On the outside, MU’s 3D arts building looks like an unassuming warehouse. Step inside, however, and it becomes clear that this is no ordinary warehouse full of pallets and boxes but instead a warehouse for ideas. Across the room, large pots and stacks of plates wait to be glazed while a clay creature born from a student’s imagination glares from a high shelf. Unformed clay, works-in-progress and finished pieces stand as evidence of the ideas constantly swirling around. Assistant Professor of Art Annette Russo ’80 stands in her own mass of ideas, thinking about how to improve the design of clay pots she pulls from the kiln. Tiny sea turtles swim around the rims and lids as they take their place on a shelf beside an elephant and a llama with curls of clay wool.
Russo originally wanted to be a veterinarian but made the switch to art along the way. Animals, however, are still an important part of her work. And her inspiration comes from all corners of the animal kingdom. For example, a recent visit to the Baltimore Aquarium roused her curiosity about sea life – especially jellyfish. Her childhood pet pig and love of horses inspired her to explore barnyard animals as an artistic subject. She once set out to re-create all the animals from Noah’s Ark. And recently, large families of ducks on a pond near her home attracted her interest.
As an artist, Russo looks for details when she examines animals and insects, intrigued by the juxtaposition of round body shapes with the straight lines and angles of legs. With the help of junior art major Jessica Brooks ’16 of Decatur, Russo filled Decatur’s Dennis Elementary School with a variety of metal and clay creatures of all sorts this summer, including giant butterflies and dragonflies made from fan blades. “I recently went to Dennis during school hours,” says Brooks. “I saw kids touching the fish on the walls and pretending to be butterflies as they passed the massive ones in the hallway. It was cool to see that they simply get to enjoy it every day as they walk from classroom to classroom.”
For Russo, the art she creates comes from a lifetime of memories and thoughts. She imagines a conglomeration of experiences being stirred in her mind while she works.
“It’s like a big tornado. I can pull from any part of it I want. It keeps swirling until something knocks on the door and asks to come out” says Russo.
Often when she answers the door, it’s an animal. She works with mixed media, using clay, metal, wood, stone and found objects that she repurposes to breathe life into a variety of creatures. In that artistic cyclone of her mind, a pair of large light globes could serve as a pair of eerie, giant eyeballs. Sometime soon she will pull them from the whirlwind and see if that’s what they become.
Her ideal project, Russo says, would be creating several versions of one animal, to bring out different characteristics. This process would be similar to an experiment she once performed by making 100 “identical” bowls. Forming one bowl daily and carving something different into each one, she observed how she was affected by the creative process. “I’m trying to start with nothing and work toward ‘allowing’ to see what happens,” she says. Even though her art reflects how a person changes every day, she finds that “your ideas about beauty don’t change.”
Art, Russo says, “is finding ways to solve problems. Art comes from exploration of the unknown. You can’t stop exploration because you fear it.” She stays curious about everything she says, and whether the project is commissioned or not, she always finds something in it she enjoys.
Russo seeks to impart her artistic freedom of spirit to her students, whom she sees as among the influences stirring her personal creative storm. She encourages them to examine the simple shape and contours of an object. She has discovered that people will recognize the subject even if she omits certain features. Seeing the world this way releases her creativity and provides the wind that makes her ideas swirl.
Russo’s students are often concerned about making something perfect, she says, noting that desire can restrict them artistically. “Their tightness has made me looser,” she laughs. “There is no such thing as perfect.”
In her work, a lack of perfection becomes the art itself. “The imperfections are what make it beautiful,” she says.
Amanda Hamilton ’14 was a writing intern for the alumni office and continued to write for Quarterly part time after graduation. She is a marketing specialist for HSHS (Hospital Sisters Health System) Medical Group in Springfield, Ill.
Photography and video by Alida Duff Sullivan ’06.
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