MAKING A LIFE OUT OF MAKING
"I knew that I wanted to be an educator before I understood that I was an artist as well.”
GEORGIANA NEHL (R), Drawing + Foundations Department Professor Emerita, with MICHELLE ROSS (L), then student and current Drawing + Painting Department Head.
Longtime educator and respected Pacific Northwest abstract painter MICHELLE ROSS discovered Oregon College of Art and Craft (OCAC) at 18 years of age. Working fulltime in a restaurant, she decided to, “do something to expand my mind besides baking pies.” That something was enrolling for a drawing course at OCAC.
Head of OCAC's Drawing + Painting Department since 2015, Michelle is living proof of the value of an art education. “I was a high school drop–out here in the Beaverton District. But that only lasted for about 5 minutes.” After quickly signing up for classes at PCC Sylvania, she completed her high school degree—with college credits accrued.
And then, for a couple terms at the age of 18, Michelle studied with Georgiana Nehl, Drawing + Foundations Department Professor Emerita. The principles she learned from “Geo” were “the basis for what became OCAC’s intensive Foundations curriculum.”
Michelle, who began teaching at OCAC in the mid 90s, sums up the evolution of her “really satisfying career” as both educator and artist like this: “Here’s a kid that dropped out of high school and, through this series of events, this tight–knit community…” found art.
“And it saved me. Really, the arts education that I received…gave me direction, gave me focus & also inspired my interest in education & being an educator.”
Michelle is passionate about providing as many students as possible, from ages 17 to 70, the chance to “actually see something happen from their brains and their hands—it’s an agency that I don’t know how else people get at."
Through decades of mentorship, she’s helped a range of creative thinkers and makers find their paths. “It’s these individual lives that might otherwise be misdirected...” she says.
Wearing a "FEAR NO ART" cap (a gift from the Ford Family Foundation to its fellows), Michelle enjoys time with her dog love Irving.
The Wonder of Manipulating Materials
An art education from OCAC lays the foundation for “having a positive effect in the world...through materials,” Michelle says. And the possibilities are limitless. “Whether that’s forming a functional mug out of clay, or writing code, or taking digital imagery and reimagining the world through new technologies.”
OCAC artists learn how to approach a problem:
That kind of repeated experience builds HUMAN CAPACITY.
It builds CONFIDENCE.
It builds LEADERSHIP.
On a really basic level,
that’s what we need in the world."
An OCAC education is composed of “the usual litany of problem-solving, initiative, and aspiration.” And the excitement and wonder associated with manipulating materials is contagious.
“What am I painting today, what forms am I creating? What’s happening on the loom? How many different kinds of cuts do I have to make to form this chest of drawers? That is what’s central," says Michelle. "That problem-solving, that engagement with the materials.”
The Palette of a Pacific Northwest Artist:
Michelle also understands the value of Oregon’s distinctive art community. “At one point, I thought about going back East,” she says. “My family didn’t have the resources…the fact that OCAC was here in Oregon allowed me to do what I might not have otherwise been able to do.”
“There is such a legacy of Pacific Northwest artists that have come from these institutions,” she continues…“And these institutions…have created artists that have defined the Pacific Northwest.”
Michelle is one of those artists.
OCAC’s bucolic campus is also quintessentially Oregonian. Michelle has witnessed the looks of amazement when students visit the 9.5 rolling acres for the first time: “The view to the west hills, the way that it’s tucked in…There’s a sense of spaciousness here that’s balanced by these little individual studio communities."
But the wooded grounds are not the only component that make OCAC an Oregon treasure. While materials can be clay or paint, Michelle points out that they can also be "human potential."
And of even greater importance is the student population: “It’s the human relationships, really,” says Michelle. “Groups of people are a material to be curated and interacted with. (Students) help each other. They support each other. I think that is evident in the response we’ve received from alum."
"What’s special about OCAC students is that they rise to the challenge & find their own way."
Even in the face of adversity, students from all walks of life say, "I’m still going to go out there and make…make a life out of making," Michelle explains. And that’s exactly what she's done.
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Michelle Ross received her Bachelor of Fine Art from Pacific Northwest College of Art in 1987 and her Master’s in Fine Art from Washington State University in 1994. She has exhibited for more than 15 years in solo/group exhibitions in the Northwest and as far away as Rome. In addition to teaching and practicing of art, she is actively engaged in the Oregon arts community. Ross has mentored younger artists, presented gallery talks, and served as visiting guest lecturer. Her work appears in collections including the Rhode Island School of Design Special Collections, the City of Portland, Willamette University, Saks Fifth Avenue and the Portland Art Museum (its main collection and the Gilkey Print Center).