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Painting takes 6th-place in stamp contest

Thomas F. Gross was meant to paint, he'll tell you.

Putting paintbrush to canvas, recreating ducks and moose and bears in oil paint -- it's his calling, has been for most of his 57 years, the Cottage Grove janitor says.

Gross, a former winner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Migratory Waterfowl Stamp contest whose painting of a wood duck took sixth in the 2010 competition, can spend hours each day in his small home studio, listening to compact discs of wildlife and nature sounds, sipping coffee and meticulously creating his latest piece of wildlife art.

"If I can't be outdoors, if I can't be up in the Superior National Forest -- if I can't be there, (painting) is almost as good," he said last week in his home, decorated to feel like a northwoods cabin and landscaped with a miscellany of native plants.

In 1984, Gross' artwork was featured on the DNR waterfowl stamp that all duck hunters ages 18 to 64 are required to purchase. He began painting full-time, selling his artwork and living his dream

But life's trials stepped in. Gross abandoned his passion after financial troubles forced him to find full-time work and the death of his first wife laid a devastating blow.

That was 1992. For nearly a decade, the janitor didn't pick up a paintbrush and stand before an easel pouring his passion for nature onto canvas. Gross says he didn't even miss it.

It was at the urging of his second wife, Ellen, whom he married in 1999, that he again picked up a paintbrush. At first surprised he could still paint, Gross says now he's doing the best work of his life.

"I believe that God wants me to paint," said Gross, who says he is a born-again Christian. "I believe I've been blessed with the ability I have."

Determined again to use that gift -- and buoyed by his showing in the duck stamp contest -- Gross has begun work on a series of paintings featuring animals of the Superior National Forest in Minnesota's Arrowhead.

Inspiration is drawn from a life spent immersed in nature: from fishing trips with his grown son, hunting forays with his late father, and solo treks made to the protected national forest he loves.

Out there, in the forests and with the animals he knows he was meant to paint, Gross says, the world gets distilled, a little clarity comes his way.

In "the incredible complexity and diversity" of the forest, Gross said, "I see something behind it."