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  • Writer's pictureLisa Letwin

Ross Penhall- Shut Up and Paint

Updated: Jan 3, 2020

Ross was my first Bold Leaps interview and I must admit, I was a little intimidated. I mean, he is an internationally acclaimed painter as well as highly respected Fire Captain. That mix seemed beyond impressive and I hoped I wouldn’t embarrass myself in his presence.

But to meet Ross in person is to feel immediately at ease. He encompasses all the best qualities of his “callings.” He is a family man first, crazy about his wife and partner Caron (who he credits for his success) and his two grown kids. He has all the roll-up-your-sleeves helpfulness of a firefighter, helping the crew move furniture, cameras and lights to create the best shots, yet sensitive and insightful like you might expect a painter. He engaged with us individually on a personal level, was extremely patient and laughed easily and often. He was a team player.

I wanted to interview him because I wondered who is this man who encompassed both the team-focused firefighter and the solitary painter? And what kind of risks did he take along the way?

I meet the artists in their natural habitat so I was excited go his studio. My instructions were to drive up to an innocuous garage door in an industrial park in North Vancouver where he would meet me. I got there first and he soon pulled up behind me in a Sprinter Van and jumped out with boundless energy as he swiftly rolled up the garage door to the artist’s lair, or as he calls it “The bunker.”

His studio is as eclectic as he is. Huge canvases cover the walls, some sort of ingenious hanging apparatus holds multiple paintings for easy access, and paints and brushes are seemingly strewn about in organized chaos. Functional concrete floors are warmed by memorabilia -filled walls and meaningful trinkets are intriguingly tucked into corners. The space bursts with colours of happiness, blues, greens, yellows, mustards, hillsides, landscapes, tree lined streets, vistas forever. One can’t help but feel joy abound while surrounded by the manifestations of his talent.

He offered me a seat on the former airplane chairs he had somehow acquired, but I had brought my own stools and we began.

So Ross, how on earth did you go from being a firefighter to a famous artist?

He told me the story. He de-stressed from the trauma of firefighting by drawing. We might assume a firefighter would de stress with drinking with the boys, construction work, or running, but Ross liked to draw. He had always liked to draw. With the encouragement of Caron, he took a bold leap and drawing led to bigger drawings and then to painting and then bigger paintings. Ross sites Going Bigger as definitely a bold leap and said it certainly helps to have an encouraging partner who believes in you and gently pushes you. By the time Ross left the force, taking early retirement, he had already started hanging and selling his work in Vancouver, San Francisco and New York galleries.

To venture out into the international world of art, the first Bold Leap he took was the time when he was trying to muster the courage to take some paintings to a prestigious gallery in Vancouver. He called Caron and she wisely said, “If you see a parking spot in front of the gallery it is meant to be.” He drove up the busy downtown street and there was a spot right out front. With a painting under each arm he nervously walked into the gallery and asked to speak to someone in charge, ready to say, “Here I am, here’s my work, what do you think?” The owner of the gallery happened to be there, took a look at his work and told him to paint twenty more paintings and come back and see her. He did just that and the rest is history, as they say.

Or is it?

Are you scared? I ask as I glance at his forearm, which in bold letters reads “Shut Up and Paint.”

He said, “I’m always terrified”, mostly of what he has to “work out with the blank white canvas.” He openly talked of the debilitating fear, the crippling self-doubt, and the dark nights of the soul.

Sitting there in his studio surrounded by a plethora of large beautiful bursting-with-color paintings makes one wonder how he could doubt his sheer glorious talent. “All artists are terrified” he says, “fear of rejection, fear of failure, of not being relevant.” He has moments of sheer confidence he confesses, but mostly he has to force himself to go the studio every day, practice, discipline, persistence, calm the mind, trust that anxiety will pass, minimize distractions, be comfortable alone.

Basically, Shut Up and Paint.

How do would you help people who are stopped by such demons?

His advice was, “Just get down to work, take yourself seriously, go be in the art world, go to galleries, try new things and don’t be afraid of failure.”

“It’s not the failure, it’s what you do with the failure, that’s what defines you,” he said.

I couldn’t help notice that how Ross showed up in the interview is how he shows up in his studio every day. “The only way I can be a good artist is by being in the present moment,” he said. I told him the goal of Bold Leaps was to inspire others to pursue their dreams, and he showed up eager to help, focused on the purpose and gave his full attention to the interview.

Ross is as fascinating as he is prolific. No wonder the art community has designated a term to describe his type of painting as “Penhallian.”

I’m so grateful for my Penhallian experience with Ross, it was joyous, inspiring and expansive, just like his work. @rosspenhallartist

Special thanks to the incredibly talented, creative, bold leaper Matt Bourne @mattbourne



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