Bulgarian-born, Atlanta-based artist Ross Rossin began a year-long academic residency at Emory University with the unveiling of a portrait of his vision for Frankenstein’s monster, part of a campus-wide series of events celebrating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s classic novel. ArtsATL sat down with the renowned painter to chat about the new painting, his work in general and his life as one of the world’s most in-demand portrait artists.
ArtsATL: Did you work with a model for the new painting, or is the figure of Frankenstein’s monster entirely from your imagination?
Ross Rossin: I had a model, my son, Michael, which I find particularly intriguing to create my version of Frankenstein’s creation. There is a certain symbolism and a certain synergy going on. He is about the age of Mary Shelley when she conceived of the idea for the novel. I intentionally decided to approach his face like this, depicting someone young.
ArtsATL: Were you very familiar with the novel? Did you pick it up again for the painting?
Rossin: I read it a long time ago. I went back to it. The story itself I know well, but I wanted to see those portions when she talks about the creature when the creature talks. I wanted to get more intimate with the creature, but more importantly with Mary Shelley. In this portrait, I’m trying to channel her mind and her soul, not just her creation. I try to go beyond. I try to connect with her on a generational level, trying to connect her with today’s generation. The genius of Mary Shelley is that she left just enough room for interpretation. I took that artistic license beyond the obvious, beyond the novel. Although, I’m trying to be as accurate as possible with her description of the creature — which isn’t very long, by the way — to go beyond, to convey certain ideas and provoke certain thoughts that for me are important, that need to be in a painting, that really need to be in every piece of art.
ArtsATL: Do your models typically sit for you throughout the process? Do you work from photographs? Or can you study a face and then paint it?
Rossin: I know him pretty well for obvious reasons. I took a number of pictures, from various angles, with various light. I tried various things. With a wig obviously, his hair is different. He had make up and a period shirt. And I made some horrific changes obviously. It was important to have an actual person as a base.
ArtsATL: Did your son see the work in progress? How did he react to the finished painting?
Rossin: Once or twice he would look at it and say, “Oh my god, it’s getting ugly.” At the end, he saw the painting and said, “That was a mistake. Never again.” Even today, he’s at college in North Carolina. I sent him an image of the portrait on stage. He said, “Clearly a mistake.”
ArtsATL: How long does it take you to create a painting?
Rossin: The real answer is 53 years. On the canvas, no more than two weeks. Forty plus years of doing nothing else helps.
ArtsATL: Still, that must be an intense two weeks. Do you enjoy the process?
Rossin: I do. I even enjoy the moments of doubt and confusion and uncertainty. I do enjoy the whole process.
ArtsATL: You were recognized as an artistic prodigy in your native Bulgaria at the age of six. What were you doing that attracted people’s notice?
Rossin: Ever since I remember, I flipped through books and admired the Old Masters. I never went through that kids’ stage of drawing strange things or animals or houses. I loved portraits. I started doing portraits. They looked relatively good considering the young age, probably mature for my age. That made it different from other kids.
ArtsATL: Did you come from an artistic family, or was it a total shock to everyone?
Rossin: Total shock. Absolutely different. My father was an electrician; my mother was a librarian. That’s it. The good thing was that my mother always liked the arts. She would surround herself and me and my brother with books about art. I was exposed to it indirectly, but no one in my family had anything to do with the arts.
ArtsATL: Is Ross Rossin your given name?
Rossin: That’s a name which I adopted here in the United States when I became a citizen about 10 years ago. My birth name is Rossin — that’s my first name. I always sign my paintings as Rossin. When my name got popular, I decided to adopt it as a family name. Because many people called me Ross anyway, I said, “What the hell: Ross Rossin.” An artistic name that became a family name. It’s official.
ArtsATL: In Bulgaria, you had a rigorously classical art training, very formal and very different from the approach to training artists here. Could you describe that education? And were you happy with that approach?
Rossin: What was interesting, you might think it was rigorous. Actually, it was not. It was classical in many ways. We studied the human body. We studied portraiture, but we also studied philosophy, art history, aesthetics, anatomy and perspective. Nobody was telling us, “You should paint realistically.” That was my choice, my own personal decision to follow that path. That’s my way, the way I express myself best, simply because human nature is so amazing, so divine in its diversity. It’s basically an endless source of inspiration. All of my colleagues, they ended up doing all kinds of styles. The education was classical, but it wasn’t mandatory or rigorous; nobody was expecting us at the end to paint realistically.
ArtsATL: You spent the early part of your career painting portraits in Japan. Do you feel the Japanese aesthetic influenced your work?
Rossin: Huge influence. More than anything, it was the aesthetic of Japanese prints. Do you see that stark white background? It’s everywhere in my portraits, with very few exceptions. This is something I learned there. I put my models in this space, the middle of nowhere, a strange no man’s world. It suggests a sense of eternity, out of time, out of place. That has to do with the East. The West is always very concrete, very specific, very rational. I basically blended the two, this Eastern understanding of the universe as a whole, unique, spiritual environment and then the human being right in the middle as real as it can get.
ArtsATL: When you paint a portrait, do you think about what the sitter is thinking and try to convey that? Or is it more a matter of capturing the face as it exists physically and letting the face speak for itself?
Rossin: I go directly for the essence, honestly. I read the person within seconds. I already have a clear idea who is sitting in front of me and most importantly why. What’s my relation to that person. As much as I try to understand my model, I try to understand my relationship with that model. To a large extent, all of those portraits, they’re self-portraits too. It’s the dialogue that makes the magic. It’s not just a photographic or literal depiction of something that exists. It would be no different than a vase. No, it’s a living thing. What makes it living is this kind of dialogue between the artist and the model, between the viewer and the painting. This is how it works.
ArtsATL: Is Atlanta a good place to be an artist?
Rossin: I can only say for me, for how I feel. I feel great for thousands of reasons. Atlanta may not have the art scene of New York or Paris, but I honestly don’t care. I’m not here for the art scene, I’m here for the people. I’m a student of human nature. I try to understand human nature and most importantly the divine aspects of human nature. I’m very comfortable here with my family, with my friends, with the people I know, with the ability to travel around the world and always come back to a safe, quiet spot where I can meditate in my studio. This is what I do. I call it work because it is work, but it is much more than that. It is meditation. If you flipped your question and asked it again: Is Atlanta a good place to meditate as an artist? The answer is: hell, yes.