Written for Feature Writing, Spring 2015
It’s 5 p.m. After two unanswered phone calls, she answers half asleep. I tell her I’m on my way over, just grabbing something to eat. I ask if there is anything she wants from the store. Vanilla ice cream. One of those mini packs they sell to be a single serving or, if I want some, a pint to spilt.
Pulling up in front of the house on Poplar Grove Drive I text her that I’ve arrived and need to be let in the house. No response, not that it’s unusual. She probably fell back to sleep. I stand at the door and ring the bell, and set down my grocery bags to take a drink. My phone rings and she just sat down to go to the bathroom, it will be a minute until she comes to the door.
I look inside the glass to the side of the door to see the house as usual, kitchen table layered with mail and a discarded jacket. A deer head mounted beside the staircase leading to the bed room hallway where Niki appears, having changed from 3 hours ago into her pajamas. I pull back from the window and notice all of the marks my nose has made from touching the glass, some still there from a couple days earlier, some from that morning.
I follow her up to her work room and sit down at one of the two office chairs. The floor is littered with clothes, pet supplies, and art supplies, as are all of the surfaces. Three tanks and a large desktop computer with two monitors take up whatever space is not covered by paper. In the center of the room is a drawing desk with a watercolor piece featuring a man, a scythe, and a dragon covering its entirety. The walls are covered in posters from various comics, artists, and anime series. She sits down in the second chair, less than two feet from me, and the conversations begin.
Born August 16 1994, Nicole Leigh Ross is an artist, an animal lover, and a friend I have known since the first grade. Preferring the name Niki, she is currently working in pet care at the Northern Frederick PetSmart, volunteers at Windsong Arabians in Mount Airy, Maryland, and is in her third year at Frederick Community College. She is the same today as she was fifteen years ago.
Jokingly I started the interview off with “In the beginning...” She responded in turn, however more seriously, giving me the beginning.
“My grandfather loved to eat at this diner by himself and every weekend we went to visit and we were eating at… uh what was it called….Dempsey’s? And I would not shut the fuck up. Which is a running theme in my life,” says Ross. “My parents flipped the place mat and brought out crayons and drew smiley faces to indicated family members. The only one I could ever get was my dad who was bald but had hair on the sides of his head. So I would just scribble on the mat so they could eat their dinner in peace.”
Art has always been a constant for Ross. From trying to recreate her family members on the back of a diner place mat to her class work for her figure study class at FCC, she has been drawing.
A “lifelong obsession of trying to draw horses accurately” was founded by a love for “Misty of the Chincoteague” along with a love of horses in real life. “I went through three reams of paper a week trying to draw and perfect the fucking horses,” says Ross.
She remembers crying and begging her parents to let her take riding lessons and finally at the age of nine she got her wish. “I was so nervous for my first lesson, but then when it ended up being cancelled I cried for the rest of the night. When it was time to leave for the second lesson I was still nervous, but excited. And then on the way my mom decided to tell me about Christopher Reeves,” Ross recalled as she laughed. “I was terrified.”
In sixth grade she was homeschooled, hoping that the learning experience would be better than that she was able to get out of the classroom. This however, Ross expresses as having caused her to become distant from and lose most of the friends she had made at Twin Ridge Elementary School. Middle school for her caused her to become a nervous wreck, having lost all friends, starting at the New Market Middle School a year later than everyone else.
“I didn’t know how to deal with people, so I was mean,” she said. “Someone asked me to draw them something. They said it was because they wanted to see how I would do it. I took the paper tore it up and threw it across the bus.”
Ross did however find friends through a common interest in Anime, Japanese animation. She and her new friends would watch Naruto as the episodes released, role play the characters together, and draw the characters as well as characters of their own. “That’s when I really started drawing people,” Ross said. “That’s also when I learnt how to draw kissing and was really embarrassed by it. Though that didn’t change until around twelfth grade.”
High school, for Ross, was consistent of a five month case of mono, being severely awkward, the inability to deal with homework, and constant drawing, mostly of dragons. “I kinda blocked [high school] out,” says Ross. “Except for Feldman.”
“She was my art mentor,” Ross recalled of Linganore High School’s art teacher. “She basically told me ‘oh you’re decent but stop with the anime crap’ except she said it nicer. She taught a lot about gesture and figure drawing and I’ve been in love with the human figure since.”
Around the same time, Ross was becoming more open about her art. She was showing it to others for feedback and comments, rather than tucking them away in a folder for no one but herself to see. In her senior year of high school, her artwork got her excepted into the Maryland Institute College of Art. However she did not go to MICA opting for a closer and cheaper alternative in FCC.
Due to depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, and what Ross calls severe scatter brain, she failed majority of her classes her first year at FCC.
“I couldn’t function,” she said. “It was mostly anxiety on the days it wasn’t depression. I would be so overwhelmed by what I had to do that I would sleep all day and ignore the problem. I felt stupid when I didn’t understand school. I didn’t ask questions because I felt dumb being the only one asking. So when the teacher asked if everyone understood, I stayed quiet.”
Over the past year a combination of self-responsibility, time management, and medication has helped Ross get back on track to finishing her degree. “It’s worked slowly, but that’s how I’ve always done things is slowly.”
Using planners to plan out time needed, doing things before forgetting about them, and remembering to take her meds so that she feels up to doing what she needs to do are all parts of the process that is helping her out this semester.
“I’ve actually been planning shit like a good adult,” muses Ross. “A good piece of art doesn’t take an hour before class to do. It takes more like ten hours that I need to be able to spend just working on it.”
Working towards a degree in illustration, Ross has been spending her free time working on her art. She works in both digital and traditional mediums doing figure studies for her class, practicing her animation skills, or building her own universe. She creates her own characters and builds a world around them, as well as coming up with unique cultures, terrains, and animals to occupy it.
After growing up playing video games like “Legend of Zelda” and continuing to play even today, Ross hopes to find a position in the video game industry. “Bethesda would be the goal,” Ross said about possible employers. “I just like their games better.” She has been in contact with an employee of the company for the last couple of months and is currently working on getting an internship.
“Because there are so many video games and apps now it is a better art field than just painting work on your own and hoping it will sell. And with an illustration major I also have the option of doing more commercial work like logo design so I don’t have to live in a card board box in Baltimore,” joked Ross.
When she is free from homework and does not feel like working on her art she spends time with her pets. Up until a year ago, Ross lived in a pet free house hold due to her father’s allergies. Now she has a king snake, a leopard gecko, a crested gecko, and a tank full of beta, mollies, and various baby fish.
Not even two weeks of having begun her job at PetSmart did she bring home Sally, the blotched king snake. She spent all of her savings buying the necessary set up as well as the animal itself and has been strapped for cash since. However that didn’t stop the collection from growing.
About a month after that one of the store’s regulars came in asking if anyone would be willing to take their two year old gecko. Ross jumped at the opportunity, bringing home Scoria, the brindled Dalmatian crested gecko.
A couple of months after that she similarly obtained Safari, the seven year old leopard gecko, from her boyfriend’s family, who were downsizing their pet collection and wanted to make sure they went to a good home.
The fish really just happened because she already had a 30 gallon tank and my brother got her interested in aquariums. After a couple of rough starts and several dead fish later, the tank is up and running with new additions every time and fry appears at the store.
We spent the remained of the evening talking about school and video games, while doodling. I got out Scoria and Safari and held them while she played Portal on her desktop. Around 8:30 p.m. I left so that she could get finished with a test that she had due for World Religions the next day and I began work documenting the personality that is Niki Ross.
Written for Feature Writing, Spring 2015
The winter months portray Main Street as a collection of cold, empty brick patios, a worn, closed-for-the-season museum, and store fronts painted with their current prices and products. The days seems pretty slow as out of all of the mismatched buildings the one that seems to see the most traffic is Town Hall. And of course Déjà Vu already has their 2015 collection of dresses in stock and on display for the slowly drawing prom season. Other than on the heavily repaved road, there does not seem to be many people bustling about.
However, visit this same downtown Mount Airy street during the warmer seasons and discover it to be rather lively. The scene changes from barren to bustling as it is an ideal locale for crowded street festivals, community cook offs, as well as the daily foot traffic shopping store to store before stopping to grab a patio table and a pizza in front of Laurienzo Brick Oven Café.
Some of the events that preoccupy the road throughout the year include the Chili Cook Off, May Fest, Fall Fest, Farmer’s Market, and more.
The Chili Cook Off pits locals against one another by trying to create and serve the best tasting chili. The crowds of people who attend get to talk to the chefs as well as sample their chilies, while enjoying the music and activities provided.
The seasonal festivals see downtown filled with vendors from all walks, selling or advertising various wares, performances from local groups, including dance acts, karate demonstrations, and live music. And for the kids there are moon bounces, crafts, games, and rides.
On Wednesday’s the parking lot provided for all those strolling around is closed off for the local Farmer’s Market, where you can find any number of seasonal fruits, vegetables, baked goods, and more.
Established as an unnamed Parr’s Ridge settlement in the 1830’s the town grew largely with the addition of the B&O Railroad which traveled through its center. The town got its name from an Irish brakeman, working one of the trains, who suggested Mount Airy due to the crisp cold mountain air which was to blame for his frigid ears.
During the Civil war Mount Airy held southern sympathies, while the whole of Maryland sided with the Union. A New Jersey regiment was established in the town and the railroad carried various supplies and troops to the south.
During the 1890’s the town grew with the erection of multiple churches as well as a railroad tunnel. The tunnel, constructed as a way to close the crossing at Parr’s Ridge was at the time considered an engineering feat, and is today one of the longest tunnel’s east of the Rocky Mountains.
Mount Airy is no longer economically connected to the B&O Railroad and while it is still a small town in nature, it has developed in the past couple of decades into an outer suburb for the Washington D.C. area.
Town Council President, Peter Ramsey Helt, and the rest of the council are forward to the future of Mount Airy with city building projects for the upcoming years. A Community Center is in the works, although the current question is whether or not to utilize and renovate a vacancy somewhere in town, or if a new establishment should be built from the ground, up.
“I am personally excited for the movement for converting the old rail lines into biker and hiker trails.” said Helt. The Rails to Trails project is currently raising support to take the unused, overgrown rail ways and turn them into trails for people to bike or simple walk along. Helt explained, “The trail will connect the town and make it so you can go more places without having to take a car.” The path will be roughly 2.5 miles long and according to the Rails to Trails pamphlet, “will open an avenue for foot and bike traffic to the Patapsco State Park.”
“My wife and I moved here because so that small town feel,” Helt said. “I like being able to walk down Main Street and see people I know. I say ‘Hello’ and they say it back.”
While recent years have seen growth in the town of Mount Airy, it still retains its small town community. You can’t leave your house without seeing someone you have met, or at least seen some where before. Every Fall Fest I run into the same group of friends I have known since high school without having planned to meet. And every May Fest I see them again.
The close, friendly community of Mount Airy is honestly nothing horribly unusual to come out of a small town. And while it may not be the social hub that a bigger city may be, the warmer months bring out the crowds and everyone is able to get together and have a good time.
I have lived here in Mount Airy, Maryland since I was born in 1994 and I am definitely in no rush to leave.
Brewer's Alley Scupture
Taken at Frederick's Feburary First Saturday: Fire and Ice