like my dad did and make things look as real as possible — a car should look like a car and an airplane an airplane," he says. "But Nolan's versions of the same subjects were much more artistic — he was really the most imaginative person I've ever known. That came from my mother. As kids, every time we got stuck on a drawing and asked my dad how to draw a leg, wheel, arm or ear from a certain perspective, he would take out a pencil and demonstrate just how it's supposed to look. When we'd ask my mother, she'd just say, ‘Use your imagination.' She was always stressing that on Nolan. When Nolan used his imagination he'd come up with startling anamorphic shapes and characters. He never thought about being realistic." 

Growing up in the '60s, the Ross boys, and especially Nolan, adored Mad magazine. 

"That was his bible," Carter says. Cartoonists such as Mad's Jack Davis and Mort Drucker, along with Gahan Wilson (Playboy, The New Yorker), had a serious effect on Nolan's work. 

Nolan studied at what was then the Center for Creative Studies, where he later taught. "He'd tell his students that the great secret to cartooning is to understand the delicate mix of exaggeration and simplification," remembers brother Carter, who lives in the Chicago area. "Nolan was all about embellishment, and though he'd pack a lot of image into a piece, he'd keep it kind of simple." Carter sees this as representative of his brother's personality. "He could be just like a cartoon, in personality, politics and otherwise."

Journalist and author Jim Schutze, now a veteran columnist for Dallas Observer, worked closely with Nolan at the Freep in the early '70s. "I don't know what he made, but I don't think any paper could afford to have a cartoonist like Nolan these days. They definitely couldn't afford to have him work the way he did." 

During Ross' time at the paper, recalls Schutze, the Freep also employed cartoonist Dick Mayer, who headed a staff of artists for sports, features and other departments that solely handled their own graphics. "The thing about Nolan and the way he worked was that he could do it all and do it uniquely." 

Schutze and Ross traveled together on assignment from time to time, something Schutze says Ross was particularly fond of. "We traveled once to west side of Michigan; we were there for the better part of a week covering some asparagus festival. I thought I could better spend my time on some other story but Nolan thought it was a riot," says Schutze, who appreciated Ross' wacky affinity for the weird. Case in point: On the assignment, Ross wouldn't stop talking about fulgurites — tubular formations found in the dunes of western Michigan that are born when lightning strikes sand and rock. "Nolan just wouldn't stop talking about these things — but it went from being really annoying to really funny," says Schutze who, in his article "Truths and Outright Lies About Michigan Asparagus," depicted fulgurites as wicked imps bent on destroying the jovial gang of asparagus. 

"I never saw him sketching," Schutze says. "He was always listening to the things people were saying; he was curious about things and always had an odd take. Nolan just wanted to get the whole story, like a journalist. He could see the story just as well as I could, but whereas I was looking for quotes and numbers, he was approaching it from a very different perspective. To be fair, I often felt that his take on things was a hell of a lot more interesting than mine. He wasn't there to illustrate the writer's story, he was there to tell his own."


From 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3, at Park West Gallery, 29469 Northwestern Hwy., Southfield; 248-354-2343; reservations at 517-485-3500. Tickets are $75, art students and teachers $25. More at thecartoonsofnolanross.com

Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to twright@metrotimes.com.

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