art / landscape / people

Russ Warren’s Music and Magic

Russ Warren in his Studio

From his studio at the Les Yeux du Monde Gallery in Charlottesville, Virginia, Russ Warren continues to draw inspiration for his work from life, place, and culture. Over a 45-year career that began in Texas and included decades teaching art in North Carolina, his regionalist, self-expressive paintings have become a rich autobiographical collage, offering a glimpse into his life. Still present are the influences of the Modern masters that influenced him early, namely Picasso, whose paintings his mother hung in his room as a child. The guitar, featured prominently, recalls a skill Warren learned from his dad and his own love for music. Yet, the regional inspiration of places he has lived most prominently appear in his canvases: Texas Longhorns, his Paso Fino horses, and now the blue, misty mountains of Virginia. He continues to paint prolifically, filling the walls of the studio which is surrounded by his inspiration.  

Interview with Artist, Russ Warren | by Katie Clinton

Q.Your career as an artist began in the early 1970s, and as is typical, has gone through many phases over the years.  Now that you are in Virginia, what influence and circumstances are currently influencing the subject of your art?

A. Actually my artistic career started in earnest back in 1968. I was painting these simple portraits when the owners of Prufrocks Tavern in Houston offered me a show. It was a giant deal at the time, I could show my work and not be present, a drunkards dream if I ever did see one. I live in the central mountains of Virginia. The vistas and psychedelic colors remind me much of the surreal mountains of Mexico where I have spent much time. The magical colors and panoramic settings have inspired my paintings, including Magic Mountain, Buckets of Moonbeams, and Ravens of Wolf Trap. The ravens, crows and vultures are all novels in themselves. I have painted several of these Castaneda-inspired conquerors. {image: Magic Mountain}

Magic MountainGuitar Player Keith IIIQ. Are there consistent themes that run through your art and reappear over time?

A. The themes I have played with from the beginning – love/hate, heaven/hell, good/evil, drowning/rescue, peace/war – I’ve never wavered from. All of the greats – Picasso, Goya, Dylan, Woodie Guthrie – they all wrestled with the same dichotomies. I’d say these are consistent themes that run through my art. {image: Guitar Player Keith III}

Q. The regional and folk art influences of your work reveal the nature of art as an intensely personal reflection and interpretation of the world.  As you taught for roughly 30 years at Davidson College, how much of your pedagogy reflected your own approach to art?

A. Regional and folk art have always been important to me. My studio is filled with it. My travels to the southwest, southern Mexico and other indigenous art helped me understand Cubism, a new kind of reality. Of course I introduced this information to my students. They loved it and it opened new aesthetic avenues for them. {image: Rodeo}Rodeo

Q. What drew you to study the songs of Bob Dylan as a source of inspiration?

A. I started listening to Bob Dylan in the mid 60’s. I left home to hear him and to see Picasso in the museums in New York in the mid 60s. I never met Dylan but I did hear his music. I got to know his humor, sarcasm, self-reliance and faith. I followed Dylan’s music, not his mysticism, and I feel I know him quite well.

Still Life with Guitar and MelonQ. You started out with a passion for music after switching to pursue art.  Have you ever considered exploring what it might look like to combine the two?

A. My parents started me playing guitar, piano, bass, ukulele and melody when I was quite young. My mother decorated my room with Picasso prints when I was a young boy. It all culminated on that first trip to NY when I was 14. It’s hard to convey how difficult it is to transfer this kind of energy and raw nerve to 19-year old students, but I tried. I’ve often thought about combining the two, my music and my art. I have, in some ways, collaborated to combine the two. In the mid’80s I did a demo with Marcia Tucker (founder and Director of the New Museum in New York). I also formed a band called The Part Time Miracle Singers, and played in New York, Chicago and at the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, NC. The band was featured in Marcia Tucker’s Crossovers show that also included Laurie Anderson among others. I have no musical aspirations beyond what I have already done. Collaborations and taped composition are very popular now, but it’s like “we’ve done that”, let’s move on. Or as Frank Zappa would put it, “shut up and paint.” As far as subject matter, that’s another story.  The guitar has been a constant source of inspiration throughout my career, most recently it was the bedrock of my collage exhibition. {image: Still Life with Guitar and Melon}

Q. And… what are you working on currently that you would like to share with us?

A. The late critic Clement Greenberg said that Modigliani was the heir apparent to Picasso’s Cubist throne. Ever the student of Cubism, I am doing a series of paintings that pay homage to this Modernist great.

Images courtesy of Les Yeux du Monde Gallery

Russ Warren on Drawing, by filmmaker, Kent Wiley


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