Arvada Center Blog

Talking abstract: A Q and A with local artist Martha Russo

By Leslie Simon

This fall, the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities and Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art are proud to partner to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the seminal 2009 book Colorado Abstract: Paintings and Sculpture with exhibits highlighting the history and continuing tradition of abstraction by local artists in the state. The Arvada Center exhibit Colorado Abstract +10: A Survey highlights the work of 70 local abstract artists, and opens September 12 at 6:00pm with a reception and exhibition discussion with book co-authors Mary Voelz Chandler and Michael Paglia. In the second installment of our series of conversations with featured artists, we spoke with Martha Russo about her influences, process, and advice for young artists. For more details on the exhibition visit the event page here: https://arvadacenter.org/colorado-abstract-10-a-history-a-survey

  1. Ever since Colorado Abstract: Paintings and Sculpture came out in 2009, how has your work evolved? 

Most of my investigations involve activating space. I challenge myself and the viewer to be engulfed by thousands of objects that create an eerie and unknown gestalt.  I abstract materials and forms to the point that it is difficult to name them and, thus, one has to stay longer to conjure up a sense of place, feeling, or perhaps some ancient story.

  1. What was your journey to abstract art like?

I started thinking about what goes on in the interior of the body, specifically the stomach, when you react to what is before you.  It is all about the “id” and the Autonomic Nervous System, which are both responsible for giving our bodies/minds immediate signals to either stay with something or leave- otherwise known as “The Fight or Flight Mechanism.”  The suspension of language and activating the primal senses are what initially drew me abstraction and has had a grip on me for over 25 years.  I see no end in sight-happily.

  1. What is your process in creating new work?

I start with a notion. I give myself a parameter to push up against with some sort of timeline. Then I find patterns or trends in the work, do some research and start making more.  Sometimes I refine it if needed, or make it more raw.  All depends on how the idea is coming into focus.

  1. Who are the other artists that inspire you?

Started with Toshiko Takaezu, slid into Eva Hesse, forever grateful for Scott Chamberlin, rejoicing in Louise Bourgeois, always hearing the words of  Garrison Roots and Toni Rosato, incessantly marveling at Antoni Gaudi, mesmerized by Ann Hamilton, continually astonished by Henrique Oliveira, smitten with Studio Ensemble and Hypersonic, continually inspired by my graduate school peers, and in awe and admiration of Eric Mesple, Joe Riche and his Demiurge team, John Lupe and Steve Osborne and the Denver Art Museum curatorial and installation teams.  And the list could go on and on and on and on. Lucky me.

  1. What do you want people see when they view your non-objective art?

I want them to be able to relate to the abstracted organic forms in a way that draws them in from a distance, and continues as they get closer and closer to the works.  And even by looking and experiencing the work for a good bit of time, my hope is that they can never quite fully understand it.  I want to activate something deep inside that is about our basic human instincts and conjure up moments about growing up and being in the natural environment. I want them to feel slightly ill at ease, interspersed with moments of sheer delight or wonder.  Abstracting forms, materials, and colors, gives me this freedom.

Martha Russo; pensum

  1. What cool projects do you have coming down the pipeline?

I am thinking about all things “in between.” Making sculptures and installations that are physically, emotionally and intellectually liminal. All this “in between-ness” will culminate in a show at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Sept- 2021- Jan 2022, curated by the very smart Joy Armstrong. I am really looking forward to it all especially a new installation that has elements that are inspired by redwood tree canopies and some disruptive fungus, having a sense of oddness, airiness, and faint light.

  1. What advice do you have for new artists out there?

Show up every day and night in your studio or away from your studio and really pay attention.  Sometimes it is good to have solid plan about what you are making, and other times it is really important to do some serious play and not worry if something is going to survive or not.  Give yourself time and space to find out what lurks below the surface of your consciousness.  It is always a never-ending surprise.

Young brains need theatre on the mind

Young brains need theatre on the mind

By Leslie Simon

You can learn a lot from a fairy tale! Experiencing live children’s theatre lets kids learn and explore important lessons that leave lasting impressions. Their curious minds become nourished with exciting new ideas and a better understanding of other cultures and the world around them.

All photos in this story courtesy Matt Gale Photography

At the Arvada Center, we are passionate about the positive effects that interacting with live arts have on young minds. We produce award-winning children’s theatre that engages thousands of children from the Denver metro area every year, including this fall’s production of Ella Enchanted and next spring’s take on the children’s classic The Velveteen Rabbit.

“Children’s theatre is so important for children to experience!  It not only exposes them to literature, music, art, dance and poetry, it also sparks their creative brain and, perhaps without realizing it, they learn life-lessons by watching conflict resolution,” says Arvada Center Director of Education Lisa Leafgreen. “Many young lives have been changed by that first moment when the lights dim, and they are transported into what imagination can do.”

Ella Enchanted

We get so many comments from people talking about the impact the Center has had on their lives- from parents whose children talk about plays they saw for months, even years afterward, to patrons who saw our children’s theatre productions through school field trips. We even have former students whose artistic interests were nurtured in our arts education classes now performing on our stages professionally.

Lessons learned from these plays and musicals imprint onto inquisitive minds and influence them into adulthood. Getting a glimpse into what goes on inside a character’s head helps children put themselves into another person’s shoes, nurturing understanding and empathy for other people and cultures.

In our current climate of social media echo chambers and biased news outlets, being able to see multiple sides of the story cultivates children who are better equipped to create lives filled with compassion and appreciation of others.

A research study performed by Brookings Institution showed that elementary school students who are exposed to live arts experiences were found to have an 8% increase in compassion and greater empathy for others, versus those who did not participate. Students who attended live children’s theatre were more interested in how other people feel, and more likely to want to help people who are treated badly- important traits for a caring community member to have.

Being in the audience of a children’s theatre performance also actively allows children to learn important lessons in etiquette and respect for those around them. Sitting through a theatre production lengthens short attention spans, and learning when to stay quiet and when to applaud gives young theatre patrons a chance to practice good manners and be an active participant in society. In a famous national study of 25,000 students, UCLA researchers found that students who were involved in the arts watched less television, participated in community service, and reported less boredom in school – behaviors that every parent and guardian can appreciate.

If you want to provide amazing live arts experience to your children or students, the Arvada Center has many opportunities for the theatrical exploration that kids need.

For more information on our programming including details about our upcoming children’s theatre productions of Ella Enchanted and The Velveteen Rabbit, visit our website: https://arvadacenter.org/pages/theatre-for-children-2019-2020.

Get to know – Neil Simon

Marvin Neil Simon was an American playwright, screenwriter and author. He wrote more than 30 plays and nearly the same number of movie screenplays, mostly adaptations of his plays. He received more combined Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer.

Born in the Bronx in 1927, Simon was forced to live with relatives due to the unhealthy nature of his parents’ relationship and the poverty of the family during the Great Depression.

Attributing his success as a writer to his ability to use comedy to block out the darkest parts of life, he once said, “I didn’t come from one broken family, but from five.”

A young man without much direction, he enlisted in the Army Air Force Reserve, which eventually led him to Colorado. In 1945 he was stationed at Lowry Air Force Base, and for a brief stint in 1945-1946 he attended Denver University. It was here in Colorado that he began his career as a writer, first as a sports editor and then as a comedy writer for radio and television shows.

Kate Gleason and Gareth Saxe, Matt Gale Photography 2019

He moved back to New York City in the 1950s and saw success as a television writer, working alongside the likes of other soon-to-be comedy greats like Mel Brooks. In 1961 his first Broadway play Come Blow Your Horn was produced and as he said, “the theatre and I discovered each other.” And discover each other they did – by 1965 he had written two more Broadway smash hits, Barefoot In the Park, and The Odd Couple, which won the Tony Award for best play.

Kate Gleason and Gareth Saxe, Matt Gale Photography 2019

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century and well into the 21st, Simon was regarded as one of the great comedy writers, renowned for his ability to approach subjects from the farcical to the deeply emotional with equal craft and sensitivity.

He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for Lost in Yonkers. Simon’s work is firmly in our cultural consciousness. Sadly, he passed away in 2018, but his legacy lives on through his volumes of plays, screenplays, and musicals.

Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite plays from October 4 – November 10.