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The art of living

At 69, disabled veteran Ralph Root is graduating and setting out on a lifelong dream to live and work as a professional artist.

December 8, 2020

By Doug McPherson

Graduations are called commencements because they mark the time when graduates start their lives. Ralph Root can tell you all about it.

That’s because he’s no stranger to graduations. His first – from high school – was in 1969. Then during his 25 years in the U.S. Army, he graduated two more times, once with an associate’s degree in marketing and merchandising and again with a bachelor’s in business administration.

And Friday, at age 69, Root will graduate again – this time as the oldest member of his class and with a bachelor’s degree in art from Metropolitan State University of Denver. Then, he’ll set to start the work he’s dreamed about his entire life: full-time artist.

“As the old saying goes, you’re never too old to learn,” said Root, who adds he was among the first generation in his family to earn a college degree.

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After his military service, Root worked 11 years in the private sector before retiring in 2017 to use funds from the G.I. Bill to pursue an art degree at MSU Denver.

Roots’ art reflects a love for nature rooted in his upbringing in Colorado Springs. He paints landscapes and animals, often endangered species, using a style and elements based on famed artists such as Andy Warhol, Robert Gillmor and David Hockney.

“I use my painting to bring awareness to the importance of preserving and protecting our surroundings,” he said. “Art is uniquely positioned to move people; it inspires us, it insists on new questions, it provokes curiosity, and it empowers the hearts of people. Artists think from their heart. It’s more than just a skill; it’s a way of life; it’s a passion.”

MSU Denver art student and U.S. Army veteran Ralph Root stands with a piece of his artwork at his home in Aurora. Photo by Amanda Schwengel
MSU Denver art student and U.S. Army veteran Ralph Root stands with a piece of his artwork at his home in Aurora. Photo by Amanda Schwengel

It must be a passion because painting hasn’t always been easy for Root – at times, it’s even been painful. During his service, he developed degenerative joint disease wherein osteoarthritis attacks the cartilage in his joints. He’s had 26 surgeries since 2005 – the last one in June, when he had a total fusion of his right wrist. And last February, he had a knuckle replaced on his left hand – especially disheartening because he’s lefthanded. His service in the military left him disabled, and he continues to deal with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

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But none of it has slowed him down or hurt the quality of his work. In fact, his art has won numerous awards and been shown around the country.

Root’s dedication to learning is key to his success as an artist, said Carlos Frésquez, the acclaimed Denver artist and longtime art professor at MSU Denver whom Root credits with helping him develop his art.

“To me, (Root’s) artwork is about escapism, very much about nature,” Frésquez said. “Service in the Army is very regimented, but his artwork is free-flowing and quite colorful, very opposite of the armed services. He told me that he came to school to study art to improve his work, and he definitely has.”

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Postgraduation, Root plans to paint four hours a day and complete at least one painting a week, he said.

“I want to continue attending art festivals once COVID-19 is over,” he said.

And when he’s not painting or exhibiting, he’ll be spending time in nature with his wife of 48 years, Linda.

“My graduation present is a new camper,” Root said. “Linda and I plan on a lot of time camping in the mountains.”

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