Style Q&A: A Fashion Chameleon

Her dark, pastoral art has brought her to the forefront of Edmonton’s art scene, but Erin Ross’ personal style is anything but gloomy.

photography by Brianna Hughes; styling by Erin Monaghan; makeup by Nicola Gavins; hair by Lauren Hughes of Mousy Browns; Photographed on location at Latitude 53. Artwork by Leanne Olson

When I meet Erin Ross, an artist known for deconstructing traditional landscapes, she’s wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap over her thick blonde braid. I think it’s an attempt to cover up bedhead, but it’s actually just one hat in her collection of about 40.

A self-described “style chameleon,” Ross maintains her laid-back vibe when painting, but puts together elegant ensembles for gallery openings and fundraiser events. She’s a friendly fixture in the 104th Street area – baristas and customers know her by name in credo, where she hangs out on breaks from painting at her studio in the historic Great West Saddlery building. It’s only natural her clients would want a piece of her upbeat personality to take home and hang on their walls.

Instead, buyers get dark takes on pastoral landscapes. Her 2012 Burning Barn series shows an old barn ablaze but the golden field surrounding the structure remains untouched. The pieces, inspired by dark scenes like those in Cormac McCarthy‘s novel, The Road, can be found in Regina’s Assiniboia Art Gallery and her work also hangs in the Gibson Fine Art Gallery in Calgary. 

The 30-year-old artist also has an audience in Edmonton, where she was born and now resides – she moved to Medicine Hat at the age of 15 and returned to finish her bachelor of fine arts at the University of Alberta. Some of her watercolour illustrations have been displayed in Corso 32 and she’s donated work to various charitable fundraisers. For seven years, Ross has been on the board of directors of the CTV Good Neighbour Fund, an organization that provides Edmontonians with everything from specialized medical equipment to baby supplies.

Ross is also on the board of artsScene Edmonton and acts as chair of fundraising for Latitude 53. She was nominated for emerging artist awards at both the 2012 and 2013 Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts and received a commission to create a public art display for the Edmonton Arts Council – she’ll soon begin work on her two-panel installation, which is scheduled to appear on the Mill Woods park pavilion within the next few years. In the meantime, her work as one of the organizers of the new Living Bridge project – a city garden perched on an old rail bridge overlooking 97th Street at 105th Avenue – will keep her busy.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

I try to look at the landscape in a non-romantic way and at the idea of why people painted landscapes traditionally and challenge that. I want to take it and make it less idyllic, less romanticized, less decorative and more personal. I drive a lot – my parents own a ranch in southern Alberta and I work in galleries across Western Canada – so I’m always on the highway. I think one thing that makes Western Canada so distinctive is our amazing, stormy skies or our crazy sunsets.

I work from memory, from photos and try to capture an emotional space in my landscapes. They aren’t really real spaces, they’re sort of imagined spaces but they’re inspired by what I’m actually surrounded by so I feel like my work is very autobiographical, very Alberta, but it’s the darker side of Alberta, kind of blowing apart the romantic notion of what makes something pretty. The Burning Barn series, it’s got an accompaniment series where I’m painting [about] death, I guess – dead animals but not in a way that’s political. I don’t think [the paintings] are very violent; I think it goes back to painting life. I don’t think you can paint about life if you don’t also consider death – what it means, how we explore it as a culture. It is not a prevalent theme in my work; it’s just sort of always under the surface.

What in Edmonton inspires you?

The people I’m exposed to and the people I’ve had the opportunity to build relationships with in the art community have been really inspirational. Because I’m not in school anymore and I didn’t do my masters and I’m not really working – I don’t want to say a “real” job – but I’m not really working a real job, I don’t have that network of people. That’s what so great about school. You have this network of people to bounce ideas off of. When you’re not in school, working at the Edmonton Arts Council, at a gallery or painting in a co-operative, you’re painting by yourself – you need to seek out your own group of peers to be really honest with you. I feel like I’ve found some people here that I can trust to be really honest with me. That’s been super valuable. The community in Edmonton is awesome.

What thoughts and emotions do you have while you’re painting?

Painting is engrossing. Hours can go by and I won’t notice. If it’s going well, I won’t stop to take a break. I won’t eat, I won’t go to the bathroom. I’ll just keep going. I listen to music while I paint. It’s a meditative experience.

How is your current work different from your work five years ago?

My work is more thoughtful now; it’s more emotional. Some of it is more difficult. It’s still beautiful though. It’s not a word used to describe art that often. I like to make ugly subjects beautiful.

How has the way you dress changed now that you’re 30?

I’m more concerned with comfort and functionality now as opposed to when I was in my early 20s. I want to be warm in winter, and be able to walk forever in shoes – well, a few of my shoes at least! When I was 21 and bartending, I remember going to Whyte Ave. in the middle of winter, when it’s, like, -35 degrees Celsius with a wind chill, in short shorts and pointy-toed heels – bare legs, of course – and no jacket. I wouldn’t be caught dead doing that now.

Do you think about having kids? 

I think about having kids a lot. My husband and I have been married for four years in September, and my parents definitely want grandkids. That being said, we’re both feeling pretty selfish still – we’re both really engaged in our careers and other interests right now, we have super active social lives and travel a lot … I mean, sometimes I feel like we barely have time for each other, let alone the time to raise a family. We both come from big families that we love, and I can’t imagine not having that for myself as we age. It feels like such a hard choice these days for a lot of women – to make everything balanced, to do everything you want, and to have a family but, yes, I think we will eventually.

Do you plan your outfits in advance?

I converted my home office into a wardrobe room. I have half of the room covered in floor-to-ceiling wardrobes, a shoe closet, a vanity, a bunch of pretty hooks – I love that all my things have a home now. I try to keep it organized so that I always know where everything is – it makes planning outfits so much easier. I just open the doors, look around and pull things together on the fly.

What do you wear when you’re in the studio painting?

I’ve sort of developed a “uniform” for my studio; for summer, I’m more of a short shorts or onesie kind-of-girl paired with a cute sandals or Toms. I need to be able to comfortably walk to and from my studio – it’s about a 40-minute walk one-way. Volcom makes a great jean short, and Aritzia has some awesome onesies. I don’t wear a ton of dresses [in my studio]. I want something I can move around comfortably in that isn’t going to be devastating if paint gets on it accidentally. And hats – I have a lot of baseball hats and tuques. I have thick, super long hair that I hate to wash, so hats are the perfect accessory.

In winter, it’s Lululemon wunder under tights, warm wooly socks – Roots makes some classic “Canadiana” versions I love – my black Doc Martens, an American Apparel deep v-neck T-shirt and a hoodie. I like Urban Outfitters’ unisex selection and Aviator Nation makes an amazing hoodie – and I love my black leather bomber jacket from Aritzia. I also wear a lot of plaid flannel.

What would you wear to a gallery opening or fundraiser?

My style does a bit of a 180 for these events, which I love. It’s super fun to get dressed up, put on a gorgeous pair of heels – Pour La Victoire makes a great basic stacked pump – and a super feminine dress or a great button-up shirt paired with a super well-fitted jean. I love J Brand – they make a great dark wash super skinny jeans, and awesome coloured super skinny pants. Aritzia has great “boyfriend” dress shirts or acid-washed denims and good plaid flannels that are casual but classic. Equipment silk blouses are beautiful and feel like a dream. I put the hats away, wash and do my hair, put on fun accessories and play with makeup a bit.

As an artist, do you ever feel pressure to dress a certain way?

No, not really. I’ve always had my own sense of what looks good on my body – that isn’t heavily influenced by one particular trend or the other. I try to stay current and borrow things that interest me about popular fashion, but I really don’t follow any fashion rules. I can be a bit of a fashion chameleon, and I certainly have my own style that’s hard to pin down!

Does your husband ever influence your style? 

My husband Matt [Evans] definitely influences my style. He’s the senior manager of investor relations at Canadian Western Bank. He has his own work “uniform” that takes all the guesswork out of getting dressed in the morning and I definitely adopted that. He also has an awesome casual style – it was actually something that attracted me to him right off the bat. We share a lot of his street clothes – hoodies, v-necks, hats … I guess it’s not so much sharing as it is me stealing. He’s always like, “Stop wearing my stuff to your studio and getting paint on it!”

What are some of your goals for the future?

For short-term goals, I’d like to get representation in an Edmonton gallery. I’ve been in commercial galleries for almost five years now outside of the city, and I think I’m ready to find my right fit here. Long term, I really want to continue to make work that challenges me, and I really want to find a broader audience through gallery representation across Canada, into the United States and overseas to the U.K. and Europe. At the end of the day it’s about the work – keeping it interesting and honest and keeping myself engaged in it. I would love to get some recognition and win some awards too – that never hurts!

Favourites

Hangout credo

Restaurant Corso 32

Vacation destination Anywhere in the U.S.

Movie In 2012, it was Zero Dark Thirty

Actor and actress Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jessica Chastain

Book Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee and The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Favourite app Songza

Magazine Elephant

Jewellery designer Millicent Designs and House of Harlow

Local clothing boutique Coup {Garment Boutique}

Cocktail An Old Fashioned or any vintage cocktail

Non-alcoholic drink Caffeine-free tea from David’s Tea, iced or hot

Beauty product Kiehl’s Crme de Corps

Hair product All of Kevin Murphy’s line

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