Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Artist Interview: Nathaniel Russell

A few weeks ago, in preparation for a recent NewCity artist profile of Nathaniel Russell, I sent him some interview questions about his work and artistic practices. His responses are interesting, and since I couldn't include much of it in the NewCity profile, I thought I'd post it here. Enjoy!

Interview with Nathaniel Russell (February 2010)

1.) How do you know Laura Shaffer and/or how did you become involved with Home gallery? Do you prefer to show your work in more intimate spaces?

I met Laura through our mutual friend Casey Roberts. He’s a great artist from Indianapolis and he was showing with Laura. I think he told Laura about my artwork.

Casey Roberts, smokesignal, 2009
cyanotype drawing w/gouache
60" x 42"

Casey Roberts, dont stand just there, 2009
cyanotype drawing w/collage
60" x 42"

Casey Roberts, whale blown rainbows, 2008
cyanotype w/collage
42" x 52"

I like showing my work in all kinds of spaces. I probably have the most experience with informal artspaces like warehouses and storefronts, but I enjoy working with galleries and museums, too. Every space offers something different. I will admit I enjoy the informal atmosphere at Home Gallery. It’s comfortable and lends itself to conversation.

2.) Which pieces did you create specifically for showing in Home gallery?

Nathaniel Russell, A poem about touching the face, ink on paper.

Nathaniel Russell, A Book About the Space Between Things, ink on paper

I was working on a small series of drawings, and when I realized I would have a chance to show them in Chicago, I gathered them up and went through some older work to see what could fit. From there I made new pieces specifically for the show. Those were all the book drawings and collages, the bookshelf, and some of the medium size drawings in the hallway. All the work is from the last year and a half.

3.) In a video interview with Laura you mention artists Ben Shahn and Antonio Frasconi as influences. Are there other sources you draw from for inspiration?

Ben Shahn
Ben Shahn
Ben Shahn

Antonio Frasconi, What a Shout, Color woodcut, 1955.
Edition 10. 14 x 28-1/2 inches.

Antonio Frasconi, Angry Beekeeper
Woodcut. 8-1/2 x 13 inches.

Yeah, I got into those guys in college and they sort of stuck. I’m still in awe of their lives and work. Visually, I love the work of a lot of California painters and designers that seem to come from the same interest in skateboarding and music that I had as a kid. People like Kyle Field and Chris Johanson to name two of many. I also get an equal amount of inspiration from reading. I love Richard Brautigan, David Berman, Denis Johnson and Kurt Vonnegut. I love words and the images they create in my mind.

4.) You mention on your blog, Crooked Arm, that a large part of your income comes from record covers/ reissues (over 200?!). A real, live, working artist! How did you get into selling work for posters and record covers, and actually making a good living from your artwork?
Nathaniel Russell, recent album art for Neil Halstead

Well, it’s a mix of things. I make original art for records and bands and I also do a lot of work on reissues of old records: making new packaging and designing CD booklets and such. It’s about half and half. I sort of fell into it naturally. I’ve always been very interested in music and I’ve worked in record stores for years and years. Through that you end up with lots of friends with bands who need posters, record sleeves, and shirts. After a while you end up doing it for people you don’t know and getting paid for it. I really love it and I feel very lucky to be a part of such amazing music and art. I’m really proud of working with all the musicians and very flattered that they seem to like my work.

Nathaniel Russell, recent album art for Vetiver's album, Tight Knit

5.) Can you talk a little bit about your movements between drawing, collage, printmaking, painting, and sculpture? What medium do you tend to work in the most? Do you print your own posters? Are you always thinking of how to make work that can be translated to print/ poster/ silkscreen?

I got my BFA in printmaking [Ball State University, BFA 1999], focusing a lot on woodcut. I was in some bands and I got into doing silkscreen stuff at home. I think I just sort of think in a graphic way: flat color, big lines, and layers. It’s just very pleasing to me.

Basically, it’s all about drawing for me. Drawing is the most important thing. Prints are a way to reproduce those drawings and bring out different qualities through the different print mediums. Even the sculpture and collage I do is about drawing: drawing the letters, cutting lines with the knife or saw.

I printed all my own posters for a long time, simply out of financial considerations but also because I love the process. I also lived in a warehouse that had a big print room in it, which made it that much easier. Now that I live in a more traditional apartment, I have somebody print my posters for me. It’s great. I know it will turn out amazing and it saves me the time and frustration. I love printing but I never really considered myself a Printer. It’s a craft that I admire a lot, but sometimes I’d rather just be drawing.

Nathaniel Russell, screenprinted poster, designed for Mollusk Surf Shop, The Present

6.) What prompted the move to the Midwest/ Indiana? How do you see yourself staying in touch with the art scene on the West Coast, while still incorporating yourself into what’s going on here?

I moved back to the Midwest to be closer to my family for a while. It seemed like I could be a big help here and it was also a great chance to lay low for a while and get some work done. I miss California and my friends a lot, but I grew up in Indiana so it’s not like I was surprised or anything. Your life is what you make it, it doesn’t have to matter where you are.

I try to stay in touch with people out in California as much as possible, and it would be totally unworkable if I didn’t have such supportive friends out there. The shops and companies I work for make it easy for me to still feel a part of things. I’m sure I’m missing out on a lot of stuff, but I’m where I need to be right now. Plus there’s the internet: my blog is a way for me to feel connected to people from all over.

7.) A lot of your work has to do with naming, organizing, or grouping ideas into grids or collections. It reminds me of comic art in a way, and I like how raw and organic it feels too, as if I happened to flip through your journal/ sketchbook and saw what you were thinking about one afternoon. How do you arrive at the end-point of these collections?
Nathaniel Russell, Sign Language for All Purposes

I really appreciate comic books. I was really into them when I was young, but then sort of grew out of it. As an adult I got into the work of the more fringe writers and artists and that lead me to a deeper appreciation of comics as an art form, a popular form of storytelling and communication. There are a number of pieces in the show that go together, like frames in comic book. I’m interested in exploring the idea of that further into some more lengthy narratives.

It’s pretty much like you describe: I write down a lot of things in my notebooks: words, phrases, names, drawings and the work comes from there. Each art show is a pretty honest representation of my thoughts and concerns from the previous year or so. I feel like lately the themes are beginning to become more and more long lasting and worthy of more exploration for a long time to come.

8.) I like the work you are doing with books and book covers and blocks of wood painted to look like books. Do you have an interest in contemporary book cover graphic design, or are book covers just a convenient place to collect thought-provoking or silly phrases?

I don’t know a lot about contemporary book design, other than what I see at the book store: which is mostly sort of boring and looks like they were designed by marketing departments, except for the random exceptions from smaller presses and the penguin special editions. but I’m a big fan of book design from the 60s and 70s, especially the old pelican paperbacks. I buy those up whenever I see them. I’d love to do book design, but I don’t really know as many authors as I do guitar players.
(Photo of Nathaniel Russell's work in Home gallery from TimeOut Chicago)

Photo from here.

9.) When I first saw your work, I was immediately reminded of Terry Gilliam and the Beatle’s “Yellow Submarine” illustrator Heinz Edelmann. The New York Times described Edelmann’s work as “stylized, soothingly fluid, neo-Art Nouveau,” which I think applies to some of your work as well. What attracts you to this late 1960s, early 1970s style?

Heinz Edlemann illustration for The Yellow Submarine

Maybe the graphic element? The pop art design as art cross over stuff? The thing I like about a lot of those guys like Milton Glazer and Seymour Chwast is that those dudes could DRAW. Again, it all comes back to drawing for me.

There did seem to be an openness and a lack of concern for the differences between high and low art back then. There’s an honesty and simplicity in there. For sure there was a willingness to use drawing and simple shapes to experiment with more supernatural and psychedelic themes. I’m sure I’m romanticizing things, I just love the way some of that stuff looks. I also know there was just as much crap back then as now.

10.) In your poster section on the Mollusk website, the question is asked, “Is Nat Russell Mollusk’s R. Crumb?”. I really like that connection, but it doesn’t quite fit in a number of ways—your work is not as overtly sexual or bodily-oriented, and your lines are simpler and cleaner than his. Did you make that comparison yourself (and if so, why?), or has it just been tossed out into the ether unbeknownst to you?

I’m pretty sure that was just written in there by the dudes at mollusk. They might have been making fun of me or just saying that I make a lot of stuff. They also used to call me “the party” and “snoopy” so you might have to take that comparison with a grain of salt.

I don’t really see it myself but Crumb was a big influence on me in college. I used to watch that movie about him to get hyped up to draw. There’s a bunch of great quotes in there that I really identify with in regards to why I love making art and looking at things.

11.) According to your blog, Chicago is listed in your New Years resolutions… besides the Home gallery (and perhaps future Op-Shops?), what are some future plans for Chicago?

Resolutions here.

Was it? I have some great friends that live in Chicago and I’d really like to figure out how Chicago can fit in my life or how I can fit in Chicago. I’d like to make some more things up there, get involved with larger projects, and just find my favorite place to eat. Also if there are any more good record stores like there were in the late 90s. I think Laura and I are going to do some stuff at the Op shop, too. I’m open to suggestions.

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