Studio.Public: A Conversation with Mariana Russell
Last September Kate Mothes, who founded and runs Young Space, a platform to support and connect emerging artists, curated an exhibition which brought together Wisconsin artists and Hyperlink artists and featured two venues for the exhibition, one in Denver, CO, and one in Madison, WI. This exhibition, titled Together With was shown at the college I was attending, Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, and presented an amazing opportunity for me to experience work of people I know and appreciate, paired next to work I had never seen before.
One of these artists was Appleton-based abstract artist Mariana Russell. Her work in the exhibition (below) was a small pairing of painted objects, both sculptural and flat simultaneously these objects have stuck with me and I think of them often when it comes to the relational work I am investigating now. Mariana and I sat down last week over the phone and discussed where she is now in her work, how her process functions in the studio, and how her background in the Southern Baptist church is now influencing the direction she is moving in with her art.
For me, the most interesting aspect of any fine artist is finding out the ways in which they work. I am deeply interested in process, and following Russell on Instagram I am able to glimpse this, but never understood the full scope of how she works, and luckily, she, like many other artists, starts off the same way: wasting time.
Speaking to Russell she mentioned that the first thing she does when she gets to the studio is bumble around for 30-40 minutes, allowing time and mental space in get into the zone of creation. Once in the correct space, she can start to think about creating and work through a painting, and rather than thumbnails for her layered compositions Russell starts with small paintings, which she dubs ‘smalls’.
A ‘small’ is a 5” x 5” exploration of an interaction used to inform her larger works. Interested in simple thoughts and experiences, Russell’s inspiration can come from anywhere, “I’ll think about a little experience or hear something and I will write it down or take a mental note and then make a small work based on that interaction and then all of those things inform [the larger work]. I’m just constantly taking all those and sitting with just a really simple thought…”
Working with one interaction per small painting “a bunch of the smalls can help inform the larger paintings. Almost like each small is a word and you put them together.” Visual sentences act as reference material and are then compiled into larger layered compositions though “they never end up looking like the initial small work that I had made.
"...but for me it’s super important to step back
and really take a look at what’s happening beyond what I’m working on..."
It’s a lot about the process and responding to what’s there. You can plan and plan and plan what you’re gonna do, but for me it’s super important to step back and really take a look at what’s happening beyond what I’m working on, outside of the part that I’m working on.”
Like most abstract work, intuition and response are vital to the process of creation, and as much as we artists can plan the composition, sometimes the painting demands we move in a different direction. For Russell, the paintings are all about creating, looking, responding, and then waiting and looking once again. “Sometimes they really go in the direction I was thinking, and sometimes it’s a total wildcard and every layer is like a scramble or just trying to fix something … and it’s just part of the process.”
Working on anywhere from seven to a single work at a time, her paintings start with quick drawings using latex or acrylic paint. For her, “it’s nice to start with the latex because I’m not thinking at all about wasting anything … I feel a lot more freedom in the beginning initial marks.” After these first marks the surface begins its journey of building layers, using a range of materials from oil, acrylic, airbrush, collaged elements, and even screenprinting which can be seen in Russell’s older works. Working on multiple paintings at the same time allows Russell to see a dialogue developing among the work and leads to discoveries which can be implemented in multiple pieces at the same time.
The dialogue between the paintings dives back into Russell’s interest in small interactions. One of the most humorously mundane examples we spoke about was the concept of the food pyramid and her interest in things that humans accept as truth but are constantly in flux, “we’re like, ‘Oh yeah, this is it, this is how many carbs’ and then it’s just like, ‘Just kidding! This is it guys’ … [I’m drawn to] things that we know and then it turns out that we don’t know.” Another instance of this relation is simply the idea of existing with objects. Many people don’t realize the power that objects and art can hold, and for Russell that means just purely sitting with an object and considering it. She commented saying, “if we sat with more things, more people could learn empathy. And then also we live in this world where we are very encouraged to be down the middle, to never fall into ecstasy too much, one way or another,” which led us to begin the conversation around her religious background and the concept of shame.
“...if we sat with more things,
more people could learn empathy.
Raised in Wisconsin in a Southern Baptist home, “all I knew growing up was shame. My whole body, I was just so shameful. I hated that I had to have breasts and that I had to cover …. I was always told, ‘Be careful you don’t wear something too low-cut or you’ll make the men sin’ and I was always so preoccupied with that … it's stuck with me … I didn’t realize how much it affected me … even years after, it’s just so deep inside of you.”
Though this conversation can go many ways, I connect and empathize with these thoughts on a deep level. Growing up in a religion you don’t identify with, having thoughts ingrained in your adolescent mind that as you grow need to be broken and corrected, being told things about yourself and others that simply aren’t true, that sticks with you. This pattern of correction and relearning how the world functions can lead artists down insanely interesting veins of thought though, and for Russell this comes in the form of shame in relation to touch.
Russell is currently thinking a lot about “how touch depraved we all are in the United States. How we are all taught to have a nuclear family, monogamous relationship, and that’s the way, there is no other way… that sort of thought really informs my work… it is just so absurd how, especially around here, Midwestern, that is the way of thinking … becoming free of shame has become really important to me.
Also realizing how many people tried to make me feel shameful for being with someone, or feeling sexual or liking—even liking sex. It’s insane how something so pleasurable, and amazing, and just so necessary is looked on like, ‘Oh, that’s bad.’”
Russell is in the process of “freeing [herself] of feeling that way, even if it’s just, ‘This is what I have, I have to be happy’.” This process of self acceptance and shedding her prescribed shame is beginning to make her way into her work in a different way than just abstraction as well as she is currently revisiting her college interest in figures.
Her love of the figure was put to the backburner during college when she discovered the new and mysterious world of abstraction and chose to pursue that route instead, “but now I’m trying to rediscover the figure … I’m at a pivotal new place with that.” Planning on now implementing the figure into her layers of abstraction, Russell still has some restraints as she explores this new level of content, stating, “People look at the figure and then they look for a story to go with that figure … they focus on the figure so much that they are just trying to understand what is going on, what is happening with this figure, what is this human doing, and they are missing everything else that is going on.”
it’s like learning a new language."
This has not turned her off from the figure though, and you can expect to see some new works coming out of her studio soon. Russell has been working away on a new suite of work, and I myself am very excited to see what direction her ideas take her in next.