By JIM MATTHEWS
ONTARIO – Stereotypes become stereotypes because they tend to tell important things about members of a group. For example, fly-fishermen gravitate toward the artistic and creative side of the fishing spectrum. They like fine wines, have debates about what insect is hatching, and buy or tie box-fulls of flies to imitate specific insects. They only fish for trout and release all their fish, and most are toying with becoming vegetarians, if not vegans. They probably vote Democratic and have government white collar jobs, or they live in old hippy enclaves throughout the Rockies painting commercially unviable art or writing bad fiction. Well, isn’t that the stereotype?
Ceramicist and fly-fisherman Damian Ross breaks that mold, if you pardon the pun. He’s a blue-collar guy who works for a living, but ended up going back to school at 42 to get a master’s degree so he could teach art at the high school level and college level. He still has a regular job, and his trout-themed ceramics sell really well with the stereotypic fly-fishing crowd. Don’t tell those guys he’s a not-so-delicate redneck who likes beer, and don’t bring up Obama or you’ll see his Ross’ eyes roll into the back of his head. Don’t push him into any stereotypical boxes because he likes having his hands in clay or around the grip of a fly-rod.
Ross might have been an electrician or engineer if it weren’t for the art and fishing. They are part of his bloodline. He lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as a toddler and caught his first fish at four with a branch and cat-gut leader and then started fishing the bays of Lake Superior. The passion stuck and he’s been a fisherman ever since. Two other things impacted his life in those early years.
“I started drinking beer about then,” said Ross, letting that sink in. “And I always was drawing as a child. My sister could draw better, and we always competed and I got better.” His father and grandfather were both accomplished painters and draftsmen who encouraged the drawing.
Then came the family move to Southern California and a friend at Claremont High School introduced Ross to pottery, and it was the same kind of absorbing passion he felt when he was fly-fishing local trout streams. Then life happened in a lot of intervening years. You get married, have kids and then grand kids, work at jobs and start businesses. You don’t get to fish as much as you once did and you might even give up pottery for a while because you became “discouraged with the world outside,” but then the stars realign, parallel track merge, and your life begins to revolve around your passions again.
On track one, Ross began slowly honing his love of fly-fishing, beginning with fly-tying in the 1980s, and then a fanatical fishing friend introduced him to the Sierra Nevada’s trout waters in the 1990s, and his world expanded from the small local trout streams to bigger waters and tall peaks. Fly-fishing started looming large in his life.
On track two, and about the same time, Ross started adding artwork to his pottery and ceramic sculptures, and the art work always seemed to be about trout and fly-fishing. Before this time, Ross had dabbled in trying to sell his traditional pottery and sculptures at fairs and shows around the state. He built kilns and pottery wheels commercially, and he even created pottery commercially for a while, sort of a one-man mass production shop. That was when the burnout set out and he just quit for five or six years. You might even argue it was the fishing that brought him back to the ceramics and pottery, and then the two merged.
Today, the 60-year-old Ontario angler’s fly-fishing based ceramic work is not just acclaimed, it’s commercially successful. There are more than fly-fishermen waiting in line to buy commissioned pots and sculptures, and Ross really doesn’t keep up with the demand, preferring to work on pieces and ideas that come to him, knowing they will find good homes today.
And he’s teaching. It wasn’t exactly the teaching job he envisioned when he went after the master’s degree, but it’s what he’d rather be doing. He’s teaching a fly-fishing class that has been ongoing for 12 years at Claremont Men’s College, and he’s taught college level ceramics for more than 10 years at Mt. San Antonio College, Chaffey College, Fullerton College, and at Cal State University, San Bernardino.
“My own ceramics have been mostly pottery of late, many painted porcelain pieces. The main subject I use to decorate my work is trout. Some have said, ‘Oh, so you’re that fish guy.’ Ah, there’s nothing like being pigeon-holed,” laughs Ross.
Anglers can see examples of “that fish guy’s” work at two fly-fishing shops in the region, The Fisherman’s Spot in Van Nuys and Sierra Trout Magnet in Bishop. His pieces range in price from $50 for cups, $300 to $600 for pots, and his sculptures start at $400 and go up. Some samples of his work are on his website at www.damiansclaywork.com. For special pieces, you can call Ross at 909-988-7557.