Painting to the pick

Published 10:31 pm Friday, April 13, 2012

Margo Russell isn’t a musician but she “plays” bluegrass music with a pencil and paintbrush as her instruments.

Russell began drawing and painting bluegrass pickers two decades ago. A couple of years later, she made bluegrass pickers her main motif.

“I came to the bluegrass festival at Henderson about 17 years ago and fell in love with the whole process of the discipline of people playing music,” the Andalusia native said. “I had been out to the Southwest and realized that I was a Southerner. When I came back and saw friends, who were then middle-aged and involved in the bluegrass discipline, I began to respect it as an art form.”

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“Russell said that, although she’s not a musician, she can enjoy the music and be a part of it by doing the paintings.

“The pickers’ music gives me permission to draw and then to paint,” she said. “When they stop playing, I stop painting. So, it’s an interchange. All art comes from the same place, whether it’s music, poetry, sculpture or dancing, it comes from the same place inside.

Russell has a bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Alabama and a master’s degree from Florida State.

“I came through the art program at Alabama without having had art classes in high school,” she said. “I was new to art in the classroom and the instructors kept telling me to ‘do your own thing.’ I didn’t know what my own thing was. Abstract art and impressionism had emerged and I was challenged to find my mark.”

Russell eventually found her mark. She found it in the bluegrass music and it was a jiggled-jaggled mark.

She found her rhythm – her mark – in the high, lonesome sound of bluegrass music. Looking at the music through the eyes of an artist, Russell saw her marks in the gestures of the musicians – in what was happening when bluegrass was being played. As the music was played, she found the energy for her artwork.

“Bluegrass and Southern gospel music have a special beat, not like any other music and the movements of the musicians are different – kind of jiggled, kind of jaggled,” Russell said. “I found that when they played, I could paint. There was a rhythm to their music and to my painting. But, when they stopped playing, I had to stop. The energy was gone.

Russell draws and paints on site. She has to. That’s the way she makes her marks – her music.

“The musicians give me permission to make my marks,” she said.

She throws her drawing board on the ground, drops to her knees, first, drawing the gestures of the pickers who move – or don’t move – with the music.

The pencil drawings are done on inexpensive brown paper and are done quickly and flush out the scene. Russell then moves the brown paper drawings to the side, puts a large sheet of expensive French watercolor paper on the board and lets the energy of the music guide her.

First she draws and then comes the spontaneous spots of color, first here and then there.

“My pencil marks are always in my paintings,” she said. “Like little rabbit tracks in the snow.” A Margo Russell signature.

Then she begins to paint in quick, fluid motions and in broad strokes. The facial expressions of the musicians tell some of the story; their gestures tell it all.

Russell also creates clay figures of the pickers and captures their gestures 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.

Many of those who frequent the Henderson Bluegrass Festival have been “gesturized” by Russell.

“I paint at many different bluegrass festivals but Rex’s Bluegrass Festival at Henderson makes up much of my artwork. It’s a very special place with very special people.”

When Russell arrives at the Henderson Music Park, she immediately makes her way to Hippy Hollow, which is located behind the old Henderson schoolhouse that was once the hub of bluegrass pickin’ and grinnin’ but has seen its better days.

“I like to hang out with Rex and the group at Hippy Hollow,” Russell said, laughing. “I take my drawing board and watercolors and, when the musicians start playing their instruments, I start playing mine. As long as bluegrass is played, I’ll paint.

Russell has developed a unique style that can easily be identified. She attributes her style to being a pot of camp stew.

“I have a Hispanic mother from the Rio Grand Valley and a country boy dad from Ramer so that makes me a pot of camp stew,” Russell said, laughing. “My artwork is a mixture of who I am and a whole lot of bluegrass.”

Russell describes her paintings as a depiction of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

“And being a part of that is a beautiful experience,” she said. “I look forward to Rex’s bluegrass festivals every year. I can’t wait for the music to start and I can’t wait to start ‘playing’ my instruments along with all those strings.

Together, the bluegrass pickers and Margo Russell are picture perfect.

No one captures the essence of bluegrass music and its pickers like Margo Russell in her jiggled-jaggled paintings, said Wiley White, development director at the Johnson Center for the Arts in Troy.

Margo Russell’s art will be featured in the “String Notes and Bush Strokes” exhibition at the Johnson Center in June.

But, those who enjoy bluegrass music can catch Russell making her marks as bluegrass pickers make their licks at Rex’s Bluegrass Festival at Henderson. The music will go on late into tonight and everyone is welcome.