Although Indianapolis-based artist Nathaniel Russell acknowledges that we can turn to dust at any moment, let’s hope it doesn’t happen to him anytime soon. His pieces—created in a variety of different media including sculpture, painting, drawing, and printmaking—manage to access the rawness and honesty of being human. Often accompanied by words and phrases, his work is both sincere and humorous. As Russell explores themes of thoughts and the universe, space and people’s place in it, he employs charmingly unusual characters and inspiring written mantras to make for some pretty dreamy pieces. While setting up for his recent show, I had the opportunity to ask Russell a few questions and got answers as genuine and honest as the work he creates. Catch his show “Instant Dust” in its last few days at Ed. Varie, closing August 5th.
Interview by Jessica Butler
You studied printmaking in college. How did you first get into the practice and what is it about the medium that you’re attracted to?
I started messing around with silkscreen and woodcut in high school art classes. I made a few screens to make shirts for myself and some friends, too. In college I was drawn to the different printmaking processes as a way to bring out different qualities in my drawings. I was also attracted to the printmaking culture; it’s less flashy and has a more ‘rootsy’ feeling than painting. The ink smells real good, too.
You also work in a variety of other mediums, including sculpture. How does your process vary from each medium? Do you have to think about your imagery differently?
I don’t think my imagery is all that different from medium to medium. I usually just adapt whatever it is I’m thinking about to the particular method, but sometimes things just feel better and more realized in certain forms. That said, everything starts as a drawing and I just take it from there.
Many of your pieces include words and phrases that are oftentimes humorous, extremely honest, and always very ‘human.’ Where do these words and ideas come from and what importance do they have in your work?
The words are a really important part of the work. The right combination of words and image can alter the meanings and perceptions of both. The words usually come from notebooks I keep or things I see on signs, overheard conversations, talks with friends, the radio—whatever catches my ear really. It’s just a matter of finding a good way to use them.
What does the title of your current show, “Instant Dust,” mean for you?
For me, it’s about death and being; the fleeting qualities of life and experience. Sometimes when I get too hung up on art problems or money problems or life problems, it’s somehow comforting to think that we’re all going to be dust at any second anyway. That may seem morbid or dark, but I really think of it as a way to appreciate the things in life that really matter and notice the interesting and beautiful relationships between things, people and everything else and not to trip out so much on the bullshit.
When we were chatting, you mentioned an affection and proclivity for things that are awkward, flawed, and “slightly off.” Why are you drawn to things like this and how do they appear in your work?
It’s just more relatable to me as a person. I’m not attracted to perfection or very polished-looking images, people, or objects. The mistakes and so-called imperfections are what makes us human and what I find to be the best and most interesting parts of people. I think in my work they appear in the non-labored way that I draw. I like to let things happen and try to draw in awkward ways for myself. Sometimes that means that if I’m drawing a person, I’ll start with the feet and work my up since I’ve always started with the head and face before. That’s not to say that a lot of things don’t make the cut because I don’t like the way they look or that anything goes. It takes a lot of tries and work to make things look un-perfect. I know that might not make sense but that’s how it is.
You also talked a bit about the overwhelming “bigness of things” and the “littleness of our lives.” What are some things that you notice from day-to-day that make you aware of this “bigness?”
Trees, the sky, other people, dirt, worms, animals, birds—the list is endless. I think if you look at anything that’s not manmade and think about where it comes from it’s enough to make your head spin. The fact that I am being interviewed for this article out of billions of people in the world is insane. The fact that we are a consciousness in a body that has a whole life and thoughts and feelings and relationships is the most unbelievable thing I can possibly think of and it’s something we take for granted every day.
Aside from your visual art, you also make music under the name Birds of America. How did that get started? Do you ever find your music and your art overlapping?
I started playing music in college because I liked a lot of music that seemed like it was possible to make myself. It has taken a long time to get to a point where I feel comfortable and have found a little morsel of what it is I want to make or say with music…and then I don’t play music for a while and I have to remind myself and find that all over again. I tried to keep art and music very separate for a long time but as I go along, I find it’s all the same thing and the same themes. It’s overlapping now and I’m actually going to play some music at an art show soon which I always used to feel stupid about.
What’s the process like for writing lyrics?
Just writing things in notebooks to start, then filling in the cracks once I get some chords or a melody together. It’s not something I sit and fret about; I just sort of get in the zone and stick with what feels good.
What were you like in middle school?
Probably a huge dork: braces, really into skating and music, wishing I were cooler and wanting the girls to be into me. I did badly in middle school for a while. I think that’s when it started getting very social and kids started being jerks. Anyway, I found my friends and we did our thing. There is a picture of me in a yearbook somewhere wearing a Cure t-shirt.
Finally, you also mentioned writing a book in your future. Any ideas what it’ll be about?
Well, I wouldn’t call it “writing” a book…it’s mostly going to be a collection of drawings and some writing. We’ll see what it turns out to be. I’m sure it won’t be much like I’m thinking now. I’m hoping this time next year there will be something to hold in your hand.