“For me abstract art is the expression of ideas, emotion, time and space which are born in the heart and mind of the artist rather than the physical world, then through the hands of the artist given birth into the physical world.” –Mati Russo, interview with Mati Russo.Interview questions are in italics.
Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed by Booksandmocha.com. First of all, let me say that you’re a fantastically good artist. As someone whose artistic ability is more or less limited to drawing stick figures, I can only speculate about what goes on in the life and mind of an artist. So, my first question for you is this: were you born gifted? Did it take much sweat and tears for you to become the painter that you are today?
I was a late starter who did many things before I committed myself full time to my art. I was a model, a personal trainer, wife and mother. My husband passed away at a far too early age and my children grew into men with lives of their own. I met a musician from Los Angeles who was working in the studios there. At the age of 50 I remarried and relocated to the West Coast from New York and found myself drawn to painting as a way to reflect on my emotions and personal feelings about the world that surrounded me and the things that affected my life.
How old were you when you got serious about art, and is visual art your only area of interest?
I made jewelry and clothing, hand painted wall paper to make some extra money when I was in New York, but I never took it seriously. I made jewelry and clothing to sell to my clients in my gym, helped with the wardrobe for prominent pop stars and painted murals for various clients, but I did not consider it my vocation until I began painting on canvas in Los Angeles.
After moving to Los Angeles I didn’t know very many people, had various issues I was dealing with and felt very much alone. The painting was a friend, something that I could always go to. It helped fill the vacancies in my new life on the West Coast and gave me a sense of discovery and direction.
Are/were there family members who were also gifted painters, sculptors or illustrators?
No not really. One of my sons, Sean, has a BA in art and is a very good painter, but his life is about his wife and son and his need to support them, which is not as an artist. He does make extremely artistic duct work lol. My oldest son Steven was very involved in producing music, but that is not what he does to support himself and his daughter. My art is the first to find its way onto the wall.
How old were you when you took your first art class and what came afterwards in the way of formal training? Would you say that some kind of formal instruction is necessary? Do you feel that you took the right kind and quantity of art classes? Did you reach a point where you said “enough of this…I’m going to find my own way!”
I audited a few art classes in high school, but I began modeling very young to make a living. I got married and had my first son when I was very young. I became one of the first personal trainers when there were no personal trainers. My life was full of people that needed me and my time so I had no time to think about what I wanted for myself.
It wasn’t until I remarried and moved to Los Angeles that I found myself alone in an empty room facing a blank canvas My paintings became my voice, my family and friends. My art classes were my life experience. My palette was my feelings.
I had no time when I was young to “study” art, although I was always had a great appreciation of it. I think life and the human experience is art. The days of our lives are the brush strokes on our personal canvases. But I did not have time to explore my inner urges until I moved away from my life in New York, my career, my friends, my family. I found Los Angeles to be a very self absorbed and somewhat cold place. It did not feel as honest or real to me as New York. I found painting as my “own way”. It was a way that I felt pride in what I was doing, something I could accomplish and be recognized for and express what I needed to release from inside myself. As far as art studies and school, I know so many artists who spent years in school then spent years trying to undo their schooling. I feel I was lucky that my creative urge came out of personal need rather then a textbook study.
When did you have your first show: where was it and what was the experience like?
Laguna Beach CA. It was a group show. I was lucky to have met an amazing artist, art director and friend, Shane Townley, owner of the Townley Gallery. He included me in a group show at Laguna Gallery of Contemporary Art and later in his gallery and his various websites. Frankly it was a little frightening. I had never put my work “out there” before. I had approached Shane with some internet pictures of my work and he told me to bring ten paintings the next Friday to be reviewed by him. I brought at least ten and he took them all. To see them on the wall in a major Laguna Gallery among other well established artists was a bit overwhelming.
Shane has been there for me for many years, including me in his art documentary “Art World”, his own gallery and his various on line websites. I will always be very grateful to Shane.
Is your own personal life reflected in your art, and has your personal odyssey shown itself in same?
My own personal life is the driving force behind most of my art. My life’s odyssey is mirrored in the paintings I have created. When I started I was doing landscapes, then abstracts, being more of a colorist and very involved with texture. But after a few years I found a need to voice my concern about the world that was surrounding me. One of the most profound experiences of my life was being in Staten Island while my son, daughter in law and closest friends were in Manhattan when the Towers went down. I knew many people that were devastated by the events of 911. Years later in Los Angeles I made several works reflecting the experience, making tributes to the first responders who had lost their lives. I also used several of my husband’s songs written about the events following 911 as the inspiration for other works.
Later I became very affected by the mass shootings and political rhetoric which surrounded it and I was drawn to create a series called “Guns in America”, making multiple pieces reflecting the tragedies from gun violence and the pulverized debate in an effort to make our country safer for our children, for all of us.Being from Brooklyn and from a family of immigrants I was drawn by the erupting debate in this country on immigration reform. I was motivated to do a series of paintings on this subject. Now I am starting a series called “American Footprints” regarding the environment and the sustainability of the human race on this planet. This is a subject which is extremely important to me. I am watching politicians still in denial about current climate crisis who are in the pockets of financial interests who profit from the denial of environmental concerns, and I am saddened that there are individuals whose immediate personal profit is more important to them then our children’s’ and grandchildren’s ability to survive on planet earth.
Recently Sotheby’s in Pasadena has taken a large volume of my contemporary abstract works. As an artist, from the commercial standpoint I need to sustain a body of work that is form and color and texture. Political subject matter is not an easy sell or easy to place in most environments. I find when in the studio making work that is a personal or political statement that it can be emotional draining, I often work on two or three abstracts simultaneously to help keep me balanced emotionally.
Re discipline…did it come easy for you…did you receive encouragement from your family at an early age, and did you attain this degree of expertise by being disciplined and accepting of society’s constraints / demands or by rebelling against them? Was it a bit of both?
Discipline? I was a personal trainer most of my life which is about nothing else if not about discipline. But as an artist there is no discipline other then a reaction to my life and environment. I was never on a schedule as an artist, never had to complete a project for a class or seminar. My art came out of dire needs, personal and my sense of moral outrage. They come from pain and joy, with an occasional dash of whimsy. I have no “discipline”. It comes when it comes. Sometimes there is nothing, and sometimes I can do nothing else but paint. When I am painting it can be very exhausting, though I am very grateful when I am painting as I feel I can give something back to the world.
When I was a personal trainer I helped people repair their broken bodies and lives, I have found myself doing the same in my art. I like taking rejected, found objects and transforming them into something with a purpose. I always feel better helping something or someone who has lost their purpose reconstruct a new purpose in their lives. I am very grateful to be able to see the goodness in things and people, the beauty and fragility and possibilities, and bring that out on an empty canvas, something that will hopefully bring joy and contemplation to those who happen to discover it. I guess my discipline now is trying to be a kind and grateful human being on a daily basis.
Artists, art movements, styles and techniques who’ve/that have influenced you.
Jackson Pollock. When I first started painting I was going through some personal difficulties. I started reading, watching and studying anything I could on the man. I felt I could relate to his pain and insecurities on so many levels. Such a great artist. I feel a connection to him in that though he was an extremely studied artist his real voice did not emerge until he stumbled across it by accident. Like Pollock I try to embrace the accident.
Vincent Van Gough overwhelms me with his palette, his expressionism and his passion. Looking at his paintings can bring tears to my eyes…such a beautiful, tragic man, such an amazing colorist. I am in awe of all his work and never tire of any of his paintings. His raw emotion on the canvas is such an inspiration. I love Matisse, Cezanne, there’s so many. Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg for assemblage is brilliant. There are so many. I find beauty in all art.
I relate intensely to Jean-Michel Basquiat, his subliminal messages, his political statements, his intelligence and his brashness. I love his words, his color and his fearlessness. He did not need to answer to anyone or define his work in terms that those who didn’t get it could understand.
What colors/color families/techniques drive you crazy (in a positive way)!
Everything drives me crazy. I am crazy! (In a positive way…as you say) The techniques…finding the message I am trying to say whether it be with paint, found objects, paper, collage, finding my way as the art helps me tell the story of what I am feeling and what I believe to be true. The techniques explain themselves to me and are discovered as their art develops. There are no techniques, just the journey. All colors have their story. All are beautiful and necessary. They are the personality of the painting. Like human beings they are all unique and they are all beautiful
What is your experience with different media, and re the media you’re working with now – did working with same come as a surprise or have you always felt at home there?
I work with so many different media, everything comes as a surprise to me! Luckily I love surprises. One of the last media I used for my “American Footprints” piece were various shoes I collected from a thrift store. I wondered where these shoes had been, what different walks of life they represented and where they are today. I found it strangely uncomfortable. But I am grateful for the lack of comfort as it helped drive me to finish the work. As far as finding myself at home goes, I find it very comfortable doing collage and using words and oil crayon in my work. I love anything blue. I love taking images and rearranging them so they deliver a very different message from what they were originally intended. I love old music manuscripts, both published and hand written. Using old print text the words help me to define the paintings direction.
Next step for your art and life?
On a personal level I have contemplated a move to France as I am constantly being offered shows in Europe, and it would be nice to be able to drive my paintings to the gallery rather then put them on a large impersonal ship. I would like to be able to stay in a small house on a farm in France and paint.
Artistically I have been endeavoring to create more minimalistic work, which is a stretch for me as my art tends to be very involved and filled with subject and message. Sometimes I feel like I am making footprints in the desert sand in the middle of a windstorm.
Advice for young artists today?
Be true to your heart. Realize that if you intend to paint for money or fame, your voice will be tainted by the same. It has always been hard to be a living artist. The only thing you really have going for yourself is your individuality. Create what you see, what you feel, what moves you. Listen to your inner voice.. Let that be your guide.
Comments on the art scene today…
It’s crazy out there. There are so many sources on line, so many artists. It can be hard to get anyone to see your art in person. You have to paint because you have to paint, because you need to paint, because on some level you love to paint. For me it is a release of joy or an escape from sorrow. You need to be honest with yourself in your art.
I am on line in many websites and venues but I feel that no one truly experiences my art until they stand before it in person. It is important that your art reaches your audience and inspires a reaction. I saw a video of a performance artist in New York performing an interaction with my work. I found that incredibly moving and inspiring. I don’t think there are any failures in art, only a failure of attitude.