The following is the second part of an interview with artist Russell Cushman. Russell was kind enough to answer numerous questions I had about his creative journey. If you missed part one, I recommend beginning there.
Russell, what hurdles have you had to overcome in your creative journey?
There were few hurdles for me in the art arena early on. It was my turf and I excelled and enjoyed that. I learned to draw, paint and sculpted a little. My teachers were always very proud to see my progress, and were sure that it would all come to something. Until I got to college. I got a great deal of financial help from TCU to go there, but the art professors argued with me the whole time, challenging my ideas and the value of my art, but giving me top grades because I was one of few who met their quotas. I found the university world full of contradictions. My painting professor would hold me up for ridicule, as a hopeless realist, yet my paintings would be some of the few accepted into the annual faculty-student art show. My teachers told me that what I made was not real art, yet I was selling in a Dallas Gallery at the time. I was on the Dean’s List, but got sick of this debate and transferred to North Texas. There the wheels came off after a year and my professors gave me the boot. I was an anachronism, they said, and a bad apple would spoil the whole barrel. No matter how proficient, I presented a flawed and passé paradigm to the other students, confusing their agenda, and I had to go. Change my major, they suggested to advertising. So, at the beginning of my adult life, I was redirected by the great minds of academia. That was a hurdle that almost killed my art career.
What is the secret of your continued creativity?
I’ve never labored over where my constant stream of creativity comes from. It is a God given gift. BUT, if I had to try to analyze it, it would be something like my bottomless sense of wonder at God’s creation. It is infinite and delicious and awe-inspiring. It makes me want to worship… by making art. That was the same reasoning that got me thrown out of the NTSU Art Dept!
What advice would you give to those of us wanting to create?
Art is an expression of your love… and the only way it really works is if you have deep feelings, like wonder or fascination or passion for your subject. Every challenge I meet artistically requires that I first research, live and breathe and ultimately consume my subject. Then I know what to do, with no reservations. That comes in handy later when detractors are questioning your decision. Ignorant criticism based on contempt, can never stand up to passionate creation which flows from love.
What inspires your creativity?
New things inspire me. My eyes grow calloused towards my surroundings, so travel, new interests, books, real life experiences inspire me. But you must understand how much is in your own back yard that you have never looked at, or appreciated. Sometimes a walk around the block does it for me.
Tell me about your schedule. Do you go into the studio everyday? Do you wait until you are inspired before starting a project?
My schedule… As many things as I have in the mill, my so called schedule is dictated by the tyranny of the urgent. Deadlines, public appearances, seasonal changes that require outdoor painting trips, frame sales, etc. make a regular schedule impossible. It’s all fun, and requires flexibility, and willingness to burn the midnight oil sometimes. Sometimes I wish I had a regular schedule, but the truth is that I would intentionally blow it off as soon as it raised its ugly head. So this is how I monitor my productivity; I teach art once a week, and paint that day. This keeps me painting, at least once a week even when I have some big sculpture project going on. I teach workshops, which guarantee that I will get a chance to travel, make new friends, paint outdoors a couple of times year, and get away from whatever big thing is getting on my nerves. I once left a big mural project, where I was to paint a tropical rainforest and went to serve as a missionary halfway across the world, and then used the photos from that trip to finish the mural… So in a nutshell… Each day I do what God has put in front of me.
Who is your favorite artist from the past? What one question would you ask them?
My favorite artist is……….. geeez, this is tough. Charley Russell. There I said it, but there are so many more. Gotta mention John Singer Sargent. Tom Lovell. All the Wyeths, Bouguereau! Cabanel! Anders Zorn! William Merritt Chase…
As far as a question for my favorite artist… In this case Charley Russell, this is a stunning thought. What would I ask him? I think I would not talk shop… but concentrate on the bigger question. We take for granted that he went out west and captured all that great stuff, when the west was still wild, and you could still find buffalo and Flathead Indians… but when he went, it was not the cool thing to do… Who knew how long it might last? Yet he devoted his whole life to painting a dying culture.
How did he know that was his mission? I’ve seen a lot of talented people in my life, many with great talent, but they had no passion, nothing to say. They had no sense of urgency. Russell painted like crazy. Was it the art, or the vanishing subject, or the flow of booze that motivated him?
I guess I would ask him if he regreted that intensity of focus, and if he wished he had more diversity in his portfolio… Or if that devotion and focus, of forty years of passion and exploration, with no second choice or alternative genre in the wings, made his work that much more successful.
What is your favorite artist quote? Why?
This famous quote, recently rejected by revisionists, was extracted, some say fabricated, from an interview with Pablo Picasso. It has always rung true to me, and my anachronistic mind, and I think he actually said this… Picasso: “In art the mass of people no longer seeks consolation and exaltation, but those who are refined, rich, unoccupied, who are distillers of quintessences, seek what is new, strange, original, extravagant, scandalous. I myself, since Cubism and before, have satisfied these masters and critics with all the changing oddities which passed through my head, and the less they understood me, the more they admired me. By amusing myself with all these games, with all these absurdities, puzzles, rebuses, arabesques, I became famous and that very quickly. And fame for a painter means sales, gains, fortune, riches. And today, as you know, I am celebrated, I am rich. But when I am alone with myself, I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term. Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt were great painters. I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and exploited as best he could the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries. Mine is a bitter confession, more painful than it may appear, but it has the merit being sincere.”
So, now we have officially picked Russell Cushman’s brain. I want to give a big “Thank You” to Russell for a great interview! Don’t forget to visit Russell’s website. Please leave a comment or question for Russell on the comment form after this article. Just click on the “Leave a comment” text below.