Daphna Russell, b. 1935 -
Daphna Russell is a sculptor and teacher known for the creation of stylized animals such as horses, buffalo, pigs, sheep and llamas. Her subjects are transformed from clay (some of which are produced in bronze) in an abstract style. The essence of her chosen mediums is virtually coaxed from the raw material, and the interplay between viewer and finished sculpture is one of emotion and intrigue: the interaction first precipitated by sight – then touch.
By facilitation of mass and structure, Russell shapes the slabs of water-based clays into powerful and sometimes whimsical animals, delicate angels ready to take flight, and haunting images of people at work or their voices lifted in song. Often captured in movement, her highly original compositions stand at half-stride or at play, depicting her animals with perked-up ears, a raised neck or leg. The Artisans of Colorado has reviewed her three-dimensional pieces as placing a heavy emphasis on the relationship of formal elements. Whereas Russell’s uncompromising glazes have been described as innovative, often experimental and avant-gard, where texture and crackling are as important as hue and color.
Her primary media are water based and oil based clay, however, she also works in wax, wood and stone. More often she utilizes water color to make drawings and figure sketches, preliminary to larger sculptures.
Russell talked about her style during an interview while taking a break from her studio routine. “I am known for making, or creating animals which are stylized by the use of abstracting the forms,” she says.
“Then I reconstruct those using geometric shapes and biomorphic masses to describe and construct their underlying structure. The basic design, while still describing the animal, combines with the composition to create the meaning lying under the surface,” she adds.
There is a much deeper understanding she wishes to convey, however, particularly in her roll as instructor. “The real meaning of the object then becomes apparent, be it power, whimsy, contemplation, fear, joy and so on. I very much desire that patrons, other
appreciators and students would come to this understanding which would help them with their education, enlightenment and secure feelings about the visual arts.”
Born in 1935, Russell grew up in a rural environment near Tyler, TX, and as a child observed the movements and shapes of the farm animals she cared for. While those early observations may reflect her art today, Russell would realize more challenging artistic opportunities when her family left Texas and moved to Sarasota, FL. As she grew into
adulthood, Russell pursued her art more seriously. She sketched and painted copies from the casts of Greek and Roman statuary while in Sarasota at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art. Not only was she viewing and studying the original works in their baroque museum, Russell also began to paint on site at the winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus facilities.
At this stage in her development – perhaps unconsciously – Russell began to distinguish between the classic and baroque styles, styles she later utilized as the open and closed compositional elements of her subjects. Because of her love of horses,Russell also took
up riding classes and equitation, as well as participating in horsemanship competitions.
While in her 20s and 30s, Russell had the opportunity to work for the Ringling as a tour guide and curator for museum patrons. During that time she traveled to Paris, Italy, Greece and the Greek islands where she observed the Mediterranean culture as well as the works of art these countries contributed. Later she visited the British Isles, The Royal Academy and the museums of Bath. Subsequently she returned to Italy to work and study art at the La Meridiana International School of Ceramics. Here she also shared her proficiency in raku as well as demonstrated her own techniques in sculpture.
Commenting on the skill she obtained while abroad, Russell emphasized “these repeated experiences reinforced my classical education by viewing actual works of art ‘in the flesh.’”
But it was Russell’s own distinct style she wanted to develop and explore beyond the classical or realistic representations of three-dimensional art. She would go on to describe her subject (i.e. horse) in terms of geometric and biomorphic shapes which seamlessly reflect the characteristic moods and specific actions of the horse. “In
other words, I represent what I see as essence of horse rather than trying to copy all of the details which make up the subject,” she explained.
“Hence, I am presenting the viewer with content which might be described as power, whimsy, fear, pleasure and so on, which is made up of line, mass, composition, and subject to convey the abstract content.”
Russell works and teaches sculpting classes out of her studio in the western Colorado town of Cedaredge, located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. To the observer she can frequently be found with her hands immersed in clay, or plucking a newly fired raku piece from an outdoor kiln. From time to time, however, she’s also taken up the role of political activist. She believes the First Amendment should not only protect the written word, but also the creations of artists. When these rights were recently challenged within the community, Russell took a firm stand and supported the Constitutional right of artists to portray the subject matter he or she chooses to display in public buildings. Russell is also active in the local art scene and is a member of several organizations, including: Delta Fine Arts (a group dedicated to art education); Hotchkiss Fine Arts, The Creamery Art Center in Hotchkiss, CO; and the Western Colorado Center for the Arts in Grand Junction, CO.
More importantly perhaps, it is the knowledge and experience she’s gained throughout her career that she hopes to impart to her pupils. Whenever she teaches, she uses water based clay so that her students (who are usually adults) can have at least one finished product
at the end of the course. All the while she will lecture while demonstrating her techniques and creative processes: “I am a sculptor; I could not copy nor stay within the lines, but I could produce original works of art, talk about its history, the way it was made and aesthetics,” she says.
Although Russell is often identified as an academic, it is widely known she is a natural in handling clay, loosing herself in developing a new piece. It seems obvious to the viewer she derives more pleasure from a hands-on approach rather than just talking about her work: “I enjoy the medium of (water based) clay because of the immediacy inherent in it. One, I can pull, fold it into planes, and a sculpture develops almost on its own,” she observes.
“However, I also sculpt in oil based clay which allows me to produce larger objects with armatures which stand on their own. Then I take them to the foundry to be cast.”
Bronze casting is an often misunderstood process, and Russell is quick to correct any misguided assumptions. She points out that a cast is first made at the foundry from one of her chosen sculptures, and the cast then filled with wax. She works closely with the foundry workers throughout the entire procedure.
“I participate in the wax-chasing-wax (technique) and choosing the patina and the application of them,” she clarifies. “The bronze work lends itself to a sturdy structure and the possibility of being extended into cantilevered projections, and is therefore suitable for enduring monuments.”
In dealing with water-based clay, the artist first dries and then fires the objects. They are then given a finish with stains and glazes, sometimes using a process called raku. “These objects are completely one of a kind, unique and fresh,” Russell explained.
When invited to do a quick draw competition sponsored by the Museum of the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Russell was commissioned to execute a buffalo for the Chairman of the museum’s board of directors. The cities of Montrose and Delta, CO, have purchased her work where they are currently on display in outdoor venues. Her work is held in many private collections throughout the United States as well as abroad.
Russell has taken two workshops from internationally recognized sculptor Lincoln Fox, an artist known for his monumental installations. She has also taken classes at the Sarasota Art Center, Sarasota, FL; studied at the La Meridiana in Certaldo, Italy; and also took a sculpture class at the Scottsdale School of Fine Arts in Scottsdale, AZ, just to name a few of the many advanced courses she’s taken throughout her career.
Daphna Russell studied sculpture and art history at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA; she received a teaching certificate from North Texas State University, Denton, TX; received her B.A. in art history and sculpture from Colorado College; and
achieved an M.A. in art history and sculpture from Texas Women’s University, Denton, TX.
Russell worked as acting Curator of Education at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, FL; Curator of Educational Services at the Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, KS; Curator of Community Services at Dayton Art Museum, Dayton, OH; and consultant in the arts to various school systems as well as the E.B. Crocker Gallery in Sacramento, CA.
Russell has exhibited at the Ann Darling Studio in Sarasota, FL; Es Posible in Scottsdale, AZ; The Creamery Arts Center in Hotchkiss, CO; the Apple Shed Gallery in Cedaredge, CO; the Old Pueblo Art Gallery in Tucson, AZ; the Coldwater Gallery in Ridgway, CO; the Schiesser Gallery in Steamboat Springs, CO.
Russell has also exhibited at the Colorado Center for Arts in Grand Junction, CO; Around the Corner Gallery, Montrose; CO; the Loveland Sculpture Invitational, Loveland, CO; the Denver Art Gallery, Denver, CO; Old Pueblo Art Gallery, Pueblo, CO; Deselms Fine Art Gallery, Cheyenne, WY; PAX Public Art Experience, Montrose, CO; Delta Public Arts Project, Delta, CO; the Canaan Gallery, Southglenn Mall, CO; Sculpture Walk, Souix Falls, SD; and the Bemidji Sculpture Walk in Bemidji, MN.
Sources: Artist’s brochure; personal portfolio and news clips; Delta County Independent; Montrose Daily Press; Grand Junction Daily Sentinel; Littleton Independent; personal interview with the artist at the Daphna Russell Studio, Cedaredge, CO, Nov. 2009.
Submitted by Ron Kop, writer, art collector, and acquaintance of the artist.