The subject of Tom Russell’s latest completed painting is a view from his Baldwin City studio of a tree in full autumn splendor behind those still holding on to their faded summer color.
“I just finished it,” Russell said. “It took me a long time. I started it when it looked like that.
“I can only sit or stand for about three hours before it starts to hurt. I used to spend hours in the studio. I’d lose all track of time.”
A professional artist for nearly 75 of his 95 years, art remains a focus of Russell’s life. That has been so since he first held a pencil in his hand as a boy in Parsons, he said.
A supportive family made sure his talent wasn’t wasted. His stepfather, a railroad man, encouraged him to pursue an art career when he graduated from high school.
“He said, ‘You are not going to be worse off taking art than trying to be a millionaire,’” he said. “The Depression was a great leveler.”
With that blessing, Russell enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1936, just in time to learn from newly arrived instructor Thomas Hart Benton.
“He never taught painting,” Russell said. “I had a drawing scholarship with him for three years.”
Benton, at the peak of his fame as a muralist and fresh from a Time Magazine profile of him and other Midwest regionalists Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, was a friend as well as teacher, Russell said. He invited his young student to weekend gatherings at his home, where Russell met a student from Benton’s days as an art instructor in New York, Jackson Pollock.
“Jack would come down every now and then when he wasn’t too drunk,” Russell said. “He would usually end up staying at my place. The apartment complex I was at always had an extra bed.
“We hit it off really well. We both saw that Benton was more than smoke stacks and Missouri. We shared that.”
The two resumed their friendship in New York City, where Russell moved after three years of study in Kansas City and where Pollock would become a giant in the postwar abstract expressionist movement before his death in 1956.
Russell’s New York stay ended in 1941 when he was drafted into the Army with the country’s entry into World War II. He would spend the war in England, drawing surgeries and the wounds of those injured in battle.
On a much brighter note, it was there that Russell met his first wife, Monica.
“I fell in love and got married over there,” he said. “We had our first child there.”
Five more children would follow after the couple settled in Shawnee in 1946. Russell supported his growing family as a drawing instructor at the Kansas City Art Institute. His association with Baldwin City started in 1963 when he accepted an invitation to head Baker University’s art department and the challenge of rebuilding the program housed in four rooms of Parmenter Hall.
“It had died when I first got here,” he said. “They wanted a resurgence, and we did our bit. The art rooms were in pretty bad shape, but that worked to our advantage. Students could do anything in the old building — really slop around.”
The department did thrive during his 16 years as its head, attracting students, growing to four faculty members and adding the Bennett Art Building for ceramics.
“We had all sorts of students going to graduate school to Yale and everywhere — far more than KU was doing,” he said. “We were in a constant battle with them to get the most students in grad schools.”
Russell’s ties to the community grew when he ended his commute from Shawnee with a move to Baldwin City in 1978, five years after his wife died. He married his second wife, Alice Anne Callahan, a fellow Baker professor, in 1979.
“She was an artist in her own right but at the piano and through music,” he said.
The couple would take numerous students and “half the town” on summer trips to Europe, which included an introduction to the opera in Vienna.
In addition to the opera, Alice Anne and Russell introduced the annual chocolate auction to benefit the Baldwin City Arts Council. The couple got the idea while visiting Russell’s son Fletcher, who was then teaching art at South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D.
“They were doing an art auction for Valentine’s Day,” he said. “We did the same thing. We brought everything back like they were doing up there.”
This Sunday will be the 25th annual chocolate auction, which now benefits the Lumberyard Arts Center. Russell will be honored at the event, the second time he has been so recognized.
Russell has donated a lithograph for the auction. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., and the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art in St. Joseph, Mo., own copies of the lithograph, Russell said.
It’s satisfying to know that the fundraiser he and Alice Anne, who died in 2003, introduced continues to support the arts locally, the Lumberyard Arts Center and helps enrich the lives of Baldwin City residents, Russell said.
“I think the community is worlds apart from the average smaller town,” he said. “I think there is a big devotion to the humanities. I think that needs to be pushed as far as possible.
“To become more human, if the world could really work at that, that would be wonderful.”