If one artist has his way, Mays' catch will live on (cont.)
"It's tough being an artist fascinated with history at a time when people don't seem to be interested in history," says Ross, "but sometimes it's exhilarating." Ross's other great passion, the legendary Old West, has sent him on pilgrimages to the O.K. Corral, to the site of Custer's Last Stand in Montana and to his boyhood home in Northern California, where Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West troupe once posed for photographers. "I love events with long-term mythical connections," he says. "Things that people want to see depicted over and over, as if they could, if they see it from enough angles, finally understand its significance."
In 2005 he hauled 200 hand-painted figures -- soldiers, Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, and horses -- to the Little Big Horn Battlefield, about a mile from Custer Hill, joining white and Indian reenactors in creating a version of the battle that was a dazzling mix of art and live action. "Amazing," he recalls of that day. "One of the Cheyenne got so worked up he smashed one of my figures from horseback." His intent, Ross emphasizes, was "not political. I simply wanted to pay tribute to the men who made that day part of American mythology."
Last year Ross returned to his native Bay Area to recreate one of his favorite photographs: Buffalo Bill and more than 100 cowboys and Indians from his traveling show on horseback lining the beach against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean in 1902. The installation drew an estimated 40,000 spectators.
Ross's figures are about a foot larger than their inspirations were in real life, because, he says, "That's the way they live in our memory -- larger than life."
Those two projects (which can be seen on his Web site) cost Ross in excess of $150,000 for materials and transportation. "I'm not a bad businessman," he says, "but these weren't business ventures. More like something between a labor of love and an existential errand. Call them my homage to iconic American moments."
Ross has been commissioned for sports themes -- Reggie Jackson asked him to do a painting commemorating his three-home-run game in the 1978 World Series, and his work, The Defining Moment, capturing the Seattle Mariners' 1995 victory over the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series, can be found inside the left-field gate of Safeco Field. He doesn't, however, consider himself either a sports or western artist. "Just call me a contemporary artist in love with the process by which fact evolves into legend," he says. "You know what the reporter says to James Stewart at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? When the fact becomes legend, print the legend. Put it this way, when the fact becomes legend, I paint it."
Late last year, preparing for Tuesday's 55th anniversary of The Catch, Ross re-petitioned the authorities for permission to erect a permanent artwork, again without success. But he isn't discouraged by the lack of official response. "Willie's catch is going to live on in the hearts of many," Ross says. "The tale must be told and told again."