Art for More than Art’s Sake

Jeremy Russell and Alicia Armstrong will “Merge” their talents for Art Affair.
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

“You want to give back to the community,” states local painter Jeremy Russell. “And when everybody’s intentions are good and they are doing something positive and healthy, I wish the whole world worked that way.” 

Alicia Armstrong agrees. The two artists, who operate Russell & Armstrong Gallery in downtown Asheville, recently collaborated to create and donate a large oil-on-canvas titled “Merge (6).” The piece will be auctioned off, in an ornate high-end frame donated by Frugal Framer, along with dozens of other works by renowned regional artists, during the 12th annual Art Affair. 

The gala fundraiser supports local nonprofit OpenDoors of Asheville, and all auction proceeds directly fund programs that provide school-age students with increased access to education, enrichment, and life skills, with a mission to eliminate race-based opportunity and achievement gaps.

Russell and Armstrong’s abstract painting was inspired by the event’s 2022 theme, “We Rise: Elevate, Educate, Celebrate.” The duo, who often collaborate on the same painting, essentially live by that theme in their studio, as they celebrate one another’s talents with a view toward teaching each other in ways that enhance their respective work. They met in college, have been friends for many years, and share a similar approach to painting. While their palettes may differ, they both like to work on an entire series of paintings at the same time.

They employ techniques that involve building up paintings in layers, knocking back those layers, and then building them up once more. The two also embrace the imperfections that inevitably occur along the way, incorporating those into the painting’s character.

“It mimics life in a lot of ways,” says Russell. “Something nitty gritty happens, and you use those mistakes and gritty areas to inform the painting.” Russell makes bold, gestural, heavy contrast marks, and then Armstrong edits the harshness and brings in more soft, atmospheric elements. “It’s like she makes the environments for those marks [to inhabit],” observes Russell.

“When you’re painting, you are basically solving a problem — the problem being that you’re creating something out of nothing,” says Armstrong. “Working together, you get a different perspective you wouldn’t otherwise have.”

That approach synchs philosophically with their commitment to OpenDoors. They’ve been volunteering for about 10 years, and are currently partnering with the organization to plan an immersive art experience for students, combining visual arts and music.

The goal is to expose students to those artistic activities while giving then an opportunity to experience painting as a medium for their own self-expression, voice, identity, culture, and history.

The 12th Annual Art Affair, “We Rise: Elevate, Educate, Celebrate,” happens Saturday, March 5, 7pm, at The Venue (21 North Market St., Asheville), with silent and live auctions, food and drink, art and entertainment, and a VIP UNC v. Duke viewing party. Tickets run $125-$175. For more information, see opendoorsasheville.org. For more about the featured artists, see russellandarmstronggallery.com. 

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