THE ART WORLD seems to be trending backwards these days. Basquiat is nabbing posthumous magazine covers, and that guy from Green Lantern (aka Ryan Reynolds) is starring opposite Helen Mirren in Woman in Gold, a blockbuster about a stolen Gustav Klimt portrait. Even a quick scan of the MoMA's exhibition calendar reveals that many of its curations skew half a century back. Elsewhere, in fashion and design, minimalism and normcore reign supreme.
Perhaps that's why it was so damn exhilarating when a friend showed me the unapologetically high-energy work of artist Sarah Russell on Instagram. I snatched his phone and hungrily scrolled through, mesmerized by the rich pattern play and the complex (and all-too-familiar) sentiments of millennial womanhood that Russell so effortlessly bottles.
LIKE A LOT of young artists, the 27-year-old has a day job. She works full-time pricing clothing for a consignment company, describing her opportunities to paint as a "vacation" and fantasizing about the day she can become her own boss. That most other Gen Y-ers are struggling to find accord with what they want to do versus what they have to do (ugh, work) is what makes her, to quote Girls, "a voice of a generation".
That sense of ennui that she perhaps feels in the interim between work and art is prevalent in her work. Vulnerable but unabashed self-portraits of the artist are frequently nude or partially nude, and many convey a strikingly beautiful languor, like "Vacation", a 2015 drawing of a woman standing still in an ocean bursting with activity. There's a sense of yes, imperviously waiting for something to happen, but also of observance, a reflectiveness that gives away the kind of person who loves to read. (And indeed, many of her self-portraits, like "Sarah and Polly's Best Days", express her propensity for reading.)
A VIRGINIA NATIVE, Pennsylvania resident, and Nantucket regular, Russell is East Coast through and through. Her appreciation for summer, architecture and complex interiors, and the appearance of the occasional Volvo station wagon in her work are more than subtle nods. But geographic significance isn't just evident in her subject matter; it also affects her use of color, which ranges from lavish (the acrylics) to still vivid black and white (her ink drawings).
"My use of color tends to work as a reaction to the seasons," she explains. "In winter, everything is bare-boned and pale, so there are more drawings, and then Spring is a rebirth and I lean more toward acrylic or watercolor."
Meanwhile, her mediums - watercolor, India ink, and acrylic - allow her to start and finish each piece in one go, injecting more than a trace of energy and focus into her work. "If I have to set something down and come back later, I become distracted and my original vibe is lost."
SO WHAT'S NEXT? Russell is beginning to display her art in Philadelphia, and also takes commissions. And, she has a lot of fans; when she posts a new piece on social media, it's met with support and admiration. The relatability and the easy beauty of her work is undeniable, even more so after peeling away some of the layers and getting to the heart of the subject matter.
But Russell also manages to tap into another, rarer sentiment that parallels the fashion industry and hints at enormous commercial potential; the temporaneous world, the perfectly imperfect characters she brings to life in her art are aspirational, yet attainable. To lounge about in underwear, read in bed, or drape across a chair in a well-appointed room - that notion of just being - is well-known, understood, and desperately craved.
Russell is, however, aware of that fine line between relatability and selling out. When asked if she would consider commercial collaborations with brands like J Crew, Kate Spade, or Anthropologie, who regularly tap artists and illustrators for t-shirts, home goods, and decor, she ceded to being inspired by fashion but wanting to keep a safe distance. "I fear being commercial or convenient."
Scroll down for a selection of Russell's paintings, drawings and watercolors, as well as a six-pack of questions with the artist.
Six Questions with Artist Sarah Russell
Is the rest of your family artistically inclined?
My mom would never tell you but she is very talented at drawing and watercolor. My dad had a career in medicine, but spent his free time drafting plans for, and then building, carpentry projects in his barn. I used to take his pens and they are still my favorite kind.
What's your favorite time of day to work?
I prefer the "brunch" time of day, when coffee turns into cocktails, and then continuing as long as there's day light.
What do you listen to while you paint?
Currently, Shovels and Rope.
What do you do when you're stuck and need inspiration?
I can almost always find clarity with a cocktail and a #dorothydraper or #houseofhackney scroll.
Where would you love to see your art someday?
I'm imagining a garage studio/gallery in Nantucket with lots of windows and of course our dogs, Polly and Dutch.
Has there been a goal of yours that you have already reached?
A personal victory was when I received a commission inquiry from someone that doesn't love me. There's truth in that.
Love Sarah Russell's work? Visit her website, here.