Having worked in all three regions of the state, Joanna Higgs Ross has contributed significantly as a Tennessee artist over her distinguished seven-decade career. In 1956, she became the first female student to receive a bachelor of fine arts degree from University of Tennessee Knoxville.
Her artistic talents quickly came to the attention of Buck Ewing, head of the University of Tennessee’s Department of Fine Arts, who was sufficiently impressed to recruit her as the only female member of a group of modern artists called The Knoxville 7. The group represented a loose affiliation of groundbreaking Knoxville-based artists active from roughly 1955 to 1965. They were among the first artists in Tennessee to explore the new visual language of Abstract Expressionism in bold and innovative works in a variety of media. As influential artists and teachers, they were instrumental in energizing Tennessee’s visual arts communities and establishing a foothold for modern art ideas across the state. Bringing credibility to the University of Tennessee’s new art department, the Knoxville 7 promoted the notion that meaningful art could happen in East Tennessee as much as anywhere.
Her atmospheric paintings depicted local landscapes as muted studies of sky and foliage or as the setting for introspective self-portraits, and served as a strong complement to more angular, high-keyed compositions by Knoxville 7 painters Bob Birdwell, Richard Clarke, Walter Stevens, and Carl Sublett. Despite Joanna’s departure from Knoxville in 1960 to pursue her master of fine arts degree at the University of Illinois, Buck Ewing was so enamored with her work that he continued to include her as a member of the Knoxville 7 until the group dissolved in 1965.
Joanna’s versatility as an artist enabled her to secure employment as a staff artist for the medical division of the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies from 1956 to 1957 and as a designer for the University of Tennessee Graphic Arts Service from 1958 to 1960. Joanna went on to the University of Illinois, Urbana to complete her MFA in 1961. Fresh from college, she began her teaching career as the only art professor at Lambuth College in Jackson, Tennessee, where she taught until 1983.
Although full-time teaching demands at the college shifted her focus from participating in exhibitions to inspiring new generations of artists in the classroom, Joanna continued to paint. After her retirement in 1983, she resumed her studio practice full-time and continues to produce compelling landscape-based compositions that strike a sophisticated balance between description and abstraction.
Joanna’s prolific portfolio extends nearly 60 years. Her work can be found in art collections throughout Tennessee and Illinois including the Tennessee State Museum; Austin Peay State University; East Tennessee State University; Brooks Museum of Art; University of Illinois; University of Tennessee Knoxville; Knoxville Museum of Art; Watkins College of Art, Design, & Film; First American Bank; Third National Bank; Bass, Berry & Sims; and the Brentwood Chamber of Commerce. Ross’ work has been selected for juried exhibitions at the Butler Institute of American Art, the Arkansas Art Center, the Hunter Museum of American Art, the High Museum of Art, the Nashville Parthenon, the Brooks Museum of Art and the Evansville Art Gallery. Additionally, her work was featured in solo exhibitions across Tennessee in Nashville, Knoxville, Clarksville, Jackson, Oak Ridge, Memphis, and Dyersburg.