Matthew Russ: Interview with a Native Maine Painter
Editor: Brenda Bonneville
Sunday, 01 January 2012
(Image: "Great Pond from Jamaica Point" by Matthew Russ)
Matthew Russ was born in Portland, Maine and earned a B.A. from Colby College where he majored in studio art with a concentration in oil painting. He always paints from life, working outdoors in all seasons, and often backpacking into remote locations. The celebration of Maine’s landscape is evident in Matt's work.
Matt has shown throughout Maine and has contributed to art auctions including the Maine Audubon Society in Falmouth and the Maine College of Art in Portland. In addition, his work has been commissioned for private collectors as well as institutions and corporations.
In 2011, Matt received the Roderick A. Robinson Memorial Award for Realistic Mainescape at the Maine Open Juried Art Show. He currently resides in Waterville with his wife, KC.
When did you first realize that you were going to be an artist and when did you first start making art?
At an early age, I discovered that drawing was a source of pleasure. My best friend in elementary school also loved to draw, and together we created elaborate battle scenes on paper, with small figures scaling cliffs, and planes attacking bunkers. Today, teachers steer kids away from such themes, but I believe it was important for us to be able to draw what we wanted to without interference. It was all about the thrill of creating something original, a feeling I’ve never lost. Incidentally, my friend now lives in Chicago, where he designs and builds his own line of furniture. His work can be seen at dscdesign-build.com.
Who or what inspires you?
My inspiration comes largely from the Maine outdoors. I have explored Maine’s mountains, lakes, rivers, marshes, coastline and islands in all seasons, and I am endlessly thrilled by Maine’s landscape. I also love the people of Maine, and there are many, especially in my own family, who inspire me with their authenticity and integrity.
(Image: "Winter on Mount Phillip #1" by Matthew Russ)
Is (was) anyone else in your family in the arts?
No one in my family is formally in the arts, but there are many creative souls in my family. My dear grandmother used to have the most incredible Christmas tree. She made every single ornament by hand out of materials from the ocean. There were sea-urchin bells with pearl clappers, dried and varnished rosehips, crab shells illuminated from within, and even a starfish at the top. I always thought Downeast Magazine should have done a story about it. Nana died at age 98 last May.
Are you self-trained or did you go to art school?
In high school, I was fortunate to have sculptor Celeste Roberge as my art teacher. She was an inspiration to me, and she encouraged me to go to art school. However, I was interested in many academic areas, and I pursued a liberal arts education instead. At Colby College I explored many departments, but I eventually majored in studio art with a concentration in oil painting. During my junior year, I had a taste of art school when I studied at the Crawford College of Art in Cork, Ireland.
Is the process of creating your art long or short?
I build my own canvases, and I also build the frames for my paintings when they are finished, so the pre and post-production of my work is rather time-consuming. However, the time spent painting a single piece rarely lasts longer than five hours. I am a plein-air painter, so I strive to complete each painting in a single session, thus capturing the spirit of a specific place at a specific time.
Tell us something about your work.
The creation of each of my paintings is an adventure. No matter the season, I carry my easel, personal gear, and food on a retrofitted backpack and hike into a painting location for a full day of work. I thrive on the sensory information I experience in the field, from birdsong to changing weather. I do very little work in the studio, where such immediate information is missing. Nor do I work from photographs.
(Image: "Kidder Pond" by Matthew Russ)
Do you have a subject matter that defines you as an artist?
I am drawn to places where water, land, trees and sky converge to form dramatic patterns. Close to where I live is one such place, a large area of protected land known as The Kennebec Highlands. It is adjacent to the Belgrade Lakes, and it contains low mountains, remote ponds and cascading streams. It is a mysterious and wonderful place, and an endless source of inspiration and subject matter. I have painted there for the past seven years.
What makes you stay with a particular subject matter? Why are you drawn to it?
I love the feeling of discovery while plein air painting, finding views that stir my soul. I have learned it is possible to discover a familiar place over and over again. Even a single pond appears different from varying points of view, on different days, and at different times of year. Rather than following the urge to search for new views all over the state, I have focused my work on a relatively small geographical area. This has heightened my powers of observation and made me a better painter.
How do you stay motivated?
My main motivation is the joy I find in painting outdoors. Often, in the middle of a painting session I get a feeling that I am doing what I was born to do, and that is strong motivation, indeed. On a more practical level, I am motivated by upcoming shows. Having a deadline to focus on is very helpful.
What have you been working on lately? Are you experimenting with anything new?
I work in groups of five canvases at a stretch, five paintings that all focus on the same theme. My current series explores a vantage point from a large blueberry barren atop Vienna Mountain, where one can see a vast panorama of the western mountains of Maine and New Hampshire. It is rare to find such unobstructed views in Central Maine, and I am thrilled to be working there.
Has your medium changed from when you first became an artist?
In college I learned to paint in oils, and I loved everything about them, even the smell. Upon setting up a studio in my home, however, I was concerned that the fumes from solvents and thinners would be hazardous to my family and me. I switched to acrylic paints for awhile, but found them unsuited to fieldwork. They dried too quickly, and seized up in cold weather. I have since switched back to oils, experimenting with the new water-soluble oils that do not require solvents.
(Image: "Tree on French Mountain #5" by Matthew Russ)
What advice would you give to an artist just starting out?
It is important to remain true to yourself. Trying to create something to please an audience can stifle your creativity and rob you of the opportunity to forge a unique vision. If you create work that you find exciting, chances are others will find it exciting, too.
What kind of comment do you despise the most when overheard at one of your openings?
I’m always too happy at an opening to let stray comments bother me.
What kind of comment pleases you the most when overheard at one of your openings?
When I overhear someone mention that they can feel what kind of day it is in one of my paintings, I am very pleased. A successful plein air painting captures the feeling of a place, not just the geography.
How have you handled the business side of being an artist?
The business of being an artist is a challenge, because it requires a different mindset from that used while painting. Painting is a quiet, solitary pursuit in which the self sometimes seems to disappear. Selling paintings, on the other hand, requires self-promotion and networking. I have gotten better at the business, especially as I have learned that one opportunity often leads to another. Recently, a single buyer who saw my work in a restaurant introduced me to a new venue where I had a successful solo show. That show, in turn, led to an invitation from another gallery.
Do you have any outside interests other than art?
I enjoy exploring Maine with my family, hiking in the mountains, snowshoeing in the foothills, canoeing in the lakes and rivers, and island-hopping on the ocean. I also enjoy reading, particularly historical fiction. The “Master and Commander” series by Patrick O’Brian is a favorite. It follows the fortunes of a captain and a surgeon serving in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.
(Image: "Sewell Beach Dunes #4" by Matthew Russ)
Are you disciplined about your creative process (in other words, do you treat the process like a job, where you keep particular hours in the studio), or are you more spontaneous?
I have a part-time job at The Framemakers, a custom frame shop in Waterville. To pursue my art career, I have to be disciplined and use after-hours and days off to my advantage. Although I don’t keep particular hours, I do follow a familiar routine on painting days. It’s almost ritualistic. I travel to an area by car, hike in to a location, scout for subject matter, set up my easel, and paint for four or five hours, taking breaks for lunch and tea.
How would your life change if you were no longer allowed to create art?
I worked in the Colby College Admissions Office for five years after college. It was a good job that allowed me to pay off my loans and gain independence, but it did not afford me the time to paint. I felt like I was turning my back on my true calling, and I found it difficult to enjoy the artwork of others. A visit to a museum or gallery became a reminder of what I was missing. I decided to rededicate myself to painting, and have since sought only part-time work. It has been a challenging balance at times, but my current arrangement seems to be working. It helps that my wife believes in what I do.
What's the best part of being a full time, working artist?
I’m not a full-time artist, but I would like to get to that point. All of the time and energy I now spend on earning a steady paycheck I could turn towards what my wife calls my “favorite job.”
Do you have any upcoming shows?
I will be showing recent paintings at the Schoolhouse Gallery in Kingfield, Maine from January 6 to February 2, 2012. The gallery is home base for nature photographers John and Cynthia Orcutt.
Where can we find your work?
My work can be viewed on website, matthewruss.com.
- Brenda Bonneville, editor
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