Sunday, September 4, 2011

Interview with Russ Havard

Russ Havard, Central Park West, watercolor, wood, mixed media, 2011
photo used with permission of Russ Havard

I drove down to Lufkin, Texas to meet and talk to Russ Havard. I’ve admired his work for a number of years having first seen it in New American Paintings #48, 2003. I saw Havard’s work in person for the first time back when Vance Wingate had his own gallery, Gray Matters. Russ was in the final stages of preparing for his exhibit at George Billis Gallery NYC. One sculpture was hanging on the wall to be photographed, three more were on the painting table, as were several of the small “Full of Days” series of framed watercolors.

In listening to Russ tell me about his life’s struggle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrom, I came to realize exactly why I admire his work.  He packs a lot of physical process as well as spiritual and emotional content into every diminutive painting and wall sculpture.  Here then is some of our conversation.

A Walk in the Park, watercolor, wood, mixed media, 2011
photo used with permission of Russ Havard

HC: Will your show at George Billis Gallery NY be the same work or different than your show with his gallery in LA earlier this year?
RH:  Basically the same, both have images of cityscapes, except I used images of LA for that show and I'm using New York scenes for the upcoming show.

Full of Days #15, watercolor with frame, 2011
photo used with permission of Russ Havard

HC: I want to ask you about this work.  As I was looking around your house and studio and I see these small watercolors in small frames, and while I didn't recognize individual works, I do recognize these as similar to or relating to the exhibit you had at the East Texas Museum, all really small works in frames
RH: yeah, yeah
HC: so talk to me about the relationship between these watercolor on paper and the meditation drawings to this other, what I'm more familiar with, more sculptural works.  What are the similarities or differences, the yin and the yang, between those two lines of work?
RH: well I think a lot of it came about because of my physical issues that I was having with the auto immune deal it is based on.  When I got out of grad school, I was laying in bed for a month or so, didn't know what I was going to do, so I bought a watercolor set and started working a little bit.  When I first got out of grad school I was working at a frame shop, she (the owner) was throwing out all the left over frame stock.  'Course what I was supposed to be throwing into the dumpster, I was throwing into the back of my truck.
HC: of course, because that's what artist do

Full of Days #18, watercolor with frame, 2011
photo used with permission of Russ Havard

RH: I figured I could do something with it.  So the first one I made was about this size (he held up the small framed piece shown above that is about 3" square with the frame).  She saw it and said I'll give you some more frame stock and you can make some more.  So that began happening, then I had that relapse, and I made a number of these and they just kept growing in numbers....10, 20, 30...and it was a way to stay in contact with the work - even if I could only work about 5 minutes at a time, you know. The medium of water color you don't have to wait a long time for it to dry, it's pretty immediate, and it has that whole delicacy thing going on, slowly they started becoming taller like the 1 inch x 4 foot that’s in the other room.  I got somewhat better and I moved to Houston.  I started thinking, in this format – thin but long format – I started thinking what would that look like if it were coming off the wall and you could see different sides of it.  That’s really where the thought came from.  So the first ones were rectangular little boxes that came off the wall, kinda like little open books, sort of, that hung on the wall.  That continued to evolve.  I bought a band saw and started making curves.  And that’s how all that got started and then I got into New American Paintings.  Then the sculptural works started to take on a life of their own and didn’t relate as directly to the small frame works.
HC: When I looked at the images for your East Texas Museum show with all those little-bitty frames I thought it was an installation, and they seemed like little sculptures on the wall.  Of course, I knew how you work this other way, too.
RH: well, that’s the whole thing.  There were about 7 or 8 years where I was really just making the sculptures.  I came back to Lufkin to get ready for the museum show.  It’s really a big space, kinda surprising for a small town museum.  I only had a couple of months and it takes a long time to make the sculpture pieces, especially the larger ones.  I moved back from Austin.  I was beat, I was tired, the fatigue was setting in again, and um, my little boxing reference, I kinda make it like Mohammed Ali and rest on the ropes, take a little break, that's his little technique for staying in there.  And I said well I’m going to kinda revive these little framed paintings.  I hadn’t done them in a while, and it’s East Texas, where I come from and all that.  I was able to fill up a whole wall in a short amount of time.  I did 40 of them, based on the 40 days and nights in the wilderness, like trials basically.  If you ever notice the trees are always kinda scraggly…
HC: yeah, I have noticed that

Full of Days #8, watercolor with frame, 2011
photo used with permission of Russ Havard

RH: It wasn’t on purpose for years.  You know, it kinda took me a while to figure that out. I think it all has to do with health issues and all that.  Ever since grad school, I’ve been happier working in multiple media.  The process of cutting the wood is in a different building, it’s a whole different thing – clamps, wood, out in the shop with my dad...working someplace since I was five.  You know, I don’t even think about art out there.  The focus whenever I’m in here is... you become extremely hyper focused painting, you get in your head, and that gets painful sometimes after a long amount of time.  There’s nothing like having a saw blade running that will get you out of your head, you know, you’re hyper focused but you’re not in your head.

Daydream, watercolor, wood, mixed media, 2011
photo used with permission of Russ Havard

HC: What artists inform your work?
RH: there’ve been a whole lot. It started out with the great landscape painters like Turner.  And the first time I saw a Rothko was in junior college and that was a big deal. Anselm Kiefer became a big deal.  Over the years, one of the biggest has been Paul Klee.  I would say, probably, interest outside of art itself plays a major role on the art I make. And the whole isolation bit of becoming sick and having to move back with my parents and being away from society for a while...
HC: (sarcastically) There’s society in Lufkin
RH: yeah, (laughs) well, yeah, I didn’t even see them.  You know, I was just in a place where I’d go out for a night with my girlfriend at the time and I’d just be exhausted.  And I had to crash.  And that whole process is how I came up with this.  And there’s another part of me that wanted to get away from my influences, to a degree, getting grad school out of my head. I stopped looking at art.  So I think the whole thing with the lonely isolated tree, you know, I don’t want to say I’m cliché with that, but it came from being lonely and isolated.  And of course growing up in the woods of east Texas, I almost consider my first religious experience was being up the road in those woods, it was kinda William Blake-ish.

five small watercolors on matchboxes Russ said were for a benefit

RH: I’ll say also, this is going to sound kinda strange, but growing up here, I was exposed to a lot of community art, and it was always something seen as important.  Even around here, my mom would paint some, and she would arrange her and her friends’ paintings salon style, and all that kinda stuff.  East Texas is a weird place, you know, it’s funky and I think its eccentrics rival that of New York, as far as the craziness, you know...
HC: (chuckles) yeah, I know
RH: and we’re kinda proud of insanity here in the south
HC: yeah, it’s true
RH: I grew up seeing a lot of landscape paintings on saw blades, you know
HC: yes, I’ve seen a lot of that, too
RH: It is the strangest thing.  I can’t think of anything stranger than that.  To me, here it’s considered like a normal thing, or like two deer antlers holding up a fishing rod, you know, it’s considered a normal...well I grew up here, that’s what I grew up around
HC: yeah, me too
RH: the irony of painting a landscape on a saw blade, you know, it doesn’t make any sense for one thing, because no one’s trying to be ironic, you know, it’s just something to paint on.  But it’s really stranger than any conceptual art I’ve ever run across.  But there is something about painting on shapes, and that was before I started, so all that comes into play. And the whole thing about landscape for me, I think, it represents some kind of ideal place that I would spiritually call home.  I used to do a lot of lucid dreaming and I still keep a dream journal sometimes, and of course I’m always seeing horizons and trees and things.  I kinda deviate from the landscape but I never totally leave it and then I come back around.

Russ Havard’s exhibition “Full of Days” at George Billis Gallery NY runs from September 6 through October 8, 2011 with a reception on September 8.  Russ is planning an exhibition for spring 2012 of his small graphite on paper meditation drawings that will be curated by Emily Sloan at her project space, Gallery 1724 in Houston, TX.

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