*Welcome to the second in a series of artists interviews conducted by one of our own Flootie artists Ginny Brennan. We look forward to learning more about all the great artists both regional and international through Ginny’s efforts.*
Ginny: When did you start painting?
Russ: I began painting in 1957-58 timeframe. I began with watercolors, and pen and ink drawing mostly western life. My first art teacher was J. K. Ralston, a celebrated American Painter, from Montana who is well known for painting the old west.
Ginny: What inspired your works?
Russ: In order to understand my artwork you need to know my background. My Mother’s family came to Montana from Texas in 1889. The family settled on the Rosebud River and within the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. The town of Kirby Montana is named after my great grandfather, George Kirby. My family has long-term ties to the reservation. They have been connected to the Northern Cheyenne People for over 150 years. I was adopted into a Traditional, Cheyenne family when I was 13 years old. Many members of my Native family are Artists. My Native upbringing greatly influenced my artistic direction. My biological mother was a highly regarded Egyptologist and Historian of the Ancient world.
Ginny: Which of your artwork pieces is your favorite?
Russ: I really do not have one favorite piece. I am very drawn to traditional Native Art and Chinese Landscape Painting.
Ginny: Where did you receive your artistic training?
Russ: I have a BS in Fine Art from Montana State University with a concentration in Chinese Painting. I continued my education at the University of Washington in Native American and Indigenous Art of the Pacific Rim region and then went on to study Northwest First Nation Art and Carving at Fleming College of the Arts, in Ontario, Canada.
Ginny: Is there an artist you relate to?
Russ: My mentor in college was Ben Steele, who was a Marine in WWII and a survivor of the Bataan Death March. His drawings and paintings that he did about his time as a POW have received international attention and acclaim. He was instrumental in helping me get my degree in Chinese Painting.
Ginny: Did you ever feel like giving up your art?
Russ: Never – Art has always been part of my life mostly Native American influence.
Ginny: What is the best thing about being an artist?
Russ: Connecting with spirit.
Ginny: What is the worst thing about being an artist?
Russ: Relating to others because art always comes first to me.
Ginny: Is there a purpose to your artwork?
Russ: I try to help people be aware of a higher connection. I am an Elder of the Native American Church and a Taoist. Everything that exists has a purpose and a reason for being here. We are all part of the web of life. Native People live that everyday. I want to help people see that aspect of life. Every Being has a story to tell if we will only listen.
Ginny: How do you feel when people interpret your artwork differently?
Russ: I let people see what they want to see. If they don’t understand that’s ok too. Art speaks to people in a subtle way. There is a reason underneath it and people discover on their own. Native Art tells a story and has a purpose to it. Chinese Landscape art is about taking you on a journey. There is a loftier purpose to a Chinese Landscape Painting. It carries you to a different perspective about life, not being lost in the forest but give you a higher view of where you are. All of my Art, the Native and the Chinese styles are about finding a higher purpose and understanding that we are all connected to each other and to the Earth.
Ginny: What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
Russ: Be true to yourself don’t let others dictate what you should be doing.
Ginny: What are you currently working on?
Russ: I am doing a lot of the “Nuovo Tribale” art. It means New Tribal and blends many of the Native and Indigenous styles that I have studied together.
Ginny: Where is your art shown?