This excellent question and answer session was published on April 4, 2014 by Jonathan Haag on his website, Innovate Carmel.
Upon the closing of the exhibition at the Indiana State Museum, we have received permission to “reprint” the entire article here on our website. I felt that this was one of the better articles on Jim and his art that was published upon the opening of the exhibition. Jonathan allowed plenty of latitude to answer his questions.
Big thanks to Innovate Carmel for covering the Jim, the exhibition and two Carmel, Indiana residents that are dedicated to the arts.
Q&A with Ron Kern of Style, Elegance and Wit: The Artwork of James Spencer Russell
Q’s from Jonathan Haag
April 4, 2014
Jonathan Haag: Who is James Spencer Russell?
Ron Kern: James Spencer Russell was an accomplished artist that, within the history of Indiana art has been virtually unknown.
Born in 1915 in Monticello, Indiana, Russell went on an incredible life’s journey that wound its way through New Mexico, as a student and a professor, World War II, where he earned a Bronze Star and onto Yale University’s School of Drama. After graduation, Russell went on to a successful career in set design in New York City during television’s Golden Age. He left that career to pursue art full-time and quickly rose to prominence in the New York art scene and beyond. Russell commanded recognition by virtue of the power of his art work alone and either exhibited solo or with other well known and acclaimed contemporary artists such as Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Cornell and Nevelson.
In 1976 he retired and moved away from New York City to the tiny town Kewanna, Indiana, to his grandmother’s house. He continued to make art on every available day. He lived in virtual obscurity until he passed away in 2000.
Russell (Jim) was a quiet, gentle man that made art for art’s sake. He never sought the spotlight or fame. Up to this point his work is only known to a small, select group of collectors and former gallery owners.
Q: Can you describe how James Spencer Russell was “rediscovered?”
A: We discovered Russell’s art at an Indianapolis auction eight years ago as it was being sold as part of Russell’s estate. Russell’s art, so riveting and so complex in its style, captured our immediate curiosity and attention. With no idea of who Russell was, we collected several pieces of artwork that day and in subsequent auctions.
Some time after the auctions had concluded a small group of us, including Dr. Steve Conant, MD and Dr. Tom Kuebler, MD, would get together to look at and discuss Russell’s work. We would always comment how wonderful his work was and that it deserved recognition and maybe even a museum show. We knew that the artwork was created by an exceptional talent. After a period of time we received word that the possibility of holding a retrospective exhibition was in the works. At that point the hard work started. We were excited that arguably one of Indiana’s greatest modern artists, James Spencer Russell, who was virtually unknown in his home state, could get recognized and the public would have a chance to experience his art.
Q: From April 4th through October 12th the Indiana State Museum will be hosting a retrospective exhibition on James Spencer Russell. Talk about that process.
A: Steve Conant made a series of donations to the Indiana State Museum of many works by Russell including drawings, small sculptures, paintings and assemblages. Steve hoped that by having this work in the museum’s collection, the Board of Directors would see the quality of the work and would eventually be more likely to consider the exhibition as a worthwhile undertaking.
Thanks to Steve Conant’s slow but steady urging of Rachel Perry, Fine Arts Curator for the Indiana State Museum, she approached the museum’s committees charged with exploring the feasibility of the exhibition, the idea for “Style, Elegance and Wit” came to fruition.
Steve then discussed this with his friend Tom Kuebler and subsequently Tom made a trip to Kewanna to meet Wade Bussert, Russell’s close friend, and to see Wade’s collection of Russell’s work and biographical archive. The connection to Wade Bussert was accomplished previous to this during a visit that Tom and Steve had made to the Midwest Museum of American Art in Elkhart, Indiana. Brian Byrn, the museum’s curator was aware of the Russell estate and suggested Tom connect with Wade.
This led to Tom writing a brief monograph of Russell’s life as an artist and submitted it to the Indiana State Museum. Rachel reviewed a broad sample of Russell’s work from many collectors, including viewing the work that we had collected. About a week after that visit we received word that there would indeed be an exhibit.
The “exhibit process” at the Indiana State Museum involves presentations to two different committees of peers – an “Exhibit Focus Committee” and the “Leadership Team.” The committees evaluate the feasibility of the exhibition proposal by examining such things as audience, funding, available space, cost of insurance, etc.
Q: You’ve written a book on James Spencer Russell. Describe that journey.
A: Rachel Perry charged Julie, Tom Kuebler and me to write the essay for the exhibition catalog that Steve Conant was sponsoring. This started the process of trying to dig up anything and everything we could about Russell. Unfortunately, Tom passed away early in the research process so the task fell to Julie and me.
We had Tom’s monograph that contained the basics, but we didn’t have the story of the man and the artist. The internet was pretty much of a dead end. We found a little information but it was sketchy at best. But, there were a few nuggets that revealed themselves through meticulous searching and following up with leads.
For example, the Smithsonian Institute has one Russell piece in its collection as well as a small file on Russell. The Smithsonian staff were incredibly helpful. In just a few days they sent scans of what they had in their file, which consisted of some press photos of some of Jim’s work and some gallery information, such as promo cards. This wasn’t really enlightening, as we knew about those exhibits through Jim’s résumé, but seeing that material brought us into the reality of Jim being an artist exhibiting in New York City. And, on a lark, I searched Jim’s name in combination with Robert Rauschenberg and Joseph Cornell, and up popped a catalog from an important exhibition that included all three artists. This got our attention and we knew we needed to dig further.
We headed to Kewanna to meet with Wade Bussert, the keeper of Russell’s personal archive. Wade made everything that he has available to us. At first the research was overwhelming. Nothing was organized so we sorted through scads of papers, documents and photographs. Over time, the richness of Russell’s life revealed itself. We realized that we had to write a book on Russell’s life. An essay would not begin to adequately portray his life and art. We knew that we were revealing a new chapter in the history of Indiana art.
Through personal contact with Wade Bussert, Jack Russell (Russell’s nephew), Bill Bace and George Ciscle (gallerists that had shown Russell’s work) we were able to gain a personal perspective about Russell’s life and obtain a deeper understanding and appreciation of his art.
To facilitate writing the book, Julie made a physical timeline scroll that contained dates, documents, photographs and many other items. The scroll ended up being at least twenty feet long. This helped organize my thoughts and guide my writing throughout the process of developing the manuscript.
We designed the book, inserting archival photographs and photographs of Russell’s artwork into the manuscript to tell the story through the integration of photographs and text. We self-published the book through Blurb.com. Now that the book is complete, we will be making overtures to interested parties to see if we can get it published to gain wider distribution.
The response to the book has been very positive. We have some patrons who are purchasing the book and donating it to libraries and museums. It is our goal to get the book into as many libraries and museums throughout Indiana so Russell’s story will be preserved.
Q: Anything else you would like to share?
A: The opportunity to present the life’s journey of James Spencer Russell is both gratifying and humbling. Julie and I made sure that we felt Russell would approve of our work. This was a very high bar, but Russell’s dedication to excellence and modesty guided us every step of the way.
“Style, elegance and wit” were words Russell wrote on a scrap of paper that were in personal files made available to us by his friend, Wade Bussert. While Russell believed his art to contain all three of these elements, we can also think that he was describing himself with this phrase that seems to capture the essence of this incredible artist.
Could James Spencer Russell have nudged many of the celebrated artists of his time out of the limelight and assumed a role that could have been his, as one of our nation’s finest artists? We will never know. Becoming a celebrity of the art world and a creature of pop culture and self-promotion was not his road. Russell chose instead to live for his art and let his art speak for him.
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