Dylan Ross’s studio is a veritable maze. The entrance off the street in downtown Douglas, Georgia, leads to a graffiti-covered stairwell, painted by the artist himself. On the second floor landing is a doorway directly ahead, another to one side, and a hall littered with scattered drawings on the floor, canvases at least five feet tall, one of which features Geronimo’s glassy stare, and portholes to dark rooms with curtains for doors. He calls it his art factory.
Ross has made artwork for music and football icons like Aaron Murray, Dennis Rodman, Aaron Lewis, and Jason Aldean. He has illustrated a children’s book written by former Georgia Bulldog linebacker Rennie Curran and his daughter Eleana Curran, titled What Does It Take to Be a Star?
In Douglas, the Ross family name is well known. Dylan’s granddad owned a local business, his uncle is a doctor, his aunt is a lawyer, and his mom is a teacher. Wayne Clough, president of the Georgia Institute of Technology from 1994 to 2008 and 12th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, from 2008 to 2014, is his cousin.
Dylan lounges on a beat-up mushy sofa in what looks like a rec room at the center of his factory. A matching chair and ottoman slouch next to him. There’s a flat screen on the opposite side of the wood-paneled room, and a shrinelike bookcase filled with sports paraphernalia and burning candles. His own work hangs on the wall behind him. Scrawled in Sharpie and spray paint, celebrities like Johnny Cash, Marilyn Monroe and Aaron Lewis watch over the room. Dylan himself is wearing a thin paint-splattered tunic and dark plaid shorts. Around the room are strategically placed fans. There is no air conditioning.
He digs out a thick three-ring binder with page-protected scans of his drawings. Categorized chronologically, it dates back to elementary school, a gift from his grandma. Looking through the binder, it’s easy to see his talent developing. Even his graphite army men from middle school have charm and dimension. By high school he was drawing realistic portraits of football superstars. From the shine of helmets to taut muscular legs, no detail is missing. He stuck to a black-and-white color scheme until he graduated high school. It’s a startling contrast to the vibrant work he produces now.
Still on the floor, for example, is a just-completed portrait of Abraham Lincoln on a canvas that’s at least five feet tall. Splashes of hot pink brighten his collar. Metallic golds shimmer around his profile making him look like he’s hovering off the surface. There is the occasional hint of deep blue. Ross points to Lincoln’s ear lobe where another splash of color seeps through.
Ross originally went to college to pursue political science as a path to law school. At the same time, his painting career was gaining traction – he had clients, people were buying his work. He’d lose sleep thinking about what he’d be giving up if he continued school. He couldn’t commit to both, so he decided to leave school. When he thinks about that now, he knows staying in school would have been a terrible decision for him. “Everything I’ve done this whole time might not have existed,” he says. Meeting celebrities, selling his work to collectors, creating art full time, having his own studio space – none of it would exist.
Growing up in Douglas, he never considered art a career. Even when he earned a scholarship to the Savannah College of Art and Design, resistance from his parents made it “out of the question.” At that time he thought, “What the hell would I do with an art degree?” A career in art, he thought, meant he had to be an illustrator or web designer. He had never been to an art gallery. He had never seen a real artist at work. He didn’t know what it meant to be an artist or how to go about it. When he did leave college to pursue art, he started making abstract work. “For someone who never did anything other than realistic pencil drawings, I just went straight abstract.”
At 21, he signed a yearlong contract with the short-lived New Sydney Gallery in New York, but it didn’t feel right. When trying to pump up his work and imbue it with meaning for viewers, he realized he didn’t believe in what he was saying and he didn’t believe in what he was making. Ross didn’t like the way viewers would talk about his work either, ascribing unintended meanings that he thought was just a way to flaunt their intellectual superiority.
“You can only b.s. your way so far.” He laughs about it now. “A South Georgia kid don’t need to be up in New York City struggling, trying to pay $2,500 a month in rent, painting..” He realized back home he could afford to do what he wanted, where he wanted, without constantly having to cater to critics or buyers.
He likes where he works and what he produces now better than what he was making then. “I like the people here. Down-to-earth, normal.” He points at the large Lincoln lying on the floor in front of him. “You can’t really say a lot other than that is Abraham Lincoln and it’s really cool looking.” He laughs again. “For me it’s about the everyday person. I try to do stuff my grandma would like or that my little brother would like.”
Moving back home meant he needed to help his community see art as culturally and economically valuable. While living expenses are lower in a rural community, the people with the interest and means to buy art tend to live in urban areas or move there. Ross credits his family history and his commitment to his work for the robust support he receives, especially because people who live in and around Douglas, he says, don’t buy art.
“Compare that TV,” he points to the flat screen, “A TV that size versus a painting that size, art should be more expensive, but here people are like ‘Hell no, I’m not paying like $500 for a painting like that. I’m gonna pay $800 for a TV the same size.’” He wants to change that. He wants his neighbors, friends, and family to see the value in art.
“I think a painting, something someone made by hand, can be appreciated five hundred years from now while a TV is not gonna be worth a damn in two months.”
He’s put “art in action.” A charity fundraiser by that name hosted by Ross and the Chamber of Commerce raised money for five different local causes. He’s painted a variety of murals across town and the region, including one on the side of a house that features a surprised looking Barney Fife and a silhouette of Andy and Opie carrying fishing poles, mimicking the opening sequence of The Andy Griffith Show. When it catches the sun, the whole thing glistens thanks to gold metallic spray paint. He’s also done murals for local businesses and a swim team. He hopes these and other public works will get people thinking about art.
Looking at the Lincoln on the floor again, he says, “Might have a sixty-year-old super conservative guy pick this painting up, and then he’s got hot pink on his wall. That’s what I’m trying to do—break those little barriers that people around here have.” Ross wants to see those barriers broken and believes his work can help do that. And he doesn’t mind if his paintings “get under people’s skin.”
But he knows that there is a limit to how much the community can support him. “There’s only so much here, and the well will dry up.” In the meantime, he’s producing a lot of work. His studio is filled with illustrations on canvas, paper, even mailing envelopes. While he paints, friends and musicians come over to riff, people like Nate Kenyon, a finalist on America’s Got Talent.
Ross eventually hopes to purchase a better, bigger studio, and maybe start something like a residency program to bring in artists from around the world for a few months at a time.” He feels that if he can get enough exposure and support, an art community could be created and sustained in Douglas.
“I think art can become something here,” he continues, “and that’s huge for a town like Douglas that doesn’t have an identity other than cotton and peanuts.” He thinks the community is starting to realize this. And maybe in the process art can change the way his community thinks too. “If you have a few artists living in Douglas for a few months a year, that could potentially change our whole atmosphere and where this town goes in the future.”