We had the good fortune of connecting with Martha Russo and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Martha, why did you decide to pursue a creative path?
Basically, art gave me something physical to do.
I studied developmental biology and psychology at Princeton (1985) and was on a path to be a doctor or psychologist.
My other love was playing sports. I was hoping to go to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics for field hockey. But at the last try-out, I wrecked my knee for the second time. Not only were my hopes dashed to go to the Olympics but my doctors all urged me to stop playing running sports because I would continue to re-injury my knee. I was devastated.
Basically, art became my new sport. I needed to move around and get tired. I was drawn to the ceramic process because it was physically demanding, steeped in glaze chemistry, and the alchemy of fire. The physicality of working with clay filled a big hole for me then and it still feeds my addiction of being physically challenged.
Now thirty years later, making large-scale sculpture, installation, and public art continues to challenge me, just like I was challenged on the field.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I am a visual artist. My studio practice consists of making sculpture, installation, and public art with these intentions in mind/hand/heart:
All of my work is purposefully obscure.
It is just out of the grasp of language and, thus, brings us back to our rudimentary way of collecting information, namely, through the senses and the body. Although my sculptures and installations are steeped in the ceramics’ process, my practice side steps the traditions of the earth-bound, fragile, and precious material. Rather, my works embrace the precarious: they extend into space, hover in mid-air, barely hold on, pile up, and are sometimes on the verge of disappearing into dust.
The chameleon-like properties of clay and, specifically, its tenuous nature speak to the immediacy, transient nature, and the fragility of life. Coupled with this quietness, some of my massive installations have a certain energy and force that further connect us to our roots and our origins.
Essentially, I want my works to get into your bones and guts, to touch on the raw, the visceral, the nerves; to murmur up through the body to make a time and place for contemplation and reflection about our basic, biological humanness.
I am known for being very experimental, being steeped and inspired by the worlds of biology and psychology, and having lots of energy to make things happen that might not normally happen, in and out of the studio.
I am most proud of embracing “the unknowns.” I want to always keep myself off-kilter and find something new – to be surprised by it all.
The essence of this philosophy is embedded in making a piece called Apoptosis, created in collaboration with Katie Caron, for a show at the Denver Art Museum, Overthrown: Clay Without Limits (2011). From start to finish, Katie and I embraced the unknowns of creating something so new to us that many times we were not sure if it was going to work or not. After fourteen months of furiously making over 10,000 components, the piece came together in a way that we could not ever have imagined. I am very proud of the chances we took, ultimately what we created, and the overwhelming positive response from our viewers and the museum.
Another piece that I am really proud of is called nomos. For over twenty-five years, I have been investigating the potential of how thousands of porcelain forms in differing configurations can conjure up sensations about all sorts of facets in the natural world. The abstraction of form, material, and gravity coupled with a whirlwind of color and texture lure the viewer in closer, inviting prolonged investigations and enticing a flood of interpretations. Hence, the title-nomos, the Greek root for nomad meaning ‘to wander’ and ‘to wonder,’ is at the crux of making and experiencing the work.
I have been very fortunate to have grown up with two extremely supportive parents- Emily and Tony Russo- and three older siblings- Jane, Walter and Peter- all of whom gave me a grounding in life that has and will continue to sustain me as I make my way.
I have also been graced to have very strong, smart, creative mentors starting in college with Toshiko Takaezu and during graduate school with Betty Woodman, Scott Chamberlin, in the ceramics area, and Antonette Rosato and Garrison Roots, in the sculpture area. They all showed me what dedication and commitment it takes to be an artist and staying focused on one’s art and not to be distracted by art world concerns.
I have a tremendous support system at home with an extraordinary partner, Joe Ryan, for the last thirty years and we have two wonderful children-Odelia (23 yrs.) and Henry (22 yrs.) who have always supported me in every way possible. Living with an artist who makes big work means helping lift and move things on a constant basis. They are always ready and willing and also have fantastic insights into my work. I could not be luckier.
I also have very astute, fearless, and innovative peers who I met in graduate school and a strong community in the Denver/ Boulder area and at University of Colorado Boulder.
The foundation and grounding from of my family, the mentorship from teachers all along the way, and the continued and steadfast support from my family and peers all give me the courage to make art.
Basically, I have and continue to be extremely graced on all fronts.
I have had a few snags in the art world because of being female.
I was slated to have a show and unexpectedly got pregnant. My due date was the night of the opening for the exhibition. When I told the curator about the timing of my pregnancy, the curator simply canceled my show, deeming me “unreliable,” in her own words. I was furious. I later found out that she had treated other artists really unfairly for a myriad of reasons.
My motto has always been, “Don’t get bitter, make it better.”
So years later, the same curator was faced with having me in a group show. She begged me to be in the show and I said I would not join the exhibition until she had apologized to ten people she had also treated poorly in the past. I had a list of telephone numbers for her and waited in her office while she made the calls.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
I would take my best friend on a tour of the coastline and Redwoods in Northern California. First we would don wetsuits and surf. Then prowl around the Redwood forests finding all sorts of fungi treasures and more. Then we would top of the day with some crafted beer or cider and I would make an Italian meal consisting of gnocchi with a cream sauce, prosciutto, topped with a dollop of ricotta and a dash of black Truffle Olive oil. Gelato for dessert.
In general, a great day for me is…
Anything near or in the ocean- drift diving in Tahiti, playing with dolphins and turtles in Hawaii, body surfing at Block Island, Rhode Island.
Anywhere downhill or back country skiing.
Anywhere you can see the Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi’s works.
With anyone who sees delights in all the small details of life and does not need to know.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
My shoutout is dedicated to my mom Emily Russo, my dad Tony Russo, and my ceramics’ teacher at Princeton, Toshiko Takaezu.
When I was in high school, my mom made me stay home on Friday nights to do, what she called, “collect myself.” At first, I hated it. Then with time, I understood the beauty of an “inner life”- to reflect, think, and feel more deeply. This gave me a grounding that continues to sustain me in my studio and teaching practices. My mom was so wise.
My dad, taught me the art of finding the best system in whatever you were doing. Plus, making it fun. There is not a day in my studio, I don’t think of his way of making it all work with a sense of joy and delight, whatever it is you are doing.
I am also forever thankful to my teacher, mentor, and life-long friend Toshiko Takaezu. After stopping playing all competitive sports, Toshiko became my new “coach.” To try to tell you what I learned from Toshiko over the years would be a million-page tome. But, here is a glimpse.
In a catalog about her studio practice and teaching life, she said, “I think it is important for students to find out who they are and what they want to do rather than focus on making something well to start.” She showed me what it meant to be an artist– looking inside to find who you are and then translate that into what you make. Plus, she taught me the merits of being a tough teacher and being equally tough on oneself. She instilled in me a work ethic that is the core of my studio and teaching practices and life, in general.
Oren Eckhaus, Wes Magyar, Jeff Wells