Strolls in Wetlands Park Inspire Artist’s New Exhibit

Taking a break from his political art, Sean Russell turns to nature with 'Unanimous Decision'

Sean Russell in his studio | Photo by Sean Russell

Sean Russell in his studio | Photo by Sean Russell

Make no mistake—the dude’s an artist from tip to tail. Yet he’s so refreshingly … un-artist-y.

“Painting is just mark-making, you’re making marks,” says 34-year-old Sean Russell, nearly shrugging out the simplest explanation of the artistic process since cavemen scrawled on the walls of their extremely retro man caves. Expecting profound explanations of the glorious agony of being an artist? Go elsewhere.

Probe for intellectual insight into his exhibit, Unanimous Decision, at the Winchester Cultural Center Gallery, and you get this: “There are no amazing stories behind these,” Russell says, gesturing toward the pieces curving around the intimate gallery walls. “They are just paintings of the complexities of plants.”

That’s that … well, not really. Unafraid to tackle topical, incendiary subjects—some of his recent work addressed Obamacare, Syria’s chemical weapons, the government shutdown, drone strikes and NSA spying—Russell turned from news to nature for inspiration this time.

“In the mornings I’ve been going to Wetlands Park, around 5, before the sun is up, and I do a little walk to clear my head,” says Russell, who teaches art appreciation at the College of Southern Nevada and lives a mile north of the park. “Mostly I lecture, so I go through it in my head. No one else is there; you see all the animals, the beavers and rabbits and coots and ducks.  You don’t care about Obamacare anymore. You don’t care about drone strikes.”

Presto. An exhibit is born. Animals are prevalent during his strolls, but not in these oil paintings—only a lone coot makes an appearance in one of the eight pieces. And except for “Henderson Horizon”—which depicts the city coated in a gauzy glow as the light takes over from the night—the exhibit focuses on the intertwining plants and their entangled branches that flourish at the park.

Once again, simplicity rules.

“It’s a series of branches and sticks and random flora; there’s no idea behind it,” Russell says. “It was part of a photograph I took that I found interesting, and it allowed me to make the marks I like to make. I would walk around, see them from a different angle, or the way a tree has fallen over, the way the lines are, I find that interesting.”

Gentility and positivity emanate from these pieces, a departure from his eclectic oeuvre that swings thematically from bar signs and skulls to Edward Snowden and windbag senators launching obstructive filibusters. Only one, “Invasive Species,” addresses malevolence, depicting the saltcedar, a deceptively pretty tree with long, slender branches and deep-pink flowers that wreaks havoc on its shrubby neighbors.

“Unanimous Decision Invasive” | Photo by Sean Russell

“Unanimous Decision Invasive” | Photo by Sean Russell

“They’re rampant through the wash area,” Russell explains. “I had a 15-foot-tall one in my backyard. I got a letter from my HOA, which inspired me. It said, ‘This is an invasive species, not native, please get rid of it.’ The leaves are filled with salt. It salts the area around it, and your grass does not like salt. It’s a terrible tree.”

Essentially, that’s it—you gaze upon nature via paint and canvas, sharing the simple appreciation that Russell renews every morning before dawn. No complex theses on the artist’s “process.” Well, maybe one.

“I sort of had writer’s block, I didn’t know what I was going to paint at first,” he remembers of gearing up to create an exhibit for the Winchester Gallery before Wetlands Park became his muse. Solution? Paint every canvas an atrocious neon color.

“I needed a problem to solve—paint over the neon. I would go into the studio and say, ‘God, these are so trashy,’ neon blue and neon purple and it was my challenge to cover that up. A sculptor begins with a block of marble and carves it away. I started with a block of neon and had to get rid of it. A white canvas is too easy. But little bits of the neon peek through, which I

like.”

What about that inscrutable title, Unanimous Decision? Trace it back to the proposal letter he wrote that led to his selection as the latest artist to exhibit at Winchester.

“Decision Intertwine” | Photo by Sean Russell

“Decision Intertwine” | Photo by Sean Russell

“At the end of my letter, I wrote, ‘I don’t know what I wanna make, but I want it to be titled Unanimous Decision,’ which I thought was funny because I didn’t know what I was going to make, so there wasn’t any unanimous decision. Sometimes I just hear words and phrases and they stick in my head.”

Simple as that.

UNANIMOUS DECISION

10 a.m.-8 p.m. Tue-Fri, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat through Jan. 10, Winchester Cultural Center Gallery, 3130 S. McLeod Dr., free, 455-7340.

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