Artist Ross Wilson talks about his work and his recent tribute to missionary Amy Carmichael
By Ruth Garvey-William
(From the April - June 2018 issue of VOX)
The poignant bronze statue of a ten-year-old girl looks out from under her hat at an unwritten future. This moving memorial to the life and work of missionary Amy Carmichael was unveiled on 16 December 2017, the 150th anniversary of her birth in Co. Down. Created by Northern Irish artist Ross Wilson and inspired by the late evangelist and author, Derick Bingham, the sculpture stands outside Hamilton Road Presbyterian Church in Bangor. In March, VOX editor Ruth Garvey-Williams spoke with Ross about faith, art and culture, and found out more about his tribute to Amy Carmichael.
Soft spoken and surprisingly self-effacing, Ross Wilson attributes his longevity and success as an artist more to hard work than to talent. “There were some amazingly talented people at college who fell away. Part of survival is not just the ability to create but the ability to persevere,” he shares.
Now living just south of Coleraine, Ross is perhaps best known for his portraits of poet Seamus Heaney and playwright Arthur Miller, as well as the CS Lewis centenary sculpture in East Belfast.
Encouraged by a “really good teacher,” he studied at Ulster University in Belfast before doing a Masters in the Chelsea College of Art and Design in London.
“After doing the degrees, you still end up on the pavement with a folder of your work. I became self-employed as an artist and I’ve been trying to survive ever since. It is a difficult thing to do and it takes a lot of focus and dedication but it was what I always wanted to be,” he explains.
Ross recalls a visit to Yeats’ grave and epitaph in Drumcliffe Church in Sligo while he was still at university. “I remember thinking it seemed quite hopeless. That was before I had a spiritual dimension in my life.”
Ross’s own faith journey was to begin soon afterwards. “In my third year at university, my mother went out to buy the Sunday papers and came back with a Bible for me. That was a radical moment in my life and brought me face to face with Scripture. I was looking through and found Romans chapter eight, which is all about death and life and living in Christ. That really affected me.
“I didn’t really know what to do, so that evening I went to a small, out-of-the-way church. I was concerned about somebody seeing me. That night, as I sat in the back pew, the minister got up and spoke from Romans 8. That confirmed something for me. I needed a new identity!”
Although all of his work has a “spiritual dimension,” Ross does not describe himself as a “Christian artist”.
“I’m a Christian before I’m an artist, and I would bring that whole ethos to my work. I still have trouble with the Christian sub-culture; this whole idea of a retreat, where we should be advancing into culture with truth.”
It was the concept of influencing the culture that led to many discussions between Ross and Derick Bingham, and eventually inspired the Amy Carmichael sculpture.
“I used to meet up with Derick and we would chat. I had this idea of cultural evangelism. We touch the cultures around us with truth by putting things out there that have quality. Derick was interested in that. He was an inspirational figure and often talked about this idea of Christian heroes. That is how Amy started.”
A prolific author, Derick wrote biographies of CS Lewis and William Wilberforce, alongside many devotional books, but it was his work, The Wild-Bird Child - a life of Amy Carmichael, that paved the way for the memorial. “Amy was a prime example of a life dedicated to service and Derick thought this life should be celebrated,” Ross explains.
Derick started to raise funds for the project, and after his death Ross continued to look for sponsorship. “Thankfully, I found donors who helped me across the line. It is about having enough vision to follow through with an idea,” he says.
The location of the sculpture was also important. For over 80 years, Hamilton Road Presbyterian has hosted the annual Worldwide Missionary Convention and, for many years, the church also helped to fund the Dohnavur Mission in South India that Amy Carmichael founded.
Born to Christian parents in Millisle, Co. Down, Amy wrote, “My mother had often talked to me about the Lord Jesus as I sat on her knee. I had felt the love of the Lord Jesus and nestled in His love just as I had nestled in her arms.”
A choice to dedicate her life to Jesus as a teenager led to a lifetime of service. Over the course of 55 years (she never came home to Northern Ireland), Amy and her “starry band” - Indian women who had become Christians - helped to rescue hundreds of children from temple prostitution. Before a devastating fall that left her bed-bound for the last 20 years of her life, Amy also travelled through the local villages talking about Jesus.
Capturing Amy Carmichael as a child was important to Ross, and he hopes that the memorial will inspire children and young people for generations to come. “I remember when I was ten I started to see things in a bigger way. In the sculpture Amy is holding a diary, this little book of her life as yet unwritten but as planned by God. That is a diary of grace that God has laid out for her life. I believe it is important to show that a child of ten can have dreams and great ideas that later in life can be realised. I want to inspire children today, not with a computer screen but with something they can actually see.”
For Ross’s latest project, he is working in partnership with a group of children in Bushmills, Co. Derry to celebrate the life and vision of Octavia Hill, a Christian who was a radical reformer and founded the concept of social housing. (Ed note: something that is extremely relevant for today’s Ireland.)
“Octavia had the idea of the ‘noble life’ regardless of your position or background. She believed that housing was one of those things that helped to give people a sense of worth.”