This is the first in a series of posts about our experiences with the life and art of James Spencer Russell.
At the end of a very long day of research at Diane Tesler’s studio in Kewanna, Indiana, Julie and I were tired and hungry. It was the fall of 2012, when we were assembling the life of artist James Spencer Russell by digging through and examining sixteen, twenty gallon plastic tubs filled with an unsorted collection of documents and photographs from Russell’s life.
In 2000, Russell’s estate was being settled and his papers, photographs, and other ephemera were supposed to go into the dumpster. Russell’s friend, Wade Bussert, took it upon himself to go into Jim’s house and gather up everything he could find that documented Russell’s life. Thanks to Wade, the life and legacy of James Spencer Russell was rescued, and subsequently stored for eleven years, albeit in a totally disorganized fashion, in a group of twenty gallon plastic tubs.
Being famished, Julie and I asked Diane and Wade to meet up for dinner at the Kibitzer at the corner of West Main Street and South Logan Street. This time Julie and I hoped that we would get faster service than we were used to.
The Kibitzer was the only place to get anything to eat in the evening in Kewanna, and for miles around. The first time Julie and I went to dinner there it was quite obvious that we were not locals. It took quite a while just to get a menu, much less a glass of water, or to get drinks ordered. After a good solid 45 minutes of waiting in the tiny dining room of maybe six tables, devoid of customers except for us, we finally got our food order. All the while, there were only three locals at the bar drinking beer. This happened every time we dined at the venerable Kibitzer. After a while we wised up and ordered carry out, which we always got in a timely manner. I guess they liked our business but our presence in their establishment was questionable.
Diane, Wade, Julie and I were the only ones in the dining room on that beautiful evening, and all of us were pretty hungry. Right away, it was obvious that the full court press was on again. Wade and Diane did not understand why they were being so slow in waiting on us, so Julie and I filled them in. Diane and Wade found this to be humorous, but they were hardly surprised. In spite of the sloth-like service, we had a wonderful evening. To expedite the festivities, I did figure out that I needed to go to the bar and pay cash for drinks and bring them back to the table, so that helped.
The extraordinary life that Jim had led as an artist, including achieving degrees from the University of New Mexico and Yale, led Julie and me to a question that we just could not answer. Logically, we could not find a reason why Russell returned to Kewanna to live out his life. He had already taught at the University of New Mexico’s drama school and his partner, the well known artist and Rhode Island School of Design professor Robert Reid, could have certainly opened doors. Certainly, it seemed that the world was open to Russell when he left New York City in 1976. The city had become too dangerous for him to feel comfortable, including the fact that a close friend of his was murdered.
The dinner conversation eventually led to Russell. Wade was in typically fine form and was telling many insightful stories about his relationship with Russell. Suddenly, he made the comment that, every year Russell would send money for a dozen roses and Wade would place them on Russell’s mother’s grave. Something clicked for Julie and me. Reading letters from Russell to his mother, Arlie, along with knowing the history of Russell’s relationship with her, it was obvious that she was the only one in the family that continually embraced Russell as the person he was and as an artist. Julie and I brought up to Wade the possibility that Russell returned to Kewanna to be near his mother, even though she had passed away, and to live his life in the town, and in the very house, that she had made her life. Wade said that Russell never talked about why he had moved back to Kewanna, but Julie and I believed that we had discovered a spiritual motivation for his return.
As the excellent conversation at the Kibitzer wore on, the day’s light turned into darkness, and eventually we called it a night. Julie and I were ready to get back to Diane’s bungalow and turn in. But, there was one last stop to make. There something was that we all of us wanted to look at in Diane’s studio. The four of us walked across the street to to the studio. Julie went to unlock the door, and the lock wasn’t exactly cooperating.
I had continued to reflect upon Wade’s story about the dozen roses, Russell and his loving mother as we took the short walk to the studio. As Julie continued to work the lock, I turned around and looked up into the northwestern sky and immediately witnessed a large shooting star streak across the sky.
•Kewanna is a small town in Indiana with a population of 613.
•Diane Tesler is a nationally known artist that has made Kewanna the center of her operation since 1992.
•Wade Bussert is a lifetime resident of Kewanna, residing at Sparrow Cottage. He is an accomplished and well known artist.
Here a few photographs from that day in Kewanna: