Sometimes what an artist most needs to get going, says artist Ron Russon, “is a kick in the butt.” The Lehi artist graduated from BYU in 1996 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration and Design and was doing well working on books and magazines and commercial projects when the digital era caught up with him and began raining on his parade. “These guys who had been illustrating for 40 or 50 years discovered the scanner, that scanned 50 years worth of images. They put all of it on one disk, and sold the rights,” he says. “So, in one year, the same job that was $2200 went to $300.” At that point, he says, the fine art market became flooded with former illustrators.
Russon was one of them, and this digital “kick in the butt” nudged him into a career he was always interested in but had avoided. “I come from an agrarian background, farming, so it’s really about practicality” he says. “With art, you can’t eat it, you can’t live in it, and so it is really impractical from my background.” But now, after more than a decade as a fine artist, he says, “I’d live in a box if I had to because this is the right thing.”
Russon’s agrarian background and career in illustration can be seen in his paintings, which depict practical things like farmland and machinery, but with a highly developed sense of design that modulates various abstract elements. His paintings are also charged with a well-developed spiritual and metaphorical sensibility. “For me, my story comes from the religious aspect,” the artist says, “or if I’m dealing with an issue of my own, I see it from a spiritual perspective.”
Russon says he likes to work with the number three, a numeral with a longstanding religious connotation. In his landscape “Green Hill” we find in the center three red trees. The implications in this painting are too vast to grapple with, but as Russon describes it, the line falling vertically could represent ancestry; it also represents one’s own past, a personal history, the passage of time; and the central bold line of red in the ground represents the present. There is a certain practicality to this approach; a utility to it, there is substance to this that is the kind that comes from the agrarian, the farmer, but the structures, the abstract compositions, come from the artist.
In Russon’s wildlife paintings the animals become strong metaphorical presences while always remaining themselves. The animals become talismans for attributes we might look for in ourselves or others precisely because of what they are. In “Wolf Trio” Russon focuses on the structure of the bodies, and like a cubist, looks for the truth of the form, in and of itself, representational of the animals’ strength, its natural beauty and creation. The wolf is strong and is a pack animal. It will defend the other, it will fight for the pack, hunt and kill. The wolf already IS the metaphor for attributes that Russon’s audience might relate to or aspire to.
In his “Bison Tribes” the background is literal in substance even though its whole has been abstracted into a webbing of forest, a dense and fibrous articulation of flora that looks almost jungle-like. In the space that distinguishes it, we find a very bright pale salmon pink that seeps through. Like in a Warhol serigraph, Russon has coded identical rows of bison with different colors: orange, turquoise, yellow, and steel blue. How is this in any way practical? By using the literal metaphor of the animal and the character of the bison, by what we see on the canvas in this abstract articulation of form, we discover the reality of these animals, and we project the essences and ideals of ourselves as we perceive these creatures. They are each in a tribe, assuming a unique color, and in that tribe — again the number three is adhered to — one follows the other, and is secured to and grounded by the other. One is never alone. Yet there is a mass, a universality to the total, a universality of difference, that together finds a unity in a harmony of commonality and likeness, yet each remains the same in their essential differences, guided by the other, through the density and through and towards the light.
Ron Russon’s “kick in the butt” was the result of economic factors beyond his control. But in losing his job, he found his calling, and with the singular style he has developed over countless hours he is able to explore his own spirituality and humanity in an authentic and, for his audience, highly revelatory way.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.