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Artist of the Month: Alex Russell creates sculptures out of branches, tree limbs, and twine on front lawns in State College

by on July 02, 2020 12:07 PM

As a graduate student in Penn State’s School of Visual Arts, Alex Russell was frustrated when she lost access to her studio due to the coronavirus pandemic. A sculptor who works with natural and found materials on campus, she found herself thinking about ways to continue her art. Working in her small apartment wasn’t an option. 

“I was thinking, ‘If only I had a lawn,’” Russell says. “Then I realized the community might enjoy having something on their lawns.”

So she reached out through the Nextdoor app, looking for people who might be interested in allowing her to create pieces on their lawns. 

She wasn’t sure she’d have any takers. 

“I’d always grown up around people who were very precious about their lawns,” she says. “They wanted them perfectly green and even, perfectly mowed. They definitely didn't want sticks on them.”

The response was immediate and enthusiastic.

“I was pleasantly surprised how many people offered up lawns to have a pile of sticks tied together on them,” Russell says. “It shows how community-minded people are in wanting to share sculpture with people around them.”

The series, which she calls What Binds Us Together consists of sculptures created out of branches, tree limbs, and twine built on front lawns throughout the State College community. 

“I was already working with the language of branches in my studio and I really wanted to continue the work,” she says.

The name is a play on the use of string she wraps around some branches and the hope the pieces will spark conversation and create a shared experience. 

“When you see art on your neighbor's lawn, it gives you something to talk about that isn’t coronavirus,” she says. “It’s bringing people together.”

Whenever possible, she uses branches she finds on the location or in the area. 

“I want it to speak the language of the neighborhood,” Russell says. “I really like the idea of working with found materials. You almost pay more attention to it than what it was before.”

The genesis for the project developed through a stick project for a class in public art. When the quarantine began, she started to think in larger terms. 

“For a while, it seems like the only form of entertainment was going on walks, so I thought people might enjoy seeing some art in their community,” Russell says.

“I feel like visually, it connects us,” she adds. “It connects the neighborhood; people see it in one part of town and then maybe see it in another. And the idea that the hosts who have them want to share it with their neighbors and the public, I think that’s a hopeful thing and I want to do something hopeful. I want to do public art that connects us.”

For Cricket Hunter, a State College resident whose sculpture has since been taken down, the piece did just that.

“Since it’s been here, when we’ve been out in the yard we’re talking with people about it since everyone is out walking to avoid the gym. Some people have talked about others they've seen in other neighborhoods.” Hunter says. 

Russell is influenced by the large-scale public art of Agnes Denes and the ephemeral work of Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy, who often works with leaves, sticks, or rocks to create art in their environment and intended to fall apart, fall over, or otherwise return to their natural states.

“I like the fact that he makes very minimal changes to the natural objects he collects – there’s essentially zero environmental impact,” she says. “I’m very interested in work that has low environmental impact.”

The structures are often, but not always, tripod- or teepee-shaped, depending on the shapes of the branches and how she is able to balance them together. Once she’s determined the shape, Russell meticulously winds string along some of the branches to provide a bit of contrast and tie some pieces together. She spends anywhere from three to seven hours working on a piece, and takes them down after two to three weeks. 

“Structurally, they’ll fall apart anyway,” she says. “The branches were destined to be picked up by public works anyway; this lets us take time to appreciate them”

The pieces have names such as Tipping Point, It’s Overwhelming, and Reach. While some names may reflect the shape of the pieces, they’re meant to be open-ended concepts. 

“How people react could be positive or negative, depending on what’s going on in their lives.” she says.

“She is by nature an abstract artist,” says one of Russell’s teachers, Rudy Shepherd, associate professor of art in Penn State’s School of Visual Arts. “And with this project she’s developing a language with the material. The way she’s taking everyday material and having it become something else, so you look at it in a new way, it’s very exciting.” 

One of the biggest challenges she faced, he says, was how to create the art she wanted to do while still being environmentally conscious. Choosing to utilize only low- to no-impact materials severely limited her options, a choice Shepherd was at first wary of. But Russell was unwavering in her desire, and he says, with unexpected results.

“She found a way of keeping focus and committing to that,” he says. “She took on a challenge and it pushed her to something incredible and unique.”

A Florida native, Russell, who has an undergraduate degree in psychology, spent four years in Nashville as a health researcher before moving to State College a year ago to study art.

In addition to the sculpture project, Russell has been researching ways of using natural dyes and pigments in her work instead of commercial media such as acrylics and oil paints. She grows a number of common garden plants – marigolds, cosmos, Black Magic bachelors button, and chamomile – for creating dyes.

“I’m really interested in environmental impact and the process of creating something new out of something that's already there,” she says.

“It can feel exhausting to talk about all the environmental issues; it’s existential. We hear about climate change or environmental issues and it sounds so big it can be overwhelming,” she says. “I like to focus on things close to us we don’t really see that can be metaphors for resiliency and hope.”

Russell hopes her works lead viewers to look at the normally mundane broken branches in a new way. 

“A lot of branches are really beautiful,” she says. “It’s just that we never look up at them.”

 

Robin Crawford is a freelance writer in State College.

 

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