Grunting Bison, Middle School Students and Other Experiences with the Wild – Ross Hettinger

Grunting Bison, Middle School Students and Other Experiences with the Wild – Ross Hettinger


A discussion with local artist and teacher, Ross Hettinger

Tall, clean cut, neatly dressed, and built like a west river ranch hand, Ross Hettinger does not fit the stereotype that many people have for an artist. According to Ross, people sometimes respond to his artwork in disbelief: YOU did that?

“Apparently I don’t look or act like an artist, ” Ross joked. He may not dress like a Greenwich Village Bohemian, but he has the mind of an artist, with the work ethic of a South Dakotan and, most importantly, a heart with a strong desire to create.

Ross grew up on ranches near Fort Pierre and later near Highmore, SD. Much of his free time was devoted to helping with chores or exploring the hills and creeks surrounding his childhood home. Ross frequently brought home buckets filled with rocks, bones, fossils and antlers for further study. From those experiences came his first drawings of animals and landscapes, and helped him to develop a deep love and respect for the natural world. His artistic creations reflect his love of the wild with landscapes and wildlife subjects dominating his work.

Lifelike ceramic fish are the main focus of Ross’s work at the moment, an interest nurtured in childhood by a great uncle. “He would pick me up from school while my mother was working and we’d go from the school directly to the river or a stock dam and fish until near nightfall,” Ross explained. “It was during these quiet and slow moving times that I could develop my observational skills. I would study the rocks, leaves, grasses, and, of course, the fish.”

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The observational skills that Ross developed during those slow moving times are something that he finds to be of the utmost importance. “Being an artist has less to do with your ability to draw or paint,” said Ross, “and more to do with observing the artistic things happening all around you, and then translating those things into a visual form for everyone else to enjoy and see from your point of view.”

An experience that has served as inspiration for Ross started when he was hiking alone in the Badlands. He sat down on a rock to rest when he heard a grunt over his shoulder and turned to find a lounging bull bison not 35-yards from where he sat.

“The bull seemed less concerned with our proximity than I did,” remembers Ross. “But I still calmly vacated his space. I had gone hiking to find some bison and photograph them – from a distance. I didn’t get a shot of that old bull, but his image is burned into my brain. I’ve created a painting, drawing, and sculpture of him since.”

Art isn’t Ross’s only passion. He also has a passion for teaching, and is an art instructor at Simmons Middle School, where he facilitates the process of art exploration and creation for students.

“As a teacher, I love the process a student goes through,” Ross explained. “From seeing the example I’ve made and thinking it’s impossible to completing the project, I’m so proud of what they’ve done.”

The irony is that when Ross was in school, he didn’t have the opportunity to take art classes until high school, when he had a passionate teacher who recognized and cultivated his talent. The artist-teacher now passes on this important experience to his own students.

One simply never knows what uncultivated, creative talent may come walking into a classroom, so it’s best to teach with eyes and mind wide open. Thankfully, Aberdeen has receptive, gifted teachers who understand this and are eager to serve their students. And multitalented, local artist Ross Hettinger can be counted among them.