Sitting at the back of a tiny, white room just big enough for her large, white desk that faces a single, white chair, Rebecca Cross stands out against her austere backdrop much like the pieces of brightly-colored art that adorn the walls. Her slender, black-clad frame is shrouded in a shawl patterned with geometric reds, blues, oranges and greens, and her quick-to-smile face is clean of make-up save for a dash of bright pink lipstick.
She takes off her half-frame tortoise shell glasses and puts them beside her on the desk where they pick up the reflection of a yellow ceramic sculpture in the corner: a heap of carefully shaped little canaries, piled like a bowl of lemons in their dark lacquered base.
“People should know that they need to buy art,” says Cross, 56, nodding slightly to affirm her statement. “It just an important part of people’s lives; the world would be a very dull place if there weren’t artists, musicians and painters and photographers, and they can’t do it without people buying their work. And I can’t show it unless people buy it. I just want to encourage people that it’s something that they can have in their life and they can’t take it for granted either.”
Her portfolio, which is lying open on the desk, is full of clippings and photos taken of the highlights of Cross’ 25-year career as an artist. Her ceramics are featured in the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, her series of technicolor pear paintings hang in the Convention Center, her costumes and set designs for dancers were staged at the Kennedy Center, and many of her other pieces brighten D.C.’s restaurants and private collections. Her work has been influenced by teachers, marriage and motherhood, but remains singular in its fantastical representation of Cross’ world. Now, as the owner and proprietor of the Cross Mackenzie Gallery, she embraces what she calls the “new challenge” of running the establishment with a passion and optimism that even the sinking economy can’t deflate.
Tamara Laird, an associate professor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design whose work has been shown at the Cross Mackenzie Gallery, says that she’s honored to include herself among the artists that Cross sponsors.
“She’s really honed down her vision of what kind of work she wants to carry in the last couple of years after trying a number of different things,” Laird says. “She does a lot of research and outreach to designers and architects and collectors, and she’s got a really nice group of artists that she’s been showing recently and I’m very excited and kind of pinching myself to be included in that group.”
The gallery, nestled in the brick courtyard of Canal Square in Georgetown, hosts nine exhibitions a year and specializes in ceramic art, although Cross greatly enjoys their two-dimensional shows as well. From her white desk at the back of the gallery’s main room, Cross works tirelessly to keep the shows running on schedule – which means planning them at least two months in advance.
“Each month, when I put up a show, it takes several days to put the show up and set the price list and so on and hang the show, touch up the walls because you make holes,” Cross says, looking at her current exhibition as if envisioning the holes behind them.
After the whole process is over, Cross says that she only has a short window of time to tackle paperwork before taking down the old show and putting up a new one. With the additional obligations of advertising her shows, promoting her artists and vying for media coverage, Cross has put her own work on the backburner for the past five years, opting instead to focus on the work of others.
“It’s something that I thought that I would be able to manage, doing the gallery and doing my own work, and what I discovered is that doing the gallery at the level that I want to do it really takes a lot of attention,” Cross says. “And so my own work has been shelved for a bit, but I’ve just started to get back to it.”
Born Nov. 12, 1955, Cross grew up in the suburbs of Hollin Hills, an artistic, mid-century modern community in northern Virginia. It was here that she discovered her love and talent for
art. Other community members with lively artistic careers were role models for Cross as a young adult and her father, an architect, often took her to museums, further opening her eyes to the possibilities that a career in the arts held.
The second oldest of four children, Cross’ ambitions were supported throughout high school by her parents who encouraged her in every possible way.
“Carpooling means a lot when you’re little,” she says, reflecting on the numerous art classes her parents chauffeured her to in her youth. “That’s a very big sign of support is driving you places when you’re young.”
After high school, her passion for art didn’t wane, and she enrolled at Bennington College where she earned her first degree in painting and sculpture. During her time there, she met Max Mackenzie, an architectural photographer and her husband of 30 years. The two grew together in their budding careers, each one often helping the other in their home studios and supporting each other in the tough world of freelancing. After college, Cross furthered her education, learning the ropes of studio management in London from Sir Anthony Caro, a well known contemporary sculptor.
Cross’ work is characterized by her bold use of color and whimsical way of capturing every-day objects such as food or household items. She names some artists that she admires as being Matisse, Milton Avery and Diebenkorn, whose impressionistic, vibrant styles are also apparent in Cross’ art.
“I really think it’s so much about the color and the sense of joy really, you know?” Cross says, waving a hand in front of her face expressively. “I think that there’s an energy in my work that is effusive and I like that. I think it’s something to add to the world.”
Yet for all that other artists have influenced her, Cross says that motherhood has had the most significant impact on her life and work. Her two sons, Alexander, 27, and Cooper, 20, were even featured in one of her series of paintings. Another of her most recognizable pieces, titled Domestic Landscape, is a series of paintings arranged like tiles, each one depicting a fleeting, feminine aspect of motherhood such as buttons and rattles.
Cross’ smile gets even wider as she describes Alexander, who is now a film editor in L.A., and Cooper, who is studying to be a painter at Bard College, growing the family’s artistic reputation.
“What can we do? I was hoping for an investment banker but it didn’t take,” Cross says, laughing.
The passion Cross has for her work and her family does not seem to wane when her train of thought changes subjects. She speaks enthusiastically about politics, books she’s read, the importance of visiting Mount Vernon, and her dreams of traveling with the same level of gusto used when she speaks about art and the gallery.
Olvia Demetriou, a close friend of Cross throughout her career, is very familiar with Cross’ perpetual zeal.
“Becca is exheuberant, full of real joie de vivre,” Demetriou says. “She has an incredible passion for art, for life, for everything. She has a very colorful, very rounded personality. She’s very warm, very passionate and very interested in learning.”
Although she claims to have no “crashing ambition,” her goals for the future seem to inevitably coincide with her goals for the gallery. According to Demetriou, a career as a gallery owner might even suit her outgoing and personable character as much as a career as a full-time artist.
“I actually have a goal of having the gallery really sustain itself in a bigger way,” Cross says, “I have fantasies of more space, you know, I’d like to grow the gallery. I feel like it’s just in its beginning stages, like it’s a starter gallery and it’s just moving along.”
One day, the Cross Mackenzie Gallery might find itself in Florida, Santa Monica, or perhaps even Tuscany. Or maybe it will be just down the road at Dupont Circle where Cross can walk to work from her home, taking her beloved Jack Russell Terriers with her.
“It’s interesting because I think that it’s something that I could do for a long time, you know, I could have a gallery until I’m very old,” Cross says. “It’s fun to support young artists and to help people in their career; I like doing that.”