RUSSELL BRUTSCHE — artist — for life

The New American
Dream Interview

Russell Brutsche is an artist living in Santa Cruz, California.

NAD: Rus, hello, welcome.

When you began college back in 1964, what did you have in mind as a life's work?

RUSSELL BRUTSCHE: I couldn’t have written out a 20 or even a 5 year plan at that time, but I sensed my work would be in art and in music, despite my high school career counselor’s warnings.

NAD: How did the war years affect that plan?

Well, I was opposed to the Vietnam War, and expressed it through protest songs and posters.

Career-wise, it’s hard for a college-age kid to make a living in fine art, but with music, one can work bars and parties, and I may have done more of that had there been no war, but I took advantage of my college deferment by staying in school to complete my BA in art.

The war was still on when I graduated, so I applied for conscientious objector status, and when that was turned down I fasted and was able to fail the physical by being underweight.

"... so I applied for conscientious objector status, and when that was turned down I fasted and was able to fail the physical by being underweight."

NAD: How have your "plans" changed over the decades in between?

Not a whole lot!

I picked up a credential to teach high school art, but didn’t fit into the 8-to-5 world that well.

Played music in a few bands, but found life on the road to be unhealthy for me, and turned back to art.

NAD: Are you able to make a living as an artist? Where do you sell your work?

I could see early on that one burden my life-as-artist didn’t need was an everlasting monthly rent payment, so I hustled up enough money to make a down payment on a small house, which one could do without too much grief back in the early seventies.

Then I worked very hard making commercially appealing art (home d├ęcor, really) and selling it at art fairs and galleries.

But once my house was paid off, I adopted a very modest lifestyle, moved into the garage, rented out the house and began to do art that questions the status quo — which many people are actually hungry for, but as you can imagine, does not interest most art galleries.

"... which many people are actually hungry for, but as you can imagine, does not interest most art galleries."

Gallery art may appear bold, adventurous or “far out”, but if you really look deeply, you see that most of it is about style — it’s the consumer product people invest in once they have the house, the fridge, the carpet and drapes.

NAD: Who are your art heroes?

RUSSELL BRUTSCHE: Edward Hopper, Maynard Dixon, Ernest Blumenshein, Nicholas Roerich, Irving Norman—and currently Sandow Birk…

NAD: You have a unique style. Is there a name for it? What format, mode, method do you prefer?

That’s actually a quite common question, and I guess my quick-quip response is that if there were a general name out there for it, then it wouldn’t be unique … it could be lumped into “contemporary realism” or some such vague category … the best way to explain how I work is to say I start with a concept … pretty soon I’ve got a big mess going and I spend the remainder of time using all the tricks I’ve learned over the years to make the painting work… usually I can pull it together… doesn’t sound very professional, but it’s the truth.

NAD: What is your goal as an artist?

Got a one-liner for that: I try to touch people the way I have been touched by the art I’ve seen.

NAD: Are you trying to change the world?

Or perhaps you just don't want to let the world change you?

... okay, here we go, here we go ...

Let's say you here about some atrocity in the world, perhaps the United States bombing some little country — and then say you go to your studio to paint something about that. Is that satisfying?

“Satisfying” would be a big claim, because I know that though I’ve made my statement, the atrocity goes on—“fulfilling” might come closer because by painting it I’m engaged, not just mentally and emotionally but physically and, importantly, socially, as the piece is displayed —

I’m a “visual activist” so to speak ...

NAD: How did you make it through the Bush years?

I had been fairly inactive for a while, but when the build-up to the Iraq invasion started, I joined a local group at our Resource Center for Nonviolence — we called ourselves “the Peacemakers," and we brought people like Medea Benjamin to town and organized vigils and rallies, and did some CD at the local recruit center.

We focused on process more than victory, to help avoid burn-out, but it was very discouraging at times.

NAD: Do you look forward to the Obama years?

I do — as someone said, it’s primarily a victory over racism, not war, but I think he may listen.

We’re all curious at this point I think.

NAD: What are you working on now?

What are you looking forward to, in addition to Obama?

I continue with the theme in my art of “inviting people to a life of voluntary simplicity."

I’ve done paintings witnessing the destruction of our social fiber and ultimately of our biosphere, but you know after a while you’re just complaining.

One of my issues is consumerism, what that word means on all levels — and so, as I portray its effects, I try to also offer, to viewers and myself as well, what seems to me a healthy antidote — a simpler life.

See Russell Brutsche's work.

[covers for Iowa Terror and Guests of the Nation]

[First published Jan. 9, 2009]

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