On Creating Portraits, Inspiring Conversations, and Following Your Passion: A Q&A With Artist S. Ross Browne
Photography by Alston Thompson Photography.
While career paths can sometimes meander and take unexpected turns, S. Ross Browne’s journey to becoming a professional artist seems to have been marked with clear signs ever since kindergarten, when he recognized his aptitude for art while creating a paint-and-glitter-covered Styrofoam sculpture. Today, Browne, who resides in Richmond, Virginia, and focuses primarily on painting, has had his work included in more than 70 domestic and international gallery and museum exhibitions and has been featured in a variety of local, national, and international news outlets. His portraits, which seek to challenge preconceived ideas about the human experience and explore racial archetypes, are exquisite, arresting, and thought-provoking, and are intended to inspire conversation—which is why The Scout Guide partnered with Browne to create a graphic in celebration of Black Business Month. Recently, we sat down with Browne to learn more about his background, creative process, and upcoming projects.
TSG: Can you please tell us a little about your work and yourself?
SRB: Essentially, I am compelled to create images that explore compositions of the human form and the juxtaposition of perceptions and misconceptions associated with sensitive socio-political dynamics past and present. My goal is to create interpretations of historical relevance and possibility that challenge preconceived notions of the shared human experience and eroding the conventionally assigned racial archetypes. To that end, I examine the possible in the perceived introspections and shared history of my subjects in classical pictorial representations using delineations of factual chronicles and imagined mythology. Using portraiture replete with persuasive imagery that defies the common visual library, I hope to make a conduit for communication and instigate discourse.
I often choose my subjects via serendipity. If I see someone who fits my image of a concept I may have in my head or if they are visually interesting and may fill a creative void later I approach them and ask if they would volunteer.
My background is an artist who happens to be black and was born in Mount Vernon, New York, and raised between there and Richmond, Virginia, where I currently reside. I went to nurturing public schools like what is now named Barack Obama Elementary School, Henderson Middle, and John B. Cary in Richmond, and a wonderful private boarding school called The Miller School of Albemarle of Charlottesville, Virginia. I have a complex family background replete with triumph and tribulation but suffice it to say that I have many loving brothers and sisters and many supportive parents and relatives and extended family members from many cultural backgrounds.
TSG: How did you discover your passion for art?
SRB: I discovered my passion for art little by little over the years like a child learning how to speak and then converse. I first learned that I was adroit when I was in kindergarten and I was easily able to make a tracing and then a cutout of my hand with Styrofoam and paint it and add glitter as was the assignment. I discovered that the other children had more difficulty with this, which would be normal in kindergarten. Afterwards I was always supported by teachers and family to continue to create. My mother would always frame my works in high quality frames and have all sorts of art books around. I always had art supplies at my disposal. When I arrived at Miller, they had no art program and therefore no supplies. However, I continued to work on my own and eventually was asked to draw a portrait of Samuel Miller, the school’s founder, by the dean, Charles Leonard, a father figure to me. The next year Dean Leonard hired his niece to start the art program there and to this day it is a flourishing one.
TSG: Where did you study, and how has your art evolved over time?
SRB: I studied art at Virginia Commonwealth University and some photography at The Corcoran. My art has essentially evolved in technical virtuosity as I have honed my skills, and it has evolved simultaneously with my interaction in this world as a human and part of the socio-societal construct of race.
TSG: When did you know you wanted to pursue art as a career?
SRB: My uncle, an oral surgeon, asked me at 13 what I wanted to do as a career. I told him it was either study medicine and become a surgeon (I still study medicine on my own) or become an artist. And I thought out loud that if I presented someone with the most meaningful gift that showed my love for them in its entirety and upon receiving it they would exclaim how deeply moved they are and how it is the perfect gift and token of love. After all of that, throw it back to you and say I don’t want it. That would seem the height of ungratefulness and even cruelty. I reasoned that I felt that the creator gave me the gift of being able to create and I felt it was too meaningful and important a gift and moreover a responsibility to squander. So I accepted it with love and gratitude and told Uncle Stan that I would become a professional artist. He has always been supportive.
TSG: Can you describe your creative process?
SRB: I observe the world around me, immerse myself in the human condition and the natural environments. Rage at hypocrisy and apathy. Laugh at myself and with others. Consume and digest art and culture and find a spark of inspiration from it all. I contemplate concepts derived from those experiences I would like to experience as an observer of art. Then plan out how to create my vision and decide on the medium. After crafting the substrate I sketch the outline of the idea and complete with the desired medium. Usually oil or acrylic paint. I am considered a painter but I like to work in all mediums, from digital to film to sculpture to furniture design. I think all artists love to explore multiple avenues for creativity.
“I am grateful that my job consists of just being. Which essentially makes me jobless.”
TSG: What do you love most about what you do?
SRB: I love to share it with others. I love that it’s not a thing I do but just who I am. I am grateful that my job consists of just being. Which essentially makes me jobless.
TSG: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
SRB: I have had such sage people in my life that I cannot pick just one nugget of knowledge. Such advice has spanned over 40 years and I take them all to heart and even sometimes follow it. As I think back on them, I can’t pin down one piece of advice more salient than others. They tend to be like a meal, I consume the intent and truth of the shared wisdom. Digest its meaning and then give my full attention to the next serving. I do, however, frequently tell my students, when it comes to creating your own art, “chase the passion and the inspiration, not the money” and “do the work.” It is entirely possible and probable I received that as advice from someone first.
TSG: What challenges have you faced in your career? How have you overcome them?
SRB: I have faced a myriad of challenges. It is the nature of being an artist. It is perhaps what hones an artist. Artist block is one of them. I overcame the artist block immersing myself in art. By going to museums and gallery exhibitions. By watching films and documentaries, by engaging in discourse with people. By paying attention to life. And by not forcing it but just letting it flow back into you as you “do the work.” And by that I mean, paint or draw or write without direction. Just practice art. Concepts will take care of themselves.
“I appreciate the complexity and diversity of my city and its humility and its toughness.”
TSG: What do you enjoy and appreciate most about your community?
SRB: Well, that depends on which community you speak of. I have a community around my studio environs, which gives me the grit, desperate honesty, and bold entrepreneurial spirit one comes to enjoy about the inner city. Then there is my community of artists and intellectuals of color, who I appreciate for our shared journey through the dense jungle of creative truth and our ability to nourish one another’s soul and minds without holding back. Then there is my citywide community that includes all walks of life with the same goal of being a Richmonder and an American of purpose and aspiration. To count and be counted. I appreciate the complexity and diversity of my city and its humility and its toughness. Then there is my global community of which I am engaging with more and more every year from the Caribbean to Africa and Europe and beyond. I appreciate the amount I do not know about so many things and the willingness of my global family to share and shed light.
TSG: What’s next for you?
SRB: I am working on a contract project out of Connecticut to produce a series of tarot cards steeped in black culture. I will use this opportunity to produce 78 paintings that will add immense depth to my personal portfolio. The company will publish the cards and I will have a solo show with these works and take it from there. I am also writing three novels and a book of prose as well as two scripts and curating a collection of 2,000 photographs I took with film over the course of 39 years. I just recently developed all of them at the same time. Plus, I have various commission projects and personal projects I need to clone myself to complete. Personally I plan to travel and exercise more plus work on my voiceover reel.
“People will be pleasantly surprised at what they may discover when ideas and thoughts and inspiration is shared through the common goal of reciprocal business.”
TSG: Do you have any advice for people who might be interested in increasing their support for Black-owned businesses?
SRB: Yes. Just earnestly seek out diversity as a part of your daily life and that includes commerce. If commerce was a marathon, black folk did not get to start running until one hour and forty-five minutes into a two-hour-long race. Even the most swift of us cannot make up that stagger without recognition and equitable support. The best way to support is to sincerely seek out those black owned businesses that you really vibe with and that are doing an exceptional job at whatever it is they do. People will be pleasantly surprised at what they may discover when ideas and thoughts and inspiration is shared through the common goal of reciprocal business.
TSG: Can you provide a list of Black-owned businesses in your community that readers should know about?
SRB: There are a couple of directories that list a plethora of black-owned businesses. Here are two that I know of. One is BLK RVA, which focuses on tourist-related businesses and the other is Blocal Search. I personally know both of the founders of these sites.
Ross Browne is featured in The Scout Guide Richmond.