Joan Ross's practice extends across painting, sculpture video and printmaking. Her work interrogates histories of colonial collecting and of Australian colonisation. Ross has been the recipient of numerous prizes including the 2017 Sir John Sulman Prize and was recently announced as the winner of the 2018 Mordant Family VR Commission for ACMI. She is represented by Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin.
I think I always wanted to be an artist. When I was four I wanted to be a painter and a vet, and I had a timetable set out for how to do both. My parents bought me a Reader’s Digest artists book because of my interest and I soon got into trouble and had the book taken off me for showing Michaelangelo’s, The Creation of Adam, to other kids because they were nude and you could see Adam’s penis.
I remember writing a story about being an egg. I went all the way through my digestive system and then into the toilet. The principal called me in and asked if I would take out the bit where it came out of my bottom and went “plop" into the toilet in the form of poo. He tried to censor my writing and I wouldn’t let him. My parents stood by my decision not to allow it. These things stay with you.
I was around 8 or 9 then, the same age I decided not to see the Queen because I didn’t believe in what she stood for. I also abolished Mothers Day from my life and made a pledge never to do homework. I was a very strong minded kid. I had lots of ideas and my imagination was sharp. I won competitions for poetry, writing and art, but schoolwork was another story.
I was always a reasonable drawer and there were better realist drawers in my class, but mine had a lot more imagination. It was interesting to see how people recognised, even then, that the ability to draw alone wasn’t enough. Some friends in primary school started to collect my drawings saying, "I think you're going to be famous", lol!
My high school was just a regular western suburbs high school; my parents wanted my brother and I to go to private schools but we refused. We all loved Salvador Dali and Surrealism – we were teenagers and it was the 70s. I still love surrealism. I think its influence is obvious in my work, particularly the video animations.
I struggled through high school. I was an undiagnosed dyslexic, but my non-homework pledge still in progress probs didn’t help. I slowly fell out of the ‘A’ classes due to a lack of interest and commitment. I was so easily bored. I enjoyed art the most, but even there, I didn’t think I was excelling until my art teacher Vivienne Poon had a strong feeling about me and supported me consistently throughout high school. I felt she could see something in me that others couldn’t. She kept in touch with me and visited me occasionally as I probably became one of her most successful students. She died the week before I won the Sulman prize, which is sad. I think she would’ve been very proud to see that.
She couldn’t help me in my trials for the HSC when I got 6% because it was all essay writing and I couldn’t write in essay form; nor was I interested in Tom Roberts. I’m pleased to say that my work has since been used in the trials for the HSC – I think that means I passed! But this caused me to leave school before my HSC as I could foresee the horror about to unfold.
I remember the day I broached the idea of my leaving school to my mother. I sat on the arm of her chair and sang her a song; I didn’t know how else to do it. As Scottish immigrants they really wanted us to succeed and felt the HSC was essential. I jumped on a train to Cairns, but the beginning of the next term I started art at TAFE.
At TAFE I met a teacher called Joe Montano. He was the first person who recognised something particular in me. He said it was an ability to hear what was being suggested and actually carrying it through. This is something I try to instil in my students when I’m teaching; the need to listen and take advice and try it, to actually be open to learning.
Students have a responsibility too and he taught me this. His little bit of encouragement meant the world to me. I believe a little bit of confidence is enough. He was the most influential of all my teachers. He taught me experimentation and how to fail in that process, and how that failure lead to other, better ideas.
I was already using unusual materials to paint on and with, and he encouraged me in this when not many others were going in that direction. It was natural for me to buck the system and his support showed me to not let the restrictions of others stop me from going where I felt the work needed to go.
I went on to unexpectedly top the whole TAFE course. It was so relieving to be recognised for my abilities and have pretty much not stopped making art since.