Richard Russell is an artist who specializes
in art centered around the University of
Alabama. Russell and his family lived in New
Orleans until he and his family were
uprooted by Hurricane Katrina. He returned
to Birmingham in 2005.
Age (date of birth): June 23, 1960
Personal: Wife: Erin; Daughters: Meredith, Jordan, Hannah and Lauren
The people who have influenced my life: Tuscaloosa artist Richard Brough, parents and grandparents
Something most people don’t know about me: I am self-taught as a fine artist.
My proudest achievement: Not only fathering a child, but delivering her as well.
Why I do what I do: I don't really know. Maybe it's because my
grandmother was an artist. It may sound hokey, but I have always just
known this is what I was supposed to do, even when everyone else said
By Corey Craft
Published: Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 3:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 7, 2009 at 2:29 p.m.
Richard Russell has never been one to stay inside the lines. As a student at the University of Alabama, he took one drawing course in which he made a C-minus. But to look at Russell’s artwork, one sees the details of what the Tuscaloosa faithful have accepted as commonplace, like scenes of congregating fans of the Crimson Tide, depicted in a startling new way. One sees color bursting at the seams and a vibrancy of style that can scarcely be contained. Nearly 30 years after leaving the university, Russell is a licensed painter of University of Alabama art, a successful watercolorist and acrylist, and lucky enough to make a living doing what he loves.
Russell took on painting at age 14, inspired by his grandmother, who was also an artist. In 1979, as a student at UA, he took a graphics course — one of the few art courses he took at the university. This was under the tutelage of Richard Brough, and it changed his life.
“I started taking graphics with Richard Brough. He’s a watercolor artist, like I was,” Russell said. “And he sort of took me under his wing, and I’d hang out in his studio … and he saw that I had some potential.”
In these early formative times, Brough encouraged Russell’s aesthetic in an academic atmosphere that favored either the wholly abstract or the precise. “It’s hard for me to stay within the lines. I’m real sloppy as a person,” he said. “I don’t know why, I’m just built that way …but I liked to paint what I saw … I just wasn’t good at making it crisp with detail.
“And so what he did is he said, since you’re so loose, what I want you to do — and this wasn’t part of a course, he was just sort of mentoring me — I want you to do 20 paintings and you have, like, 10 days to do them.
And I’m like, ‘That’s not even possible,’ and he said, ‘Yeah it is, you’d be surprised.’ I did the paintings, and he looked at them and said, ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, good, good,’ and then he just threw them in the trashcan. And I was like, what was the purpose of that? And he said, it was to teach you that watercolors are just fast and free, which is why it’s a good medium for you. So after that I don’t recall taking another fine arts course.”
After college and a brief stint as a mortgage banker in Atlanta, Russell traveled to New York City, where he went door-to-door until his work was displayed in a gallery and sold. Later, he worked for a publishing company and painted scenes of the city for posters, postcards and other marketing purposes. “The way I’ve gotten where I am now, it’s been all about business,” he said.
Even then, his scenes focused less on the grander, more easily recognized aspects of New York City and more on the mundane. “It was scenes of people. And I was kind of well-known for doing walk scenes,” he said. “They were kind of like Norman Rockwell but looser, people walking, that’s it, in New York. Maybe there was a parade, but it’s not a painting of the parade, it’s a painting of the people watching. It’s just like a photo shot of people in New York and that’s sort of where I got the big start.”
Russell got into a gallery in New Orleans, having painted a few jazz scenes, and relocated there. Though he was raised in Birmingham — and made waves there as the official artist for the Alabama Symphony, City Stages music festival and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, all within three years of one another —Russell opened a gallery in the French Quarter. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina brought his family back to Birmingham in 2005. “I had nothing but my talent and my knowledge of the business,” he said. “Twelve years of running a gallery in the French Quarter, you learn a lot.”
It was then that Russell, an avid Alabama sports fan, took on painting Alabama football scenes, after an extensive application process to officially license his work. “I actually got licensed right before [former Alabama head coach Mike] Shula left,” he said. “I was really happy that he was leaving and hoping that our team would do better. And when they got [Nick] Saban, I was like, ‘Oh, my God … I’ve made it.’ ” One of Russell’s works is on permanent display at the Bear Bryant Museum, he is proud to say.
Because of the downturn of the economy, his art sales didn’t dramatically increase upon Saban’s arrival or the undefeated 2008 regular season, but have remained steady.
Russell has found his niche, depicting scenes of cheering fans and Big Al dancing. Russell said his art is more whimsical and humorous, meant to appeal to a market of diehard Tide fans who might not normally find that in other licensed art.
Russell is also licensed to paint Auburn University scenes, but he wants to allay any anxieties about dual loyalties. “I bleed crimson,” he said. “I do Auburn, too, but, you know … an Auburn paper called me once and asked me how I felt to do the first Auburn painting. And I said, ‘You know, I never hung it on my wall.’ It’s how I make my living.”
You can see samples of Russell’s work and order prints online at www.allthingsgallery.biz. Prints are also on sale at The Trunk, and you will find his work at the new Bama Fever store soon opening at Midtown Village, along with at a booth alongside the stadium on every game day.