There are characters in Bellingham, then there is Steeb Russell, one of the most loved individuals in the art scene, at the town at large. With his huge smile, great hugs and wonderful paintings, it’s hard not to love Steeb – he’s a ball of positive energy no matter where or when you see him.
I love this guy, he’s awesome and I’m really glad I had a chance to chat with him for this month’s 11 questions.
Brent Cole: Tell us a lot about yourself? What’s your background?
Steeb Russell: I saved this question for second to last and I’m racing the clock before I have to be at work. So here are some rapid fire fun facts… When I was born I weighed just under five pounds in 1973. My mom was 18 and my dad was 21 when they had me. I am a self taught artist. I went to seven different high schools. I’ve lived in Bellingham for 17 years. I grew up all around King County with a four-year stint in Juneau, Alaska. I consider my beard more of a pet or house plant than a facial hair style choice. I have one younger brother named Jason who now lives in California, but was the main deciding factor in me moving to the ‘ham. You name it, I’ve hugged it.
BC: What is the longest you’ve gone without painting? Were you inspired to paint again?
SR: I would say the longest I go without painting is about two months these days. Being a parent has changed my art patterns. I don’t want to miss out on any more home time than I already do with my job-job. So I tend to paint when Libby and Franklin go to bed into the wee hours. I will paint like crazy for a month when I have a deadline for a show. And then I need to recharge my battery, get back on track with my daily drawing in my sketch journal, spend quality time with my little family and friends for an equal amount of time, while stewing and planning for the next burst. At this point, being a father to Franklin inspires and motivates to be my best self, art show deadlines are crucial and writing the monthly check for our studio rent is a good one to get me in my painter’s chair working.
BC: Animals often are the subjects of your paintings, what is it about them that inspires you?
SR: Cartoon animals have always been more fun to draw for me ever since I was a kid; they are more forgiving, mysterious and mythological than humans. But also the anthromorphic blending of animals with people is a classic character design for story telling. It is also from the hundreds of hours of cartoons and kids shows I ingested growing up in the 1970′s: Hanna-Barbera, Walter Lantz, Merry Melodies, Krofft Superstars, The Muppets, sesame street and older Disney cartoons all shaped and inspired my work at a young age. There was a comic I bought in grade school “captain carrot and his amazing zoo crew” it was an 1980′s super hero parody that really set me on my path of loving and designing animal characters to say what’s on my mind. I left the capes and tights behind, but I do have a super hero series of paintings I want to do in the near future.
BC: If you could travel to any country for a month, where would you go and why?
SR: I want to say brazil, France, Iceland or Spain, but the more I think of the question I would choose a classic coast to coast family style road trip across the USA because I’ve never been on a real road trip and growing up our family was to broke to go on vacations. Do the whole wall drug, Grand Canyon, giant dinosaur statues in Texas, New Orleans, roadside attractions, soak up some folk art in the south and etc. plan a very doable loop, stay with friends and family when possible and see this giant country we live in without stepping foot into an airport. When I was around six years old I had a fantasy that I would buy a motor home and travel with my wife and kids all over.
BC: Who first coined the nickname your nickname, Coach? Why do you think it fits you so well?
SR: My friend Matthew Kennedy started calling me “coach” in 2006. It was during a period when I was making up these nicknames for myself for humor’s sake, for example: Nurse Russell, Buddy Powers Personal Assistant, Stewey Madchunks, Sally Shortcut and the Buttered Ninja just to name a few. Even though that isn’t how nicknames work. A good nickname is a gift and I feel lucky to have a good one. My buddy Jasper who is 4 and a 1/2 only refers to me by my nickname. Libby and I were talking about why “Coach” is very fitting a couple of days ago. I’m a big guy with a loud voice at times, who is encouraging, positive, constructive and loving all in a very gentle yet demanding way.
BC: What prompted you to first pick up a paintbrush?
SR: I’ve been drawing cartoons ever since I could remember. When I moved to Bellingham 17 years ago I really wanted to make more time for art and take it more seriously. So when I started showing my art around town in 98/99, I was doing ink and colored pencil drawings with a lot of color blending. It was wearing and tearing on my hand and wrist. So in 2002 I started painting with acrylics so I could cover more square inches in color more fluidly. I draw with my paint, I like to keep things pretty tidy and clean with my line work especially. I’m more of a paintoonist than a traditional painter.
BC: There’s a childlike element to your paintings (a natural fit for your children’s coloring book). Are you a kid at heart?
SR: I am a kid at heart for sure, I really admire kid’s in there creative imaginative flow, but also there amazing stubbornness’ son will just draw and paint lollipops over and over, he is so pleased to be painting what he loves. One time he sniffed his watercolor painting and said it smelled like chocolate cookies. Kids are so themselves, funny and awesome.
BC: What is the ideal flavor of ice cream cone?
SR: It is a toss up between peanut butter and chocolate swirl and dragonfly ripple.
BC: What is your perfect day in Bellingham?
SR: Libby and I have the day off from our jobs, so we can be the three amigos with our kid Franklin. Walk or ride our bikes to have a meal out downtown and walk around town and see who we can see in that around town sorta way and maybe finish off with some rock throwing/skippin’ down at Maritime Heritage Park. And go to bed early at the same time.
BC: Who is the artist that most inspires you?
SR: I have so many peeros, peer/heroes in my life that I am so luck to know and have their art on my walls at home. The artist that inspires me most is my 2 and a half year old son, Franklin Russell.
BC: What is your favorite memory of living in Bellingham?
SR: Meeting, courting and marrying the love of my life, Libby Chenault.
BC: What was your favorite sport as a child?
SR: #1 TV watching, #2 a short stint with BMX racing, I raced twice and got a third place trophy. I found out after the race that my little brother took the fall so I would get the trophy (there were only four kids racing). And then at age 14 I found a Nash “skate or die!” skateboard in a ditch in Juneau. Skateboarding was a game changer for sure, 25 years later in my semi-retired status skateboarding wins, forever!
BC: What’s next for Steeb Russell?
SR: Tick-tock, last but not least, GO! Be a solid dad, husband and friend, make more art always for just me and for show, laugh often, and a nap, make a children’s storybook before my time is up, eat good food, another nap, call and send postcards to my friends, and make more of my living from my art exploring silk screened prints and t-shirts.