Toni Ross Weaves Her Way into HIFF Poster Artist Pantheon

"Finding Beauty in a Dark Place" by Toni Ross
"Finding Beauty in a Dark Place" by Toni Ross

This year’s Hamptons International Film Festival adds to its long tradition of poster art with a masterful and incredibly timely image by an artist who is as much a part of the festival’s fabric as the posters themselves. HIFF’s founding chair, Toni Ross, was the clear choice to create the poster for the festival’s 30th anniversary in 2022, but her recent woven piece, “Finding Beauty in a Dark Place,” could not be denied, and it couldn’t wait until next year.

Measuring 18 feet across by 8 feet tall, Ross’s monumental and colorful work connects 52 woven panels of wool, cotton, linen and silk into a loosely arranged image of the United States, with each panel charting the course of COVID-19 in the state it represents (along with Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.). The result is a breathtakingly powerful picture of this country during a time of crisis, and it spoke so strongly to HIFF executive director Anne Chaisson, she knew it had to be this year’s poster.

Both Ross and Chaisson recall well the story of how “Finding Beauty” found its way into the HIFF poster pantheon. The executive director was visiting Ross’s studio for an unrelated matter and could not keep her eyes off the piece, which hung unfinished behind the artist as they spoke.

“I couldn’t believe what I was looking at,” Chaisson says, noting that Ross grew frustrated that her friend wasn’t listening, but she was transfixed by what she could already tell was a U.S. map comprising the COVID charts everyone had grown so accustomed to seeing. “I was just so struck by how large it was,” Chaisson adds. “I was just blown away.”

She congratulated Ross on the already magnificent work of art, left to drive back to New York City and found herself ruminating on the piece throughout the long ride home. Though she stuffed the idea at first, Chaisson realized during her drive that Ross’s artwork would make a great poster for the film festival. The thought was still nagging at her two weeks later.

Artist Toni Ross
Artist Toni RossJames Salomon

“I could not stop thinking about it,” Chaisson says, explaining how she finally ended up asking Ross for an image of “Finding Beauty” so she could present it to the HIFF board. “It just felt like the absolute perfect piece for this year’s poster,” she says, pointing out her desire to acknowledge the pandemic while still celebrating the festival’s return to in-person screenings in 2021, after being forced to use drive-in and virtual solutions last fall.

Ross never conceived of “Finding Beauty” as poster art. “It was not even a remote idea in my mind. I really made this piece in the throes of quarantine and the months after quarantine when we were essentially still in lockdown,” she says, later describing her creative process, which began with single-graph panels and then evolved into comparing graphs of two different countries before she finally landed on weaving each state and arranging them together.

Starting with Maine in June of 2020 and working west, the project took Ross 10 to 11 months to complete, and numbers changed along the way. “It’s a document of time, too,” she says, explaining how the rates of infection rose, fell and spiked again in various places as she progressed, but her connection to the pandemic and its magnitude only grew deeper and more visceral. “Just the methodical and meditative nature of weaving was really powerful for me,” the artist adds. “And also the nature of a loom, which is very organized. It was kind of reassuring …”

The 2021 Hamptons Film Festival poster featuring "Finding Beauty in a Dark Place" by Toni Ross
The 2021 Hamptons Film Festival poster featuring “Finding Beauty in a Dark Place” by Toni Ross

Ross admits that she initially struggled to envision “Finding Beauty” as a poster, but she came around to the idea. “I was deeply honored that they would select me as the artist for this year,” she says, noting that she was especially moved by Chaisson’s admiration for the piece. HIFF has always chosen the poster artist first, and then had them select an existing image or create something new, so it was quite a compliment to be asked based on the power of one particular piece of art.

In her role as chair of the festival, Ross initiated the poster art program starting with Eric Fischl in 1993, HIFF’s first year. Keeping within the guidelines she helped create — artists must be internationally known and have ties to the Hamptons — Ross continued choosing the poster artists for five years, until she stepped down as chair. HIFF board member and New Line Cinema co-founder Michael Lynne, who was a major modern art collector, took over for Ross, seeking out artists to represent the festival each year until his death in 2019.

Today, Chaisson leads the way, though she works closely with the HIFF board, and she couldn’t be more pleased to add Ross to a list of artists that includes icons such as Fischl, Cindy Sherman, David Salle, Barbara Kruger, Ross Bleckner, Donald Sultan, Julian Schnabel, Lee Krasner (posthumous) and many others. “I’m just so in love with this piece and everything it represents,” Chaisson says.

To truly experience the power of Ross’s “Finding Beauty in a Dark Place,” go see it in-person at The Watermill Center (39 Water Mill Towd Road), where it will be on view from October 8–17.

Visit hamptonsfilmfest.org for tickets to and info about the 2021 Hamptons International Film Festival.

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