|String Notes and Brush Strokes|
Painter Comes Home to Capture the Influence and Energy of Bluegrass Music
Sometimes getting back to your roots means getting down to earth.
Margo Russell knows that better than most folks. She got away from her roots for a while and discovered she is a Southerner after all.
"I realized I liked grass and trees and water," Russell said, laughing. "Santa Fe was not the place for me."
Russell had left her home in Alabama to spend a decade of life in the hot, desert country that was home to her mother. But she was also the daughter of a country boy from Ramer and she longed for sweet home Alabama.
"When I got back home – to Andalusia, friends, who were then middle-aged, were playing bluegrass," she said. "The more I heard that high, lonesome sound of bluegrass the more I began to respect it as an art form."
Russell had received a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Alabama and a master’s degree from Florida State. She made her art marks in the mid-1960s during the emergence of abstract and impressionistic art. But, in mid-life, she became fascinated by the music of musicians who got their licks on old-time strings.
"Bluegrass has a special beat, a beat not like any other music," Russell said. "I began to watch the gestures of the bluegrass musicians. Their gestures are different from those of other musicians. They move, but then they don’t. There’s an energy to their movements or lack of movement unique to bluegrass."
Russell began to travel to bluegrass festivals all around the state. At each one, she was energized and she flourished as a painter. But not as much – never as much – as at Rex Locklar’s bluegrass festivals in the sleepy, blink-and-you-miss-it, community of Henderson in rural Pike County.
"I started going to bluegrass festivals and painting pickers about 20 years ago," Russell said. "I was so energized by the music and so fascinated by the movements – the gestures – of the pickers I made bluegrass pickers my main motif. I fell in love with the whole process of the discipline of people playing bluegrass music.
"I’ve been going to Rex’s bluegrass festivals for about 17 years and I love going there. It’s a different atmosphere, especially back in Hippie Hollow."
Some might say Henderson is in the backside of nowhere and Hippie Hollow is in the backside of there.
And that’s where the pickers make their licks and Russell finds her marks.
She doesn’t initiate the music. She just waits for it to happen.
Russell can’t play a musical instrument. Her instruments are a pencil and paintbrush. And, with them, she can capture the energy of bluegrass with brush strokes that the pickers generate with their strings.
"The pickers’ music gives me permission to draw and then to paint, so it’s an interchange," Russell said. "So I can enjoy the music and be a part of it through my paintings."
To be an on-site painter and, especially one who depends on others for the energy needed to paint, an artist has to be able to be "in the moment."
No artist is more in the moment than Margo Russell.
"When I hear the music start, I throw my drawing board on the ground, get down on my knees, get dirty and let the energy of the music ‘move’ me," Russell said. "First, I draw the gestures of the pickers while they play. As they move with the music, I ‘draw’ from their energy."
With big, sweeping, fluid marks, Russell begins to pencil in the scene on inexpensive brown stock paper. At times, there is a lone picker playing. Other times, there will be several pickers and maybe a dancer or two.
When the brown paper drawing is completed, Russell moves it to the side and puts an expensive sheet of French watercolor paper in its place on the drawing board.
First she "pencils in" the musicians’ gestures, careful to make sure the figures are placed so the painting will have perspective and not be a flat one-dimensional artwork.
"I always leave the tiny pencil marks on the paper, like rabbit tracks in the snow," Russell said. "Then, I’m ready to paint."
Russell works from a palette that is actually a tray of paints.
"I’ve used this palette so often I know exactly where the colors are," she said. "I could paint with my eyes closed."
But instead, she plays her "instruments" with her knees firmly planted in Mother Earth and her head moving in sync with the gestures of the pickers.
She paints in quick, fluid motions and in broad strokes. The facial expressions of the musicians tell some of the story; their gestures tell it all.
Her finished paintings have the lively, quick, happy feeling of a well-turned bluegrass tune or of the high lonesome sounds, as Hank Williams wrote, could send the moon behind the clouds to hide its face and cry.
Russell also captures the gestures of bluegrass musicians in clay and in three dimensions. She brings clay to life and gives it the energy of bluegrass music. It’s almost possible to hear the music, as if the clay absorbs it and then gives it back just as Russell absorbs the music and gives it back.
Russell is a bluegrass musician almost as surely as was Bill Monroe. She plays her instruments – her pencil and her broad brush – with the same energy and feeling pickers strum their strings. She’s a Southern gal, back home and making her marks in the world of bluegrass music.
Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.