“They speak their own special language…as they reveal raw emotions in her subjects at seemingly pivotal moments in time. It is as though we enter their life-stories mid-way, catching glimpses of what might have occurred in the past, as well as what the future may hold. It is all there, acrylic-captured, in these strikingly arresting moments of the “here and now”.
– Barbara Moore, poet, New York
What are you today?
Sarah Russell, Portrait Artist answers from Denver, Colorado, USA.
As interviewed by Emeniano Acain Somoza, Jr.
Human beings, physiognomists and mystics say, possess at least 72 different faces in their lifetime.
Barring life-shortening vices, any ordinary man is practically a bouncing newborn at every sunrise.
Or, floundering, depending, if you may.
Think Proteus, the early sea-god who could transmogrify into different shapes, forms, or entities.
In Paradise Lost, John Milton recognized Proteus’s shape-shifting ability:
In vain, though by their powerful Art they bind
Volatile Hermes, and call up unbound
In various shapes old Proteus from the Sea,
Drain’d through a Limbec to his native form.
“Chris & Zander Freed,” acrylic, 2011
Thus, having inherited godlike traits from their superhuman progenitors, that human being you’ve bantered with at the office coffee station this morning is not the same person you’ll wave goodbye to hours later at the parking lot. Check out those shifty, glazed-over gazes …
But, 72 faces in a span of 72 years?
At this rate, it takes a true artist to grittily capture even just one pivotal moment out of that troubled continuum.
To paint human portraits in daubs of unflinching neo-realism, and to make these portraits living testimonies of mortal tales – of hope, of dejection, of triumph, of desperation – make Sarah Russell one such veritable portrait artist.
Sarah Russell looks at humanity with an eyeful of questions. Yet she sees Proteus shimmering behind a soulful gaze or trembling touch or, lips in each of us.
Emeniano : What they say about the eyes being portals to the inner framework of the human soul… Can the same be said of the eyes that you have captured in your portraits? Or do you think you have found what you were looking for during or after you have painted a portrait?
Sarah: It depends on the painting. In some cases we can’t even see their eyes. I think however that eye-contact is a most basic form of connection, and has sadly become socially uncomfortable for many people to share. I think this is part of why I began the portraits, so that since it’s a ‘painting’ and not a ‘person’, people would freely open their heart’s eye, and see another human, as perfectly beautiful… when in face to face they may spend years knowing one another and never even look..
Emeniano: Your portrayals of black people are especially enchanting. Any one person in particular that inspired you to be especially attentive to them?
Sarah : I think it was first coincidence that I’ve been drawn to a number of individuals, being that the art world has largely ignored this branch of our human family. On a truly silly but serious note, I prefer to mix these flavours of fleshtones in my palette… But more, I think I’ve been drawn toward who I am meant to paint, and the ‘enchantment’ can be traced to these persons’ vibrancy of life-force and purity of focus, more than my paint! It’s true though that since I began, I’ve run up against enough opposition to my attention to our darker family members, that I feel a renewed sense of focus on them, especially since most ‘classical’ art that history has reserved for us was relegated to affluent Europeans. I find the level of ignorance amongst the ‘modern world’ about the horrors that still occur every day in many parts of the world, intolerable.. And though it might be a bit cliche’ to focus on Africa for making them aware, it is necessary. I live in a nation literally built by black labor, blood sweat & tears, which now treats its black citizens as less than human and denies it does so… This is unacceptable to me, and I have put myself in danger’s way before to say so. Here I still stand, so I think the Universe gave my brush this ‘voice’ on purpose.
Emeniano : What was your childhood like?
Sarah : I grew up on the lip of Yellowstone Park, where my parents lived off the grid on a subsistence farm. I always had an affinity for nature and animals, which continues today. Life for me became very strange once I started school, since I already had been taught to read and write, but my classmates were learning the alphabet. It was then that I began to write my own stories and illustrate them. My father died very young, but my mother wouldn’t let the ‘church’ remarry her, so unfortunately my family were always somewhat ‘outcasts’, but our home was the ‘safe house’ for many women and children over the years. I grew up with a distinct awareness that most people are blind and cruel, but that there is love in us all, and that my purpose in Life was, and is, to help people remember to cultivate happiness. The people who were my friends then, still are today.
Sarah : The only art instruction I’ve had was in highschool, where my senior project required me to paint a self-portrait. It wasn’t until 2008 however that I really picked up the brush again, and at that time it was to gift my friend with a knowing of how I saw her, since she didn’t ‘see’ herself well. After that, I just felt inspired to paint some other contemporaries who were so busily focused on doing what their heart demanded in the world, important in my eyes, but unacknowledged or properly appreciated in their own environments… I wanted to show them what I saw in them. I used colour to imbue emotion and presence, and it seemed to resonate with viewers, so It sort of took on a life of its own after that. This past year, 2010, I was inspired to begin the series True World Leaders Love, initially with spiritual leaders who’ve inspired me along the way, but spreading further to ‘regular people’ who full-heartedly invest their life-force in the collective awakening of humanity’s heartfulness, quote unquote on art, and joy of living loving.
Emeniano : Do have to know the characters before you paint them or do you randomly pick one out of a flurry of faces you meet in the streets…
Sarah : Initially it was people who had directly inspired my own peace and love.. but I’ve now met and become friends with some people simply because I asked them if I could paint them. Something about their ‘energy’, and have always been pleased to discover that they indeed are beings who should be remembered in this way, in my own artistic opinion.
Emeniano: What makes a character ‘inspiring’?
Sarah : Relentless determination, often defiant against status quo’s delusions, for the cause of a united and more loving human family, people who continue to live their vision, and focus all their energy on what they know to be important and right, regardless of what those around them have told them for choosing this way. In some cases those people are well known for their integrity, and in many cases though they are hardly known at all, as of yet, I’m also inspired by expressions of genuine love between people, men together, parents with their infant, children laughing, or the Eyes of Love in an individual. I think this is the most precious, and unfortunately rare, gift of being human…
… It is what we all live for, whether we admit it or not, and what I actively cultivate in everyone whose path I cross. My art is simply a tangible expression of that, and the portraits want to be made of person’s who live this way with no hope of reward but the Vision of seeing Humanity at Peace.
Emeniano : Do you have a unifying philosophy or, vision in all your works?
Sarah : We are all in this together. Our ideas of ‘beautiful’ and ‘handsome’ are at this point in reality, very much programmed by media and our environment, and in my opinion truly have almost nothing to do with surface features. I’ve only just begun this journey, but my hope is to awaken in everyone who sees my work, that awareness that we all are so full of beauty, vast expanses of living possibility, and love. The more we recognize this in ourselves and one another, the more space our hearts & environments will accommodate for it to be grown on larger scales, joyfully! I believe Humanity is meant to live its vast myriad expressions freely, in symbiosis and respect, with unity & diversity being Celebrated rather than feared. This is the goal of my work.
Don’t look now…
“She is showing yet not revealing. The interior of the mind. Private worlds. The people she paints have secrets, sometimes sadness, they carry around. They’re not sure if they can trust us to reveal their stories fully. They’re looking out at us, trying to gauge how safe it is…This is what I see…
The man with his eyes closed transports!”
– Deanna Piowaty, poet, dancer
I only wanted to live in harmony with the promptings coming from my own true self, why was it difficult? -Hermann Hesse
Emeniano Acain Somoza, Jr. is a Communications Officer in the Middle East and author of A Fistful of Moonbeams, his first poetry chapbook published by Kilmog Press in April 2010. Although foremost a poet, he is also a fictionist, an essayist and a playwright. Somoza hails from Siquijor Island in the Philippines. His writing has been widely published in his home country (Philippines Free Press, Philippine Graphics, Ateneo University Press, Cultural Center of the Philippines, etc.) and internationally (Moria Poetry, Fogged Clarity, Loch Raven Review, Buddhist Poetry Review, Troubador 21, Gloom Cupboard, Haggard & Halloo, Barnwood International, etc.). He received a degree in Bachelor of Mass Communication from the University of the City of Manila and masteral units in Creative Writing from the University of the Philippines-Diliman. He considers himself the official Spiritual Advisor of Gordot and Dwight, his roommates — the first, a gold fish, the second, a Turkish Van cat. He blogs at http://www.afistfulofmoonbeams.blogspot.com. (Email : firstname.lastname@example.org; Facebook: /e.a.somozajr)