Local artist turns lifelong passion into career

There are many life experiences that shape Rachel Cross’ art. From eight years in the Air Force and her martial arts background to raising a young daughter and rescuing a menagerie of animals, Cross’ watercolor and oil pastel works focus on vivid imagery encapsulating raw emotion.


Cross has lived in Maryland, Japan and California. After spending eight years in the Air Force, Cross traded her military life for one filled with motherhood and art.

She shows and sells her work locally at City Bistro and LYMI Oddities at the beach as well as online at saatchiart.com and rachelcrossart.com.

Cross’ painting, “Red Boat,” was featured in renowned figurative painter Peter Doig’s 2014 collection, which led to it becoming the cover art for author Louise Erdrich’s German release of “LaRose.” The book cover brought international attention to Cross’ art and proved the catalyst needed to choose a path filled with artistic expression.

Compass caught up with Cross to learn more about her life and artwork. Here’s part of that conversation.

Compass: How did you get started as an artist?

Rachel Cross: I started painting when I was 4 – living in a high-rise building in Tokyo, Japan. A woman we called Mama-san would look after my brother and I when my mother worked. She was a traditional Japanese watercolor artist who was obsessed with my little brothers’ fiery red hair and would allow me to play unattended until one day, when I got into her paint. From that day on, whenever she looked after us, she would teach me how to hold a brush and paint. When I was 5, I won my first contest in Japan for my acrylic painting of a clown.

Compass: How old were you when you started to take painting seriously?

R.C.: I have painted seriously since childhood. I gave every painting I created away to anyone who was interested and asked. In 2010, I decided to put a few of my paintings online and I sold my first print pretty quickly.

Compass: Do you have any formal art training?

R.C.: Other than training with Mama-san, I first learned oil pastel from a local artist named Elizabeth, who lived above the Butterfield Garage Art Gallery off King Street. She introduced me to oil pastels and let me get a good feel of them to create my own paintings. I was 17 at the time. I also met many traveling artists in this extraordinary town, who taught me a great many beneficial techniques. I was also a model for the Art Association here in town when I was 13 and 14. On my breaks, I would watch the artists and sometimes ask questions if I could. This is how I started to develop my own unique style of painting.

Compass: You paint in two mediums. Tell me about that.

R.C.: The two are drastically different. Watercolor is unforgiving and can be as meticulous as you want it to be. I enjoy its reality check and humbling properties it encumbers. My oil pastel allows me to capture an emotion using color as a trigger for fervor and anguish. It allows me to communicate and share experiences with people through the canvas. Connecting with people beyond language is something I am passionate about. When I paint, I use my fingers the entire time. It’s painful – sometimes arduous – and always time consuming; the excitement of building the layers to create different shades from alternate angles or light sources. Each piece usually takes a few months to create. I enjoy the freedom to express myself obscured from how others see things yet still connect deeply with their passions and/or sorrows. I’m not sure if you caught on yet, but I am deeply invested in every painting. It’s more than just decades of painting over and over again, it’s my whole life expressed on canvas.

Compass: Are you a full-time painter or do you have a “day job?”

R.C.: I would consider myself a full-time painter. I spend a lot of time getting and finding inspiration; from long hikes out in nature or in my martial arts training. Sometimes I like to paint when I venture out for coffee and talk with people. I enjoy inspiring others to chase their dreams and then inviting them to get their hands dirty with me while I paint. Sometimes a reminder that you’re enough is enough to start a spark. Since I learned I’m more than enough, I try to light as many sparks as possible.