Radio Maine Episode 48: Matthew Russ

 

2/6/2022

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Hello, I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine. Today, I have with me Matt Russ, artist, and also a longtime friend and colleague of mine. It's really a pleasure to have you here with me today.


 

Matthew Russ: 

Thank you so much, Lisa. It's a great pleasure to be here and to see you again.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I really enjoy every time I see you and the fact that you and I now have known each other for, oh, you know, seven years, something like that. 


 

Matthew Russ:

Yes. Somewhere in that neighborhood. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. So I've actually interviewed you a few different times for various reasons. Right? So it's kind of a strangely public continual iteration of our own knowing <laugh> friendship relationship with one another. That not everybody has that kind of back and forth the way that you and I have had.


 

Matthew Russ: 

Right. Right. I feel like over the years, Lisa we've met you know, for formal conversations like these, but also at various art related events, usually in various venues. So truly it's great to continue this conversation.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

So one of the things that I think about with you actually has more to do with your wife and the first time I think it was probably the first time you and I actually interacted also, but I had written a story about Lifelight for a local publication and your wife Casey played a prominent role in the story. And today I happened to see a helicopter flying overhead, and  I thought about her and you and how this all had started. And it really was a very kind of traumatic and difficult time in both of your lives.


 

Matthew Russ: 

Yes Lisa. In 2011 my wife was in a very serious accident.  She was in a plane crash while flying in a small plane from Matincus island, which for those who aren't familiar, is an island about 20 miles off the coast of Maine.  She was out there visiting a friend and was flying back to the mainland in a small plane that crashed into the ocean. And it's quite an amazing story in that all four individuals who were on the plane survived not only the crash, but everything that happened in the hours following. There were many different individuals who were heroes that day in saving my wife Casey’s life and also the others on board.  But one of the prominent players was LifeFlight of Maine, which for those who aren't familiar with LifeFlight, it is a helicopter, and now also airplane, based emergency medical transport service that covers the entire state of Maine. And Casey was ultimately transported from Penn bay hospital in Rockland to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston where she underwent life saving surgeries. And as you say it was quite a traumatic time for the both of us, but as, as the years have gone by, we've been able to reflect upon the positive aspects of that experience in the sense that we learn much more about LifeFlight of Maine and what that service does for countless people throughout the state over the years. So we've both become quite active in fundraising for LifeFlight. We've gotten to know not only the pilots and the flight paramedics who were on Casey's actual flight, and I believe when you interviewed Casey for that story they were also there for the conversation of incredible individuals, but also the entire organization and what they do. Obviously if we could go back in time, we would not have <laugh> gone through that experience, but we did. And it's a happy ending


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

For me. I, you know, whenever I see a LifeFlight helicopter go overhead, I think of this idea that these were people who literally in Casey's example, that literally fell out of the sky into the ocean. And also, this sort of interim piece, that I believe that there are many local people who got on their boats, saw this happen and went rushing out to the scene to try to help with this really was a catastrophe, and again, the fact that there was a happy ending has everything to do with people's willingness to move towards something that other people wouldn't other people would freeze. Other people wouldn't know what to do. I think that speaks so strongly of what we have here in Maine, the sense of community, the sense of willingness to help our neighbors and kind of step toward challenges rather than just let people deal with their things on their own. Has that been your experience living here?


 

Matthew Russ: 

Absolutely. Lisa I was born in Maine and grew up not far from where the studio is in Cape Elizabeth, but I've traveled all over the state in my life and I think there is this great sense of community as if Maine is a small town. I'm sure I'm not the first to use that analogy, but that particular accident was a case in point where as you mentioned, the local people of Matinicus Island, lobstermen in fact, were the first on the scene. And when the call went out after the plane had gone down the fleet of lobster boats as I understand, tore out across the bay and directly into the fray as it were. And if it wasn't for good people like that things could have taken a different turn. So, yes, indeed. I feel it every day as I, as I travel throughout Maine, a great sense of community and general respect for one another,


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Your pieces also reflect your love of Maine and, and that's literally a situation where you step into what you are trying to capture, because you will put your equipment on your back and hike for quite a ways to set yourself up in a place where you can fully experience what you're trying to capture. Tell me about that.


 

Matthew Russ: 

I'd be happy to Lisa in fact this painting that hangs behind us is a perfect example of what you're referring to. And I'll talk more about it specifically in a minute, but generally speaking, my mode of working has always been to work directly in the field.  I do have an art studio in Waterville where I live,  but I do very little actual painting in that space. It's really sort of a staging area for the painting excursions that I take all throughout the state.  My true studio is really a frame pack that I carry on my back that carries my foldable French easel as it's called and all of the gear that I would need for a day of painting.


 

Matthew Russ:

And as you say, I take that, that pack with me into my painting location, and in some cases it does involve a considerable hike, and that's where this particular painting comes in, for instance this, this is a painting called Vienna Mountain Road #1 in, and the town of Vienna, and indeed it is pronounced Via here in Maine, as you know place names in Maine sometimes are pronounced differently than you might expect.  Vienna is in the Belgrade Lakes area, which is in central Maine and it's a favorite place of mine. I've explored this area on cross country skis and snow shoes and mountain bike and <laugh> and on foot in the summer. This particular painting was done in the month of February.  I carried my gear probably about a mile from where I had parked my car and set up my remote studio as it were for the entire day  to capture this scene as it unfolded in front of my eyes.


 

Matthew Russ: 

And for me being in the landscape is the greatest source of inspiration, that's why I refuse to take a photograph and then go back to my studio and try to recapture that sense of inspiration that I feel in the actual place. For me it's the sight and the sounds that I experience over the course of hours that inform my decisions in terms of what my composition will be and how the painting will unfold in real time.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

And I have with me also another Vienna mountain piece that actually belongs to me. So if you, if anybody's looking at it and they really like it, you cannot have this one <laugh> this was actually given to us as a gift to my husband and I for our wedding and it went very nicely with another piece that we own of yours that for me, both really capture something about the stillness, the quiet, the sense that Maine is a place of peace. Really, if you are able to be in the right place at the right time.


 

Matthew Russ: 

Absolutely. Lisa I would, I would add if I may, that nature generally, but for me specifically the Maine environment is not only a place of peace, but can also be a place of healing.  If I may, I'd like to share with you an experience I had as a young person back in 1987, I guess it was. I was in seventh grade. I underwent surgery for scoliosis, which is a congenital curve of the spine, something that I was born with and had been monitored as I was growing. In that year I underwent what's called a spinal fusion which is a surgery to essentially arrest the continuing curvature of the spine.


 

Matthew Russ:

And it took place in Boston Children's Hospital, but my recuperation of course, happened back at home and part of my recuperation was to go as early as I could get on my feet, and go walking . It was to go for walks in the woods nearby my home in Cape Elizabeth. And I wasn't aware of it at the time,  this is only retrospectively that I've considered this and thought about it, but those hours spent walking through the woods by myself were incredibly healing. To be in nature with no other distractions, no other people and to just let nature wash over you really was an important <laugh> experience for me. And I think that as I got older I started to realize that whatever it was I was going through, it didn't have to be a major trauma, like I'm referring to, but any sort of problem that I was facing or puzzle I was trying to solve could always be solved more easily by walking in, the outdoors as it were <laugh>.


 

Matthew Russ:

And as an artist I tap that same vein. I go to nature to find something, whether it's to find mental clarity or just a sense of strength. That's why I go out into the Kennebec Highlands in Vienna. It's why I go to the top of Mount Battie in the Camden Hills of Maine.  There's always something to be learned in nature, and I think you've probably experienced similar things. I know you like to go running and do long distance runs and I think you'll agree that that nature always has something to offer us


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well, that's one of the things that I like about this piece behind us is this path that you've created that's very lightly tread upon. It's kind of suggested maybe you were the one who went into nature to set up your portable studio and capture this for other people so that you can almost bring the space back to others that you could bring by providing an image for someone on a canvas. You're actually saying, here's this space, I'm representing something that's available to you. You just need to step outside your door. And I think that for me, that's why your pieces are always kind of a touch point that I can look at your pieces and I can go, oh, okay. There it is. It's always there because you're right. When I go running I'm actively in the middle of it, but of course you can't run all the time, so it's the ability to continually just stop and kind of take a minute and then proceed on with your day.


 

Matthew Russ: 

Yes. You know, I was thinking Lisa, about this series of paintings that I did. This is one of five in fact from Vienna mountain, but I think you're right.  You know, obviously this experience of painting in the field was very personal.  I was there alone, going through whatever thoughts I had in my own head, but in, in some ways this, this two dimensional surface, it's a fiction if you will. But it's something that, that is an artifact from that experience from that moment that you bring back from that experience and, and hopefully share with others. That's always the hope.  I think most artists would agree that you know, they want their work to be seen and to be understood to a certain degree and hopefully to convey a particular message. I'm glad to hear that maybe some of that comes through to you and hopefully to others as well.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

You have a strong Ireland connection. You've spent time there in various ways. Why is it that Ireland has called you over and caused you to want to partake of its beauty and its people and its land?


 

Matthew Russ: 

Well, my interest in Ireland, Lisa, began through stories that my father told me he spent a summer in Dublin. I think he was 20 years old at the time. And an opportunity had come his way to work in Dublin for the summer. And, his stories of the Irish people, the Irish landscape, Irish culture, were always of interest to me.  And it was until I was studying at Colby college that I had the opportunity to travel there myself. At the time Colby had a program in Cork Ireland in Cork city which is on the Southern coast of Ireland, and  interestingly it was most popular.  The program was most popular among pre-med students because it was one of the few programs abroad that allowed students to keep up with their prerequisites for med school.


 

Matthew Russ: 

The University College Cork was a place where students could seamlessly keep up with their studies and not get off track somewhere along the line.  However, there was also a connection made through Colby to a small art college in that same city called Crawford College of Art. And in much the same way it became a popular program for art majors and students who were majoring in art at Colby could take a year abroad and still keep up with their requirements, whether they were art history courses or actual studio courses. And when I discovered that that program existed and was a possibility for me I remembered those stories. My father had told me and thought, this is the time to see the place for myself. So indeed I spent my entire junior year of college in Cork studying art.


 

Matthew Russ: 

but perhaps more importantly expanding my horizons Ireland is an amazing place. I don't know if you've ever been there but the landscape is incredibly beautiful.  There's some parallels to Maine, obviously the coastline, it's one big coastline when you think about it, but particularly the west coast is a very rugged and wild place that is sort of the mirror image of Maine’s coast. I also found the Irish people to be really incredibly warm and wonderful and very welcoming. Of course, there's the connection, the historical connection between America and Ireland, but the friends I made there were just so special. It is also a very, very musical culture and that was a huge part of my experience there as well.


 

Matthew Russ: 

One thing I love about Ireland is that music is everywhere and it can exist in informal ways wherever you go. So that for instance walking into any pub in court you were likely to find a group of musicians casually gathered playing traditional tunes not amplified through microphones, but just in the corner of the room almost as a backdrop to life. Also my friends all liked to sing, it was not uncommon to go to a party in Cork and at a certain point of the night someone would turn the stereo off and people would actually sing songs. That was something sort of new to me, but of course is not new to the human race. So, I think you're very impressionable at that age as well, junior in college.


 

Matthew Russ: 

So I absorbed a lot of that and tried to carry it with me when I returned back to the States. Just that sense of fun, of music, of adventure. And I've been back a number of times. I went back after I graduated from Colby and through a work visa program I worked for an additional year back in Cork city which was wonderful.  But I have not gone back with the guise of an artist and I'd like very much to do that. I know that there are art residencies in different parts of Ireland, and I think it would be really fun to go back and perhaps interact with the Irish environment as I have with the Maine environment for so many years through art.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Do you have any Irish heritage?


 

Matthew Russ: 

I do in fact, but I always felt that I did because of that instant connection I felt when I was there.  We recently discovered that my family has roots in Galway in addition to other parts of the British aisle. So it was just nice to see it confirmed.  This was through the help of a cousin of mine who got into ancestry as people seem to do more and more these days. So and Galway's a very special place as well, so glad that there's a little bit of Galway in my blood


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

They are also very much known for music internationally, really.


 

Matthew Russ: 

That's right. Um wherever you turn in the town of Galway there's some sort of a music festival going on or a session if you will.  So although I lived in Cork, I made many trips up that way and really, really loved that place.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

I remember growing up my grandmother would always talk about County Cork and about how her family was from County Cork and her parents had come over during, I believe it was the second potato famine, and came to Boston. And it wasn't until later that we realized that everybody's from County Core because everybody, or most people, that's where they got on the boats, that then went to other parts of the world when they were trying to really escape famine and find new places for their families. And I think it's interesting because in this day and age, we think a lot about diaspora and we think a lot about people who aren't able to return or live in their homes of origin and what that means and we have a great example of this with Ireland kind of generationally. You and I are both several generations removed from people who needed to leave their own countries. Have you ever considered this idea that, you know, in some way you felt called to return to a place of your ancestors?


 

Matthew Russ:

You know, Lisa, I've never considered that question, but perhaps that's one of the reasons I felt so drawn to that place. For me now that Maine is my <laugh> my spiritual center I shutter to consider that I would ever have to leave that place. And of course as you say, diaspora is an ongoing phenomenon in this world. It's in the news every day. People having to leave a place that they love and they're connected to in a very, very deep sense. So in that sense, I can only surmise how difficult that must be for someone to have to say goodbye to a place that is essentially part of who they are.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

I think that, you know, when you talk about a spiritual center, the sense that I have had from talking to various people who have needed to leave their places, their homes of origin is this very significant, importance of actually having and maintaining a spiritual center, whatever that looks like. For many people that is the family that they bring with them, the family that evolves wherever they end up. I know for you, your family, especially in this past year has enabled you to; it's provided several touch points that keep you grounded during all of the uncertainty and change


 

Matthew Russ: 

Indeed.  Lisa the past year or so for me as, as, as for so many have been immensely challenging.  Obviously the pandemic being the unifying <laugh> experience that we've all been through coinciding with the pandemic we had some loss in my family, my mother-in-law Mimi died in, in 2020 not COVID related, but, she was for a period of time in a nursing home recovering from a stroke. Thankfully my wife and I, and family, were able to get her out of the nursing home just before the pandemic really started. In fact St Patrick's day is my touch point for when that all happened.  March 17th, I think we were able to, to get Mimi out of her nursing home and back into her beloved farmhouse in the white mountains of New Hampshire right around St Patrick's day, which is also right when things changed drastically and places like nursing homes became closed, so to speak.


 

Matthew Russ: 

I hate to think of how difficult it might have been if we had not been able to be face to face with her in the final stages of her life. I know many people had to endure that sort of scenario. So there was loss. My mother-in-law died in the summer of 2020, and it was a very difficult experience, but close on the heels of that loss was a new arrival. My stepson and his wife welcomed a baby boy into the world, my grandson Jack, and I was reminded that even though life can hand you these seemingly unbearable losses, life can also provide new gifts. And that whole cyclical nature was in very clear focus during that year. My stepdaughter also was just recently married in November, this past November. So again a cause for celebration. But yes family I think for me, but also for a lot of people took on a new importance and a new meaning during this time that we've been living through. And it certainly has brought my family closer. I've learned a lot about life this past year or so.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Matt, my sense is that your family has really been very supportive of you in many ways, but particularly with regard to your art. I mean, I think I've had the opportunity to meet members of your family, aside from Casey. I think that to know that you have, it's not just you showing up at the canvas and being in the woods, it's you and all the people who kind of are walking along with you in spirit. Did your parents ever, were they interested in art? Was art something that they engaged in? 


 

Matthew Russ: 

My parents have been really one of the great inspirations to me in my life as an artist. Right from the very beginning.  I can't say that either of my parents were ever artists per se, but they were always very interested in the world of art. From a very early age they would bring my brother and me to museums.  Obviously the Portland museum of art was easily accessible to us, but also trips further to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and they always impressed upon us that art was something to be celebrated and enjoyed. For me the actual creation of art was of great interest to me early on.


 

Matthew Russ: 

It was a way of playing and just putting my imagination to work and my parents to their credit, I think recognized that and in subtle ways provided me opportunities to explore that part of who I was.  Sometimes just the simple act of providing me materials, nothing fancy, but there was always a pad of paper available. There were always markers, there were always crayons, there were always pencils  and I think they saw what joy it brought me and just wanted to make sure that if it was something I wanted to continue with, they would always support that. Sadly I've met friends in my life who had similar impulses whose families didn't necessarily support that exploration.  I never had that barrier.


 

Matthew Russ:

I always had the support, the full support of my parents even to this day the easel, the portable easel we referred to earlier in the conversation, that was a gift from my parents. It is probably 25 years old now, and at the time they gave it to me I'm not sure they knew quite what an impact it would have. But again, that easel sort of represents that support that I've felt all along. And I'm very, very grateful for it. My wife has always supported my pursuit of an art career. She knows it's who I am. And so to know that there are those out there who are cheering me on really, really makes a huge, huge difference as I continue to explore


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Matt, I learned something different about you every time we talk. So it's really been my pleasure to have the time to spend with you today and kind of catch up on this latest iteration of your, of your life. And I appreciate your willingness to come in and talk with me today. 


 

Matthew Russ: 

Lisa, it's always a pleasure to talk with you and thank you. Can't wait to see you again. Absolutely.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I've been speaking with artist Matt Russ. You can see his work at the Portland Art Gallery and on the Portland Art Gallery website. I hope that you have a chance to interact with him at an upcoming art gallery opening, maybe post COVID when things open up a little bit more. He is truly a wonderful human being, I have his pieces in my home and I am reminded of this on a regular basis, but today it's been my, my good fortune to have you in person. Thank you, Matt. 


 

Matthew Russ: 

Thank you, Lisa.