A Battle for Clarity Meant a Win for Abstraction

TURNING HIS BACK ON THE LITERAL
Jeremy Russell
Portrait by Clark Hodgin

Over the years, Jeremy Russell and the professional art scene have edged cautiously toward one another. It’s a dance of inevitability: “I always kind of knew I was going to be an artist one way or another,” says Russell. “I really can’t remember a time that I did not know.”

As a child, he became fascinated with the Civil War. “My family would go to historical sites for our vacations. And, being the boy I was, I played war with all the other kids. It was romantic and heroic.” What truly inspired him were the battle scenes that museums created for dioramas, and so he began creating his own. 

Currents

His parents, who saw the artistic drive in their son as a strong value, were supportive of his creative interests. “And I had a huge imagination,” he notes.

His adolescent years, he admits, were a bit turbulent. “I was grappling with being obsessive-compulsive and not knowing it. I was very hard on my parents, and so they enrolled me in my first college art course at the age of 15. It changed my life and gave me an invaluable tool to navigate this thing we call existence.” He eventually attended UNCA, where he earned his BFA in painting. By contrast with his current work, he says his early paintings were literal both in theme and depiction.

Blue Angel Totem

That served him well in his early career, as he spent several years as a commercial artist working on movie sets and television commercials, painting rides at theme parks, and doing faux finishing. “And I owned a very successful mural business. All these jobs have given me such a thorough knowledge of products and materials” — including the ones that don’t fit into the “common fine-art toolbox,” as Russell puts it.

Bamboo Tower

But he didn’t allow himself to envision art as a full-time career until a few years ago. “It was so risky, with a family and all. But I always wanted it to be, and I always painted.”

As he painted, his style changed, from a symbolic juxtaposition of imagery to eventual full abstraction. “It’s intuitional,” he explains. “It’s instinctual. It’s primal — it  overcomes almost all boundaries.”

Sassafras

But navigating a sense of artistic identity is another boundary line. “I don’t want to come off as a complete narcissist and say, ‘Take a look at what I’m doing, it’s important,’” says Russell. On the other hand, false modesty doesn’t work well, either, especially when the realization comes: “‘Wait, [my work] is honest; it is worth consideration.’”

Briar Rabbit

For the longest time, Russell says, he did not consider his output aesthetically consistent enough to have market potential. “I have a philosophical direction, but no formula.” But something else he has, lately, is “a desperate urge to build a legacy — to have my work be part of the contemporary art dialogue.”

Jeremy Russell, Russell & Armstrong  Studio, 24 North Lexington Ave., Asheville. Hours are 11am- 6pm Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, 11am-8pm Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 704-942-5197 or see jeremyrussellart.com.  

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