In South Florida, hurricanes are a force of destruction, a driver of change and a fact of life.
All those qualities also make hurricanes a good catalyst for art. The power of hurricanes on the surf inspired the work of artist Clifford Ross, whose exhibit “Waves” will open at the Boca Raton Museum of Art on November 5th.
For more than 20 years, Ross has been capturing waves generated by hurricanes miles to hundreds of miles offshore from Georgica Beach in East Hampton, New York. The exhibit opens with 11 giant black-and-white photos of hurricane waves Ross took in 2008.
“It tracks a twenty year journey to express my passion for the ocean by pushing the boundaries of realism and abstraction," Ross said of the work.
He favors “big nature” in his art.
“I wasn't looking for William Blake's 'world in a grain of sand'" – some microscopic view or a photograph of a small bird,” he said. “I was enthralled from an early age with big nature – oceans and mountains.”
In early days, Ross said he would bundle up in a wetsuit, or layer after layer of clothing, to guard against the chill of the northern Atlantic. He’s since adapted, prioritizing safety as well as warmth to capture the sometimes violent waves. These days, he tethers himself to an assistant on shore and wades into the water to shoot.
“I’m a desperate man,” he said, “and I’ll try, by any means necessary, to share my experience with nature."
Ross’s experience with that stretch of Long Island beach hasn’t always been so daring. When he visited the beach with his family as a young child, he said, he was “petrified” of the water.
“I had an older brother who would dive into waves with great abandon, and I had to screw up my courage to even get into the water,” he said.
He said he mastered the water over time, first becoming a strong swimmer, then returning to capture it on film.
“I think it's a bit of vengeance,” he said. “I’m now controlling the waves that petrified me.”
Irvin Lippman, the director of the museum, has been working to bring Ross to Boca Raton since he saw an exhibit of the artist's work at Mass MoCa several years ago. The hurricane waves, he thought, would resonate with the museum's coastal community. As he got to know Ross's work, though, he said he came to appreciate the more abstract works inspired by Ross's experience of ocean waves.
"Clifford is always imagining how he can use the subject in new ways," said Lippman. "He creates these new works that I think are so dramatic."
Beyond the large and more traditional wave photographs, there are wave photographs printed on large panels of maple formed into triptychs, the wood grain showing through and adding texture. There are framed pieces of solid blocks of color in grayscale shades. There are photographs of small, non-hurricane waves – calm portraits captured on a clear day.
“When I'm shooting, the world seems to go into slow motion and goes quiet,” he said. “I needed something to represent that quiet – and the still sky above the horizon on a calm, clear summer day.”
The museum also commissioned a piece that will remain after Ross’s exhibit closes on March 1st. It’s an 8 foot by 4 foot LED panel showing a video of entirely computer-generated waves – “no waves or oceans were harmed in making this artwork,” he quips. Ross describes it as another attempt to bring the viewer closer to his own experience when he works with big nature.
Lippman sees the LED panel installation as the "culmination of the 'waves-equaling-energy'" idea.
"This electrical impulse is making these amazing shapes, the memory of the waves as he saw them," Lippman said.
Ross’s Waves exhibit is being paired on the museum’s ground floor with work by Maren Hassenger, who has been soliciting community involvement in twisting newspaper strands to form her “Tree of Knowledge” installation since July.
"It’s a bit of serendipity that they’re both dealing with nature but in very different ways," said Lippman. "Clifford’s, of course, are very pristine works, beautifully printed; Maren’s work, the twisiting of the newspaper, is in many ways messy because newsprint is messy, but they’re both extremely meditative."
Both artists talk about their concern for the environment, and the effect overall is an encapsulation of nature’s value and its endangerment.
“The exhibition is a celebration of the beauty and sublime power of nature – and it's a wake up call to protect it," said Ross.