Words by Ashley Breeding and Scott Pruden
On an overcast evening, Tony Ross cuts heads of butter crunch from his backyard garden, an assembly of raised beds bursting with lettuces and other greens, squash, zucchini and peppers, both sweet and spicy. At one side, eight different kinds of tomatoes will emerge at any moment. It’s a daily ritual for Ross, who knows the tastiest meals are made from food you grow at home.
“I learned to garden from my dad, who came from a family of farmers,” Ross says. “At our childhood home in Elsmere, we had a yard the size of a football field, and half of that was my dad’s garden where he grew everything I grow now, and more.”
What Tony helped his father harvest as a boy, his mother and grandmother would turn into authentic Italian meals passed down through generations. “Those two were in the kitchen every day, almost all day,” Tony recalls. “I loved watching them and picked up a lot from doing that.”
As an adult, Tony expanded his culinary repertoire by watching skilled chefs on the Food Network, but those traditional family recipes—delicious homemade pasta, secret six-hour sauces—are still some of his favorites to prepare. Bobby Flay, after all, can’t reproduce the pinch of nostalgia that a fried-meatball sub on a DiFonzo roll with provolone—once the staple of happy Sunday suppers—can. It’s a passion he’s passed on to his eldest daughter, a professional chef at Philadelphia’s Condesa (and formerly of Hockessin’s House of William and Merry).
Tony’s dad was also a winemaker, converting their garage into a cellar where he would age different varietals in big French whiskey barrels. From age 10, Tony and his siblings would help out, tossing crates of grapes their dad had hauled from Philly into a baby pool and stomping them into juice. “That was before he got the equipment to do it the right way,” he notes.
It’s a tradition they continued into adulthood, until their dad tired of it and Tony started his own family. “Then we moved the operation to my basement,” says Tony, who imports organic juices from countries around the world to produce three or four different wines a month for friends and family.
A career graphic designer, he also creates most of the labels himself. For others, he collaborates with his wife and daughters. “It’s another great way to use my creative juices,” he quips, aware of the pun.
Art was another childhood pastime. “Instead of buying birthday cards, I’d design and draw them myself,” Tony remembers. His mother persuaded him to pursue these talents, even helping him get a job as a messenger in the early ’70s at Wilmington’s then-largest agency, Lyons Studios. It’s here that Tony cut his teeth crafting ads, and he’d spend the next four decades as a creative director at other local agencies, winning more than 150 awards here and internationally. (Somewhere in the middle, he started his own agency but ultimately craved an “8-to-5 gig that would provide a healthy family-work balance.”)
Nowadays, when he’s not freelancing from home (clients include everyone from small ag to nonprofits) or tending to his swiss chard or cherry tomatoes, you might find Tony, say, building a pair of Adirondack chairs or a potting station for his wife (yep, he can also do woodworking) or drumming at a local bar with Boys Night Out, the band he’s been with for 25 years.
With retirement on the horizon, this Renaissance man doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. “I’m throwing around some ideas for my wine,” he says. We’ll see what comes to fruition.
Skip C.’s background is as diverse and colorful as his tapestry quilts. A retired flight attendant, the Essex, Maryland, native (who requested his last name be withheld) taught English to underprivileged kids in Mexico and later moved to Nicaragua, where he farmed and taught agriculture. “My father and grandfather owned farms when I was a kid, so I learned a lot about growing—squash, cabbage, watermelons, everything—and selling through them,” he says.
Devoting his skills to the needy, Skip eventually felt compelled to help the disenfranchised in his home country. “Here in the U.S., there’s homelessness, hunger, abuse, racial tensions … it was time to do something to help my own community.”
In the early 2000s, he and a friend ran a business that sold habits to monks and nuns. “I needed some color in my life!” he jests. So he sold that company and used the equipment for a new craft: Quilting. More than a creative outlet, this life calling became another way to give back. Many of his quilts are donated to churches and charity fundraisers. Others, he sells or displays in art galleries or local landmarks like the Lewes and Georgetown libraries.
In his home studio in Lewes, five different machines—from a simple Singer to a Pfaff for specialty stitching—help the self-proclaimed “quiltist” create the art he wants from fabrics he collects from all over the globe. “I haven’t found one machine that does it all,” he explains, noting that he also paints, pencils, glitter-glues and hand-stitches intricate designs onto some squares. (When he couldn’t find the “true yellow” he was looking for, for instance, he colored over a quilt with permanent yellow marker.)
Skip’s space showcases several works in progress—“I’m always working on a few at a time,” he says—including a large double-sided quilt adorned with hand-dyed 3D butterflies and Swarovski crystals on one side, a contrasting motif on the other.
It’s creations like this and others that earned him the moniker “The King of Bling,” though he goes by Quilty Guy on his Facebook business page. He’s also won multiple awards for quilt making, including a ribbon for outstanding achievement for one called Love Happens, awarded by the National Association of Certified Quilt Judges.
“This isn’t your grandma’s quilting,” Skip asserts, holding up an African quilt sewn from tiny remnants, each with a red center. “It represents heart, happiness, peace, love.”
If you look closely, you’ll often find messages of hope hidden in each of his designs.
“I mostly draw inspiration from the community and world events and other artists,” Skip says, pointing to examples of these messages. “The message is serious, but the quilt is whimsical.”
A modern Renaissance man is “one who breaks the mold,” by Skip’s definition. “You’re creating a new identity—a new reality—for a stereotype. I look forward to the day when these men are the average.”
It might be Hockessin’s R. Thorpe Moeckel who puts the literal Renaissance in Renaissance man. Moeckel, vice president of Delaware-based Wohlsen Construction, spends his days helping the business grow. But in his off hours, he absorbs and puts into practice the artistic techniques of classical masters like Rembrandt.
“I was always interested in art because I grew up in a family of artists,” he says. His mother, who continued to paint throughout her adult life, studied as a young woman with noted artist and illustrator Frank Schoonover, a member of the Brandywine School.
His father, a prominent Wilmington architect, also pursued art on the side and had several works purchased by the Hotel DuPont. The immersion led Moeckel to study art history at the University of Delaware with the intention of moving on to architectural school. Though that never came to pass, he did end up rising to the level of managing partner at a Wilmington architecture firm.
Moeckel dabbled in art while in high school, but his deep interest reemerged in the last decade, when he began taking classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the School for Contemporary Realist Art, both in Philadelphia, as well as at Studio Incamminati and Grand Central Atelier in New York City.
“All of these things have one common theme, and that’s the practice of contemporary realism with the application of classical academic painting techniques,” he says. While the style was still popular in the art world up to the late 19th century, it began to fall out of favor as more modern styles took over. Many of the techniques were lost until various ateliers started popping up in the last couple of decades to resurrect the classical style.
His devotion to his craft is evident both in the work that decorates his Hockessin home and the dozens of volumes on art history and technique that fill his living room and garage studio. And though he’s sold a few paintings here and there, Moeckel’s work is mainly for his own enjoyment and to present as gifts to friends and family.
Moeckel still spends most of his time at Wohlsen, which he’s helped to grow into one of the leading construction firms in the mid-Atlantic and one of the largest in Delaware. But at 67, he’s starting to look ahead to retirement and having more time to paint. Then, he says, he might use some of the business acumen he’s developed to further his art.
“If I want to go into the business side of [art], I’ll have an appreciation for how to market it,” he says.
A few years ago, attorney Rick Cross accompanied his then-girlfriend to a paint-and-sip event—“You know, one of those things where you drink wine and all paint the same thing,” he explains. Little did Cross know that the colorful abstract of “Picasso’s Dog” he produced that night would spark a new passion.
Around the same time, he was semi-retiring from his Wilmington-based firm, Cross & Simon, LLC. With this new free time, he thought, painting could be fun in a more serious setting—and with better subjects. So Cross enrolled in studio classes at Delaware Art Museum, where he learned to pen and ink, draw and paint. Later he took painting workshops at the Rehoboth Art League and at University of Delaware’s Lifelong Learning Institute.
Above a corner desk in his family room hang finished paintings of verdant landscapes, Costa Brava’s craggy coves, a 1950s car and a portrait of his dog, Sadie. Propped on a plein-air easel is a work in progress, an Impressionist-style painting of a girl frolicking in a field.
Cross plans to convert a large screened-in porch into a proper studio with wraparound windows but makes do with this makeshift space for now.
The New York native developed an early affinity for art through black-and-white photography—“mostly portraits,” he recalls—even turning a small closet in his childhood home into a darkroom.
But the interest faded after college when Cross joined the U.S. Navy, where he was a navigator (and squadron legal officer) before attending law school in Virginia, he explains, pointing to an image he recently painted of the F-14 Tomcat he flew in the military.
Originally painting with acrylics, Cross eventually went to one of Brian Murphy’s workshops, where the well-known plein-air painter turned him onto “more forgiving” oils. Cross also enjoys using watercolors for certain subjects, like seascapes.
Splitting his time between his north Wilmington residence and Dewey Beach, where he has a second home, Cross explores shorelines and local landmarks in his work, revisiting such subjects as the old wood-shingled Lifesaving Station, Bottle & Cork and Dolle’s on the boardwalk. He works mostly from reference photos, either pictures he took himself or inspiring images he happens upon.
“I don’t really paint people unless it’s from a distance,” he says, though skillfully putting details to canvas is something he works to improve.
He’s also fond of urban sketching, keeping a kit and paper with him at all times. In his travels (pre-COVID, of course) Cross would pen the many beautiful scenes he encountered, from London’s National Gallery to California’s Hollywood Hills.
Eventually, his hobby began turning a small profit when a friend asked him to sell her a painting of a lighthouse that he’d had hanging in his beach house. “At first I thought she was just flattering me,” he recalls. “But then I gave in, and she gifted it to a friend for her birthday. That planted the seed that maybe I could start selling some of my pieces.”
Soon Cross had his own tent at local arts festivals, and when he’d post new works to Facebook or his website (crossartgallery.com), the images drew interest—and commissions.
Ever-evolving his technique, Cross says his style is a work in progress. “I’m still not where I want to be, but I’m happier with my art now than I was a year ago.”
When he’s not working hard on a case or playing hard with his paintbrushes, you might find Cross exploring new terrain—and subjects—in the teardrop camper be built himself.
“I was tent-camping with friends a while back and there was a good rain where we all got wet,” he says, shivering as he recalls the discomfort. On the next trip, Cross rolled up to the site with his compact camper, just big enough to fit a queen-size bed and kitchenette.
On the back is a collection of bumper stickers he’s collected from charming towns along the East Coast. Eventually, his studio will house images of many of these same places.
From his fully equipped professional home recording studio, Rehoboth Beach resident Joe LaSorte might not give off a vibe of someone whose full-time gig includes “human resources.” But for this dedicated professional and standout musician, each side of his life helps him achieve more in the other, he says.
As a teen and through college, the Wilmington native could be seen playing guitar in a variety of bands throughout the Jersey Shore and Delaware beaches. But after college graduation, he was looking for a place to begin his career. That starting point was insurance giant AIG.
“I went there because I wanted to work somewhere and I really didn’t know what to do,” he says. “I realized quickly that AIG had operations in over 100 countries. Once I realized this kind of work existed, I wanted the global part of it.”
Today, he works for Sequoia Consulting Group, a California-based company that helps emerging and established tech companies provide benefits to their employees. Sequoia’s clients include Netflix, Uber, Dropbox and Zoom. That initial leap of faith into the world of global human resources has resulted in LaSorte traveling to more than 60 countries, with extended assignments in Aruba, the United Kingdom (twice) and Saudi Arabia.
It was during his second stint outside London in the late 1990s that he recaptured his love for the guitar. While he was attending an Eric Clapton concert, burglars broke into his home and cleaned the place out. Among the items stolen was the guitar that he’d been dragging from assignment to assignment but otherwise ignoring. Since his insurance company required him to replace everything they paid for, he decided that was the time to invest in a new instrument and pick it back up.
“I thought, maybe this is a sign,” he says.
The next year brought a move to Chicago and a chance opportunity to sit in with blues bassist Sam Cockrell. “Sam had been a fixture on the blues scene in Chicago for 25 years. He was playing at a bar one night and I happened to be there, and I asked him if I could come sit in,” LaSorte says. “He said fine, and then afterward he said, ‘Would you like to join the band?’”
So began a double life for LaSorte—ambitious corporate type by day and bluesman by night. “In Chicago, the two halves of my life came closest together because a lot of the people I worked with would come see me play,” he says. “It was just totally accepted that I had what you might describe as a fairly straight-laced corporate career, but I was playing in bars two or three nights a week.”
After moving back to the East Coast in the late 1990s, LaSorte reconnected with his old musician friends from Delaware and has since performed up and down the I-95 corridor with his band the Teletones for about a decade. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the band is using the performing downtime to record their first album in LaSorte’s studio, also the home of his own label, Teletone Records.
Meanwhile, his double life continues to reap benefits. “My work is actually better because I play music again,” he says. “My work is really demanding, and for me, the ongoing participation in music gives me a place to let go of the work stress and use the other half of my brain.”