Sure, Indianapolis-born, Oakland-based visual artist and musician Nat Russell says he’s aware he can’t influence the way people react to his work. But he was still surprised when a company making artist-designed T-shirts approached him with a particular drawing of his in mind for a new production.
“I said, ‘Are you sure you want that?’ My friend and I were joking around as we did this one. We were at this concert in Big Sky, surrounded by San Francisco hipsters and hippies, and we were like, ‘Dude, we’re gonna draw the most psychedelic thing ever.’ I’m like, ‘I’m gonna draw a yeti skateboarding on a falcon, with the Illuminati symbol, and there’s gonna be a dolphin passing a joint.’”
Russell’s gallery-ready work, on display at Big Car in a solo show that opened April 4, is generally more subtle than that T-shirt fantasia, but still maintains those elements of whimsy, wonder and pastiche. Take his print “The Tears of Pipe Jackson Jr.,” a simple line-sketch of an androgynous person weeping that’s part of a portfolio called “Ideas for Things.”
“It’s supposed to be a plate from page 45 of volume two from this imaginary biography of a person called Pipe Jackson,” Russell explained. “I had this idea of a folk hero. I like the idea of discovering things, reading on a Web site or in a book about this person that I never knew about, discovering that there’s a whole world of creativity that he made that I can relate to.”
In an attempt by Russell to reduce things to bare essentials, his show is entirely in black and white: a wall of large black and white drawings, a mural, five large silkscreens (the “Ideas for Things” series) and four large black and white photographs (stills from an imaginary film).
In the second week of his residency at Big Car, Russell will present another side of his creative output that he’s been progressively paring down, performing music with friends on April 12.
While Russell says he started taking music seriously “kind of late,” he’s pursued four-track recording and songwriting since college, mainly under the moniker Birds of America. Birds has recorded one full-length album thus far, 2005’s Current Carry, a collection of low-key, unadorned, acoustic guitar-driven songs with opaque but suggestive lyrics. “Most of our songs are weird, introspective and slow — kind of bummers,” Russell said.
According to Russell, his most recent songs have been reduced even further. “When I go home after the show, we’re going to record the songs that we have; we have about 10 or 12. It’s different from the older stuff. It’s more and more stripped down, songs with maybe two chords, very repetitive. I like that idea of repetition and hearing subtleties.”
Besides T-shirts and art books, Russell (who pays the bills with graphic design work for a label reissuing classic jazz and psychedelic records) has also been asked to create skateboard designs. Russell has skateboarded and longed to make skateboard graphics since his early teens.
“Skateboarding, bottom line, is just about having fun, and there’s no right way to skateboard and no wrong way to skateboard,” Russell said. “I just really wanted to make graphics that were pleasing visually, had some humor involved, had some sense of wonder involved and just were light-hearted in a way, but in the way that a lot of things that I draw are sort of light-hearted in a deceptive way.”
Russell’s most readily accessible creative outlet is his blog, crookedarm.blogspot.com, where he posts recent work.
To hear the 32-year-old artist tell it, it’s a great time for an exhibition of his recent creative output: “I feel like I’m the most productive, the most lucid I’ve ever been. I’ve never felt like I’ve found my thing; I feel like I have a voice, and know what I’m doing, but my journey’s nowhere near over, so it’s all sort of a constant progression.”