Over the years, sightings of the tall, broad-shouldered artist Doug Ross—complete with his signature Converse high-tops, of which he owned a rainbow’s array—became a common fixture in downtown Santa Cruz.
“He was like this big, gentle giant kind of guy, and I always think of him walking around downtown,” says Matthew Swinnerton of Event Santa Cruz. “No matter what, he would always stop. I think it took a while for him to get from where he was going, from Pacific Avenue back to Cruzioworks [where he was one of the first coworkers to set up residency], because he’d just walk and talk with you.”
But Ross could also be spotted on a remote beach, wearing rubber boots and wielding a giant net to rescue a sick or entangled sea lion, as a trained volunteer for the Marine Mammal Center (MMC). Or at the helm of the Whale Entanglement Team’s (WET) 40-foot Albin, in pursuit of a humpback mired by a crab pot line. Or down at the harbor, checking on a sea-water-dissolving device he engineered for whale rescue efforts in Hawaii. Or pouring some of his homemade grappa for friends at a First Friday art show. Or, most recently, clearing his throat to practice his next presentation speech with his Toastmasters group.
The reality is that Ross wore many hats, or shoes, if you will, and the heartbreak brought by his unexpected passing in December, at the age of 55, is of a magnitude that shakes not just the local art world, but the entire community.
Ross, who was voted Best Artist by GT readers in this year’s Best Of contest will also be honored in the NEXTies awards on March 24, with the Artist of the Year award memorialized in his name. “Because we thought his legacy is so strong in our community,” says Swinnerton, who is also organizer of the NEXTies.
Ross donated countless hours volunteering, collaborating with many local businesses and makers and designing art to benefit several nonprofits—from the MMC and WET to the Santa Cruz Bat Conservancy, the Santa Cruz Arts Council, and others. But, in many cases, he was just getting started.
‘MAKE STUFF, RESCUE ANIMALS’
“In another life, he would have been a scientist,” says Ginger Mosney, Ross’ wife and partner for just shy of 30 years. “He loved working with biologists. It was an outlet for that side of him and he saw it was needed.”
She’s standing in her sunny kitchen in midtown, an early craftsman-style house with arched entryways reminiscent of the lines in Ross’s artwork. Open doors let the breeze through. Though she and Ross left their native Toronto, where they met working in her uncle’s framing shop, more than 25 years ago, her Canadian accent comes through whenever she says “about.” A horseback rider and animal lover herself, Mosney also helped Ross with his business. “Doug and I had a really similar aesthetic. We like all the same things, and we hate all the same things,” she says. About 9 years into dating, the two married in Vegas on Halloween—she dressed as a banana, he a gorilla.
Behind the house and out past the weeping bottle brush tree that surely inspired Ross’s Hummingbird print is the print studio where Ross made his art, and a smaller, comparably immaculate studio he built to frame in. Drawers upon drawers store Ross’s extensive body of fine art—which consists of more than 120 originals, and a few more that have yet to be printed. In the printing studio, Mosney flicks on the vacuum table that Ross built himself, and an ancient vacuum cleaner roars to life beneath it, sucking the paper tight to the hole-flecked workspace above. An old tin can mounted to the workbench serves as a holster for the hair dryer he used to dry his prints.
This same studio, where Ross began the fine art portion of his career in 2006, is where he also built a still, and for years made wine and grappa—dubbed “the only delicious grappa I’ve ever tasted,” by his longtime Cruzio friend Eric Johnson, co-founder of Hilltromper.
“If I had a mission statement for Doug, it would be something like ‘Make stuff, rescue animals,” says Mosney. “And if you can’t make stuff, support people that do make stuff, and if you can’t rescue animals, support people who do rescue animals.”
It seems like these aspects of character guided Ross throughout life: “As a boy and young man Doug always followed his own path regardless of what others were doing or thought … If it rained you knew Doug would be late coming home from school as he was picking up the worms from the road and placing them gently back on lawns. When the rest of his brothers were figuring out ways to harvest squirrels, Doug was inventing a tracking device inside a walnut shell to find out where they buried them—this was at about 10 years of age,” writes his older brother David Ross on his Facebook page,
Mosney’s blue eyes spark as she talks about the countless animals she saw her husband save over the years, from the small bunny they encountered late one night, hit by a car, to “I can’t tell you how many birds,” to the more heroic efforts involving pulley systems he rigged to retrieve marine mammals up jagged cliffs. “Doug was a little bit younger and very fit, so he could kind of do a lot of the more difficult rescues,” says Mosney. “So a lot of times [the Marine Mammal Center] would call him to do just these crazy rescues, an animal that no one thought could be caught, and he’d be like ‘No, I can totally get that, no problem.’”
“What happened was in 2001 we actually lost, tragically, a friend of ours,” says Mosney. “And it kind of makes you think, how can we make a difference, what can we do? So in 2002 we both started volunteering at the Marine Mammal Center. And that ended up being a huge part of his life.”
If there was an entanglement, says Mosney, Ross would drop everything to go help, heading down to Moss Landing to jump on the WET boat, or heading out in his Dodge Ram pick-up with its ‘SEAL TRK’ license plate to assess and rescue an animal reported to MMC.
“He was so, like, passionately moral,” says Johnson. “But he did it with such a sense of humor, and such a light touch that you wouldn’t even know it about him. But it was also just this sense of justice. The animals that he rescued, almost all of them were in trouble because of human activity. He just felt like it was his personal duty, as a representative of mankind, to go out and do this work.”
Indeed, the calls delegated to MMC’s Special Rescue Operations (SRO), of which Ross was a trained volunteer, included the more difficult water rescues and often involved entanglements by human-sourced debris.
“Sometimes it is fishery lines,” says David Zahniser, manager of the MMC’s SRO, and based at the main hospital in the Marin Headlands. But he’s seen everything from frisbees to binoculars to a snorkel mask wrapped around animals. “So, it’s quite variable. One of the leading entanglements right now are those white packing strips.”
Where the plastic packing strips are coming from is currently unknown. “I think that’s part of the larger issue—is where do we focus our efforts for prevention? If I never had to do one of those rescues that would be true success,” says Zahniser. But the reports keep coming—and on the morning I call Zahniser, he’s dealing with two simultaneous rescues.
Seeing so much plastic in the ocean was another reason, says Mosney, that Ross was challenging himself to live a plastic-free life, including in his business.
Run entirely by volunteers except for one paid employee, the MMC oversees 600 miles of coastline between Mendocino and San Luis Obispo counties, rescuing and rehabilitating 600-800 marine mammals a year. Many of these animals have been prematurely separated from their mothers, are malnourished, or are suffering from illnesses, such as domoic acid poisoning. The SRO team is trained to use sedative darts that also serve as a transmitter, so that an animal can be tracked. The animals are then taken in for a full medical evaluation, treated, and released back into the wild.
“[Ross] was an integral part in both running the operation, but also developing the program itself,” says Zahniser. “He was truly a modern day Renaissance man. Engineer, artist, athlete. From boat driver to capturing the animal to designing the equipment. He was often the person in charge on the ground. I valued his input and expertise.”
The MMC is also involved in helping to fundraise and raise awareness about the endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal, helping to open a hospital for them on the Big Island. For the past 5 years, Ross designed T-shirts to sell at the MMC’s booth at the Aloha Outrigger competition, with 100-percent of sales going to the hospital, where the crews wear them. “His work drew people in, it gave us an opportunity to talk to people about the monk seals and their plight,” says Westside resident Zee Zaballos, who joined MMC nine years ago and says Ross was a great mentor to her. At barely 5′1″, Zaballos says Ross noticed her struggling with the heavy MMC nets, so he custom-built one for her a few years back. “He considered my height, he considered animals that I would be going after and what their weight would be, and how much the net would actually take,” says Zaballos. “I go everywhere with it.”
Just a couple weekends ago, Zaballos says she used the net to capture, without fear, a 200-pound sub-adult sea lion at Capitola Beach that was showing the mental confusion associated with domoic acid poisoning.
A Better Buoy
Ross was also an integral part of the Whale Entanglement Team. Before Peggy Stap, executive director and founder of Marine Life Studies, co-founded WET with Mary Whitney of the Fluke Foundation, no formalized network or hotline existed on the West Coast for entangled whales. Stap began what she calls an “uphill battle” to get WET up and running in 2006, and it became fully operational in 2013. Ross joined as a volunteer soon after. Now, NOAA funds the toll-free hotline, 1-877-SOS-WHALE or marine channel 16 USCG.
“I just figured we’d get it started, and someone like NOAA would take it over, but that’s not the case,” Stap says, though she says they do work closely with NOAA.
“For the whole West Coast, there were 18 reports [of entangled whales] between 2000 and 2013,” says Stap. Ten of those were off California, and six were off of Northern California, she says. Last year, she confirms 23 reports of entangled whales in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) alone, though she is still waiting for finalized numbers. Crab fishing lines are the most common entanglement, though over the past few years she says the industry has been working closely with NOAA and WET to mitigate such entanglements.
When boaters call in a whale, it’s important they stay near it until WET arrives to attach a telemetry buoy to the line—otherwise it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, Stap says. The buoy tracks the whale as it dives and sometimes migrates hundreds of miles, while WET continues to work with it for multiple days. “You just don’t start slashing away, you’ve got to plan ahead, plan your cuts,” explained Ross in his March 2016 Pechakucha presentation, since the lines are often embedded in the whales’ flesh.
Ross helped respond to six disentanglement calls in the Monterey Bay last year, but he was also an active participant in training sessions, and volunteered his time to work on equipment—most notably designing a new telemetry buoy for WET. “[Our current one] weighs probably around 48 pounds, so Doug was developing one that was more hydrodynamic so it would cause less drag,” says Stap.
Ross drew up plans for a better buoy, and got local surfboard shaper J Atencio to build its core. Local model builder David Rees spent three days melting lead in Ross’s backyard to give it ballast. Stap and Ross measured the drag on the new buoy, and found it to be one-third of the previous buoy. But Ross planned to keep improving it, and just a week before he passed away, he had sent his plans for a second buoy to Brian Peterson of Eastside Industries, after chatting with him about it at a Pop-Up on Pleasure Point where they had had neighboring booths.
“Just this week [Stap and I] exchanged a couple emails, trying to get that going again,” says Peterson. “I’d love to be able to help.”
Ross was also instrumental in designing a release device for Ed Lyman, Large Whale Entanglement Response Coordinator for NOAA in Hawaii, so that whales swimming from Hawaii to Alaska wouldn’t have to drag a buoy all that distance. Ross took Lyman’s existing device, made from seawater-dissolving zinc, and improved it. “I took some down to the harbor, and sure enough, it dissolves in seawater in about two weeks,” said Ross in his presentation. “However, it’s fairly small and won’t really hold onto a whale that well, so we decided to build a mechanical clasp around it to increase the strength … So I designed this mechanical clasp, which through leverage increases the strength of the clasp three times, and it dissolves in seawater in 14 days, and then the whale swims away and we get our tracking device back.” Ross found local Roy Holmberg, a metal sculptor on the Westside, to make 20 clasps for free, and they were sent to Hawaii to be put to use.
What You Might See in a Dream
Ross’s artistic style is best described in his artist statement at Artisans Gallery: “Whether it’s art or illustration, I try to create images that convey an idea without unnecessary details. I minimize everything as much as possible, to get at the essence of the thing. What makes a person look like a person, a car like a car—not any particular make and model of a car, just a car, the idea of a car, what you might see in a dream, when you are not using your eyes.”
His graphic design background is evident in his refined forms and pleasing color palettes—but the fine art part of his career came only over the last 12 years. He learned how to silk screen from a neighbor, Andree LeBourveau, of the Tannery’s Printmaking Collective, and began designing and building his own equipment. Following his success at art shows and Open Studios, he slowly began doing less illustration work and more fine art, which has attracted a large following locally, especially among Santa Cruz’s vast network of marine biologists, says Mosney.
“I think he landed on silk screen because it’s a very technical art form and that appealed to him. It also lends itself to his style which is very graphic and modern, and precise,” she says. “The other thing that I think he liked about it is that it’s accessible, it’s just a very affordable medium for people, and I think that’s probably part of why he got so popular.”
Before that, and beginning in 1991, Ross produced thousands of works as a freelance illustrator. With an agent in New York and clients that spanned National Geographic to the New York Times and dozens of other prominent magazines, newspapers and corporations—though not oil companies, he’s pointed out (he was trained in oil spill cleanup response)—Ross did so well, says Ginger, that they were able to buy their house in Santa Cruz.
“Some of our last conversations were about the fact that he realized that he really liked interacting with people, and that his work prior, where he was mainly an illustrator, felt a lot more solitary,” says Linnaea Holgers James, owner of Artisans. Ross was the first artist she brought into Artisans on her own, after he walked in one day with some prints under his arm. “So when he was able to do work about sea creatures, which was one of his passions, and then be able to talk to people about sea creatures, it was like shooooom,” she says, gesturing above her head a total-mind expansion. “And he was really planning on pursuing that avenue and just kind of going more and more that way.”
In a 2015 Event Santa Cruz speech entitled “Un-Starving Artists”—which Swinnerton says Ross practiced for a month beforehand with his Toastmasters group—Ross said: “I wanted to be an artist, because that’s what I think I really am. So, I just decided to be an artist one day.” To do that, he took his working method for illustration and applied it to art: “I have an assignment, I have a deadline, and I have a story.” Aside from a collection of bicycle-related works, Ross credited that ever-crucial story part to his interactions with sea life through MMC and WET.
His last piece-in-progress is of the bike path at Wilder Ranch, which exists in its artist proof stage at Artisans.
“Particularly with the Santa Cruz images, as soon as he did one—and it was the UCSC Bike Path, and it was really well received— I said ‘you’ve gotta do another.’ And so he did West Cliff, and then it was the Humpbacks after that, and then he did Natural Bridges,” says Holgers James. “My last conversation with him was when he and I were looking at [Wilder Ranch] and we were talking about the grasses and the bikes … Sometimes I’d say ‘oh you should do this, and he would say ‘Well, let me go ask Ginger.’ He really, I think, valued those two opinions. And he was really open to suggestions and hearing and getting input.”
Holgers James and Mosney plan to continue the Doug Ross product line by continuing the textiles that he had begun doing—the first few marine-life-printed table runners and pillows of which are currently at Artisans and Agency.
“Animals are amazing. Animals are the original super heroes,” said Ross, in his 2015 Event Santa Cruz speech. “Animals can actually fly, and they can see in the dark with sonar, like bats and stuff, so why not do animals? Animals rock.”
Continuing Ross’ Marine Work
Since the MMC is not out actively looking for animals, the public’s participation is crucial, and the group encourages people to call the MMC hotline—open 24 hours a day—if they see a struggling animal, at 831-633-6298. Dialing 911 will also route callers to MMC.
Ventana Surfboards is currently selling humpback and shearwater T-shirts designed by Ross on its website, with 100-percent of proceeds going to WET, which had to take out a $54,200 loan two years ago to purchase its current Whale Rescue Research Vessel. The organization runs entirely on donations. To see more art by Doug Ross, visit dougrossfineart.com.