Whilst sorting through my mother’s personal papers following her untimely death in Papua New Guinea in 1974, I came upon an undated letter - written to my parents by a United States Marine towards the end of World War II – one paragraph of which caught my attention: “Is little Graeme still keeping up his interest in art?”
Born in Ballarat, Victoria, Australia in 1932, I had been interested in art from a rather early age. I have recollections of sitting in the fields surrounding our country property, sketching farm animals, landscapes, the old farm buildings, even a twig with a few leaves attached, that had fallen from a eucalyptus tree. My early life was spent at one with nature, and has remained that way over the years.
My first three years of formal education were spent in a one-room school at Mount Rowan – between our property and Ballarat – and State School ended after I had won a scholarship to attend the Ballarat Technical School.
Next door to the Tech was the Ballarat School of Mines, later to become the Ballarat University, where I studied commercial art, architecture and draughtsmanship. Additionally, I attended night school to gain further experience.
I became a member of the Ballarat Arts Society and would attend occasional lectures at the Art Gallery.
In 1951, along came National Service and I was accepted into the Royal Australian Navy, taking sketch pad and pencils with me. I sketched fellow trainees at work and aspects of life on board.
On returning to Ballarat I resumed work as a window dresser and worked evenings as an usher at Her Majesty’s Theatre. That night job afforded me the opportunity to mix my love of theatre with art.
One evening a guest - who I had never previously met - suggested it was a pity to have a framed print in such an original-styled apartment. He asked why didn’t I create something original to hang in its place. “I’m not really an artist.” I told him, “I’m just fortunate to have some artistic ability! I consider myself unable to create anything original from my head, but have an uncanny knack of being able to reproduce practically anything I can see.” The following day I hurried to a nearby artists’ supplies store and bought myself a large sheet of pasteboard, paints and brushes and, that evening I had my very first painting - a large eagle - framed and hanging on the lounge-room wall.
During this period I became a member of the Apex Club and, naturally, found myself on the committee for a forthcoming outdoor art exhibition in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens … I was expected to enter one of my pieces. I entered my first-ever painting that had graced the wall of my apartment. It sold to an American visitor!
When the Apex Club wanted décor for a social function, I willingly obliged. One such occasion was a cabaret ball with a French theme for which I recreated over a dozen of Henri de Toulouse Lautrec’s paintings. All were souvenired!
Eventually I found myself sitting before a select committee in Melbourne after applying to train as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language in the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea. Twelve months later I received an early morning phone-call asking if I was still interested in the job in Papua New Guinea and, if so, could I be ready to depart the following Monday morning?
In May of 1961, I enrolled at the Malaguna Teachers’ College to do my training. Humbly I admit to being the first-known teacher-trainee to gain 100% for blackboard work.
After graduation I was appointed headmaster of a small village school at Liap, fourteen miles west of Lorengau, on the north coast of Manus Island, with two assistant teachers: no road, no electricity, no phone, nothing but a small battery-operated radio.
My home was a humble two-room unlined fibro-cement place, so close to the ocean that at high tide in the northwest season, the waters of Seeadler Harbour flowed in through the front door and out the back. The place needed décor! All I had was the hessian that had been the covering of my dining table, and at a small trade store in Liap Village, a couple of miles away, I was able to buy some ‘boi’ wool (as it was called) and a thick needle. A few evenings later I had stitched a masterpiece to grace my wall … an African mask from the back of a record cover.
In 1968, I moved to Port Moresby where I had an unpleasant car accident and was hospitalised for seven weeks during which time I was told that my right leg had to be amputated. Although I argued against medical advice and retained the leg I could see little hope for the future. During hospitalisation I was able to work in my bed creating ‘traditional’ wall hangings and on release organised a one-man exhibition at the YWCA that was opened by Lady Rachael Cleland. It was a total sell-out!
Being unemployed and un-financial I began creating greeting cards that sold so well I was asked by a local printing company to join their staff and open an arts department as well as being the company’s travelling salesman, while the company could also reproduce my cards by the thousands.
It was while working in that position I was offered the position of Public Relations Officer with the PNG Electricity Commission. This entailed much travel, art, journalism, travel and photography and I was responsible for making movies on various hydroelectric schemes in the country. During a business trip to Australia I discovered that there was actual canvas on which tapestries (needlepoint) could be created. This opened up a new field for me and led to a one-man exhibition of my original tapestries, opened by the Governor-General of Papua New Guinea at the newly opened PNG Museum and Arts Centre. The Governor-General eventually purchased four pieces for hanging in Government House, Papua New Guinea. I also designed theatrical posters for the Waigani Arts Centre.
Quite near the PNG Electricity Commission in Port Moresby was a needlecraft store where for the first time I saw something called cross-stitch. I had never seen anything like it before. It was worked from a chart and stitched onto blank fabric with no design printed as with tapestry. I bought a chart, needle and threads and, with no tuition whatsoever, went home and stitched my first cross-stitch. Surely, I wondered, if it was that easy, why were others stitching from another person’s design? I continued with my originality. This led to my stitching in public for the first time at the Waigani Arts Centre with me creating my own designs.
The Managing Director of a Sydney, Australia, based needlecraft import company asked if I would be interested in demonstrating my supposedly unusual skill at a craft show in Melbourne where I was billed as being “Australia’s top tapestry creator.” I would later be doing these shows in Sydney, and Brisbane as well - all three capital cities on an annual basis - but by then my title had changed to “One of Australia’s top tapestry and cross-stitch experts.”
Early in 1988 I moved to Cairns, in the tropical north of Australia and settled at Trinity Beach. Being unemployed and having little to do other than pursue my obsession with designing, I stitched day and night, with never any period longer than one-and-a-half hours for sleep. I designed by looking at a photograph, stitching what I saw and, at the end of each thread, charted what I had stitched on graph paper by giving a different symbol for each shade used. When the stitched design was completed so too, was the chart. I started selling from a ‘barrow’ at the Pier Marketplace in Cairns and when I was offered a shop on the boardwalk, I registered the trade name of Ross Originals. Each chart carried the company name, as well as my name and address on the front and soon I was receiving orders from overseas countries worldwide.
Through contacts made at the various shows in Australian cities I soon had distributors in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands. My American distributor asked if I would fly to the States, all expenses paid, and demonstrate on her display in Anaheim. That was followed later in the year with a show in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Thirteen busy years followed as I had the shop to look after at The Pier while, at the same time, I was making multiple trips overseas to demonstrate my designing technique in twenty-five cities throughout Canada and the United States, as well as the U.K. and Netherlands. Although I reached celebrity status overseas I remained virtually unknown in Australia.
To summarise: I have experimented with practically every form of art imaginable, including painting, carving, murals, designing playing cards and mapping. I illustrated four children’s books before both writing and illustrating one of my own. My first major book, ‘Cross Stitch Designs - Graeme Ross” is no longer in print, and in 2006 I brought out my autobiography titled (quite aptly): “The Quiet Country Boy”. You don’t know me yet!
This exhibition is a cross section of original pieces I designed during the latter twenty-five years of my life while travelling with camera at the ready in search of inspiration from the beauty of my surroundings for potential designs.