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:

  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:

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. 

Kate Gleason on creating and performing multiple characters in Plaza Suite

By Leslie Simon

Three marriages in turmoil. Well, two marriages in turmoil, and one marriage that might not even happen if the bride-to-be doesn’t come out of the bathroom! Suite 719 at the Plaza Hotel sees a lot of activity, from the absurd to the dramatic. Traditionally, the play is cast with the same actors playing different characters in three one-acts, a sort of mini-repertory, and Plaza Suite’s Kate Gleason spoke with us on preparing and playing multiple characters in the same play.

In Plaza Suite, you play a different character in each of the three acts. As an actor, how do you prepare for multiple roles like this?

The great fun of developing a character, no matter what project, is finding out what makes them tick. I usually start at the beginning of the script with specific questions: Where do they come from? What brought them to this particular moment? What do they want? How do they get it? What are the stakes at any given moment? The added bonus in doing three one-acts is that you get to do this detective work three times, and you find out what connects them and what makes them distinct from one another. The fun lies in the investigation.

What makes playing Neil Simon characters special?

I am an unabashed fan of Neil Simon. I consider him a true artist, in league with Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Jonathan Swift. I’ve directed two of his plays, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound, and also taught a Neil Simon scene study class for DCPA Education. What I found was a master of the comic drama. The comedy lies in reality and it is always character driven. It’s what makes GREAT comedy- the laughs emerge from the truth in the moment. It’s a kind of heightened non-fiction and a joy to play. Simon said every play he has written was a drama with “comic moments.” When warned by Lillian Hellman not to mix comedy with drama, Simon replied, “if it’s mixed in life why can’t you do it in a play?” As an audience, we see ourselves up there on stage and we share in the experience because even in the absurdity, it feels real.

You will also be a part of our Black Box repertory company again next spring. What is that like to work with the same people for three overlapping plays?

It all comes down to trust. The plays are all different but the faces are the same. You start counting on those faces. We develop a shorthand with each other. We PLAY. We are allowed to be creative and messy because we are all in this together. Some of these people I have known and worked with, some are new faces, some are fellow artists I have admired but never worked with, but when we all get in the room at the beginning of that rep season, we know we are all on the same team. We are all in this together for the long haul. It’s a rare and extremely valuable experience, and I feel VERY lucky to be on the team.

What has acting and directing taught you about life?

Well, this is a BIG question… I suppose the best answer I can think of is something that was told to me by my friend, Allison Watrous. She was working with some teenagers, and they said acting was like learning how to be a “professional human.” What they meant, of course, is that as actors and directors we step into someone else’s shoes (sometimes literally) and we tell their story. That’s what we do: we are storytellers. And in the telling of the story we can, and often do, learn something about ourselves and others. It can be a noble adventure. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s enlightening. Sometimes it’s hilarious. But it’s NEVER boring. Kinda like life.




Talking abstract: A Q & A with local artist Heather Patterson

By Leslie Simon

This fall, the Arvada Center 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 with a reception and exhibition discussion with book co-authors Mary Voelz Chandler and Michael Paglia. In the first installment of a series of conversations with featured artists, we spoke with Heather Patterson about her influences, process, and advice for young artists.

  1. What was your journey to abstract art like?

Growing up, I had a fascination for water, and the ocean in particular. In high school, I painted very realistic looking dolphins underwater. When I went to college, I quickly learned that this was very kitsch and not going to cut it for art school! My professors introduced me to the Abstract Expressionist movement. One of them gave me a 5-foot-long bamboo stick and a jar of ink on the ground and told me I was only allowed to learn to draw with that. I quickly fell in love with gesturing and letting drips happen, and it all went downhill from there. The sloppier and thicker the paint, the better. I used to go through entire tubes of oil paints on one painting! Some of the guest artists that came through our studios didn’t even want to walk on my studio floor because it was always so saturated with wet oil paint. I loved it. It’s interesting looking back over the years that water and the landscape still certainly play into my work, but in a completely different and more evolved way.

  1. What is your process in creating new work?

I always work on several things at once…usually about 5-7 large panels at once. One reason for this is that I absolutely can’t stand waiting for paint to dry.  I like the immediacy of going from one to the next. Also, by working this way, I build up a body of work together and can see how each piece relates to the next. It’s nice to have time to look at them all together and see how I can finish each one uniquely.

Heather’s work was part of our Summer 2018 exhibition – In Sight In Site: Murals.Watch her in action!

  1. Who are the other artists that inspire you?

So many!  When I was in school I really fell in love with de Kooning, Anselm Kiefer, Rauschenburg, Eva Hesse, Rothko, Lee Krasner, Alice Neel. Now I’m loving Heather Day, Inka Essenhigh, Tara Donovan, Dana Schutz and so many others that I know I’m forgetting at the moment.

Heather Patterson, “Sediment”

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

I think that’s one of the great things about non-objective art, people can see or feel what they want to.  The longer a collector owns and lives with a piece, the more they see in it. I personally really enjoy when someone is talking with me about the work and totally explains the elements I was trying to portray. Even though my work is abstracted, I get a lot of my imagery from realistic images of topographic maps, weather patterns, climate systems, animal migration patterns, and elements in nature (water, lichen, plant life).  Some people may just see color, patterns, and shapes and that’s ok! But I really love when someone is able to get something from my work on a deeper level that speaks of our environment.

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

Well, I just finished a 200-foot linear mural in Boulder commissioned by the city that can be viewed at Broadway and Basalm. I also just finished another mural that I collaborated on with fellow artist Kelly Peters in the main lobby of the newly renovated bus station and One Snowmass luxury condos in Snowmass Village. It was commissioned through Styleworks Interiors and Walker Fine Art. Upcoming, I will be a part of the Loveland Open Studios for two weekends in October if you would like to stop by!  Then in February 2020, I will be in a three-person exhibition at Space Annex with (Arvada Center Director of Galleries and Curator) Collin Parson and Jodie Roth Cooper. We will have our individual work on display as well as some experimental collaboration work which will combine light, sculpture, and painting.

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

Work hard, play hard! But seriously hard work and dedication will get you where you want to be.  The art world is a tough one- don’t give up- just keep doing what you love and working for it. Having some sort of business sense also helps.  It’s about as foreign to most artists’ nature as can be, but if you have some business sense, it will make this “art life” so much easier. Also, play hard because it’s only going to work if you are happy doing what you love to do.

Read more about Colorado Abstract +10: A Survey.