Painting the Political

'Feel the Bern' by Jerry Ross
'Feel the Bern' by Jerry Ross

Artist Jerry Ross recently spent a lot of time with Donald Trump’s face. As a Bernie Sanders supporter, this was no easy feat.

“I got a lot of praise for that Trump painting because it captured his arrogance,” Ross says. “Also, his jaw, it’s very much like the jaw of Mussolini,” he adds with a laugh, referencing the fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

The Trump portrait is not some sort of artistic self-flagellation, but rather one in a series of paintings Ross is sending to Las Vegas for the show Dishing It Out 2016. Ross’ sister, Las Vegas-based fine art photographer Diane Bush, has curated a yearlong show featuring 2016 presidential candidate portraits, of both a fine art and satirical bent, opening Jan 21. But before that, Ross will display some of his prints here in Eugene.

So far, Ross has completed portraits of Bernie Sanders, Hilary Clinton, Chris Christie and, of course, Trump. Giclee prints of these originals, other new work (do not miss the mammoth and metaphorical “Passeggiata con Cinghiale”), along with some older pieces, will be on display for First Friday ArtWalk Jan. 8 at In Eugene Real Estate downtown (100 E. Broadway). The show, about 30 paintings in all, will hang for two months.

In addition, selected Dishing It Out works — including Ross’  Trump  — will be put on mugs and commemorative plates, a winking throwback to those Ronald Regan and Jimmy Carter dishes you can still find in thrift stores.

In conjunction with the Eugene show, Ross has organized the Bernie Sanders ReadOut 6:30 to 9:30 pm Thursday, Jan. 14, at Tsunami Books. The event, which Ross compares to the “teach-outs” of the sixties, will call on local artists, writers, performers and citizens to hash out and define the “revolution” that Sanders is calling for. A cappella group The Jewel Tones will perform a twist on the 1958 hit “Mr. Sandman” as “Mr. Sanders,” and performers Izzy Whetstine and Matting Keating (also head of Lane County for Bernie Sanders) will read.

In Eugene, Ross — an oil painter and longtime arts educator and advocate — is not known for overtly political art. He focuses mostly on landscapes, portraits and figurative work with bold, loose brushwork drawing on elements from Expressionism, Impressionism and Realism. Ross has deemed this style American Verismo — a school of painting that encourages working directly from life.

Yet politics has always been central to Ross.

“I was one of the Buffalo Nine during the Vietnam War, which was like the Chicago Seven, only much more obscure,” Ross says. The Buffalo, New York, native was one of nine students arrested by a team of U.S. marshals, FBI agents and local police in 1968 for protesting the war and the draft. Ross was prosecuted in two federal trials, both ending in hung juries. Shortly after, he relocated to Oregon.

“I haven’t really been involved in electoral politics — it was all protest politics,” Ross recalls. But he says he’s starting to see the same energy around Bernie Sanders that he saw in the kind of sixties activism that gave birth to the Port Huron Statement — Tom Hayden’s 1962 manifesto for the student activist movement Students for a Democratic Society.

“Students don’t have a movement like that today, but there’s the beginnings of it around Bernie Sanders,” Ross says.

“I really see a role for the arts in this because it hasn’t been clarified what Bernie Sanders means by the ‘political revolution’ other than a list of issues he’s concerned with,” Ross continues. “So I’m asking writers and artists to define what that is here. It’s like a teach-out that will help us define what we mean by all of this. It’s going to be an art exhibit and performances both.”

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