The Road to 'Riddleville,' Burlington Sculptor Clark Russell’s Work of a Lifetime | Visual Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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The Road to 'Riddleville,' Burlington Sculptor Clark Russell’s Work of a Lifetime

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Published October 12, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated October 18, 2022 at 1:04 p.m.


Clark Russell’s “Riddleville” installation - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Clark Russell’s “Riddleville” installation

Clark Russell was a student at the University of Vermont when he formed a punk rock band called No Fun with guitarist and fellow student Bill Mullins.

"I got myself a microphone and decided I wanted to be a singer," Russell, now 61, recalled. No Fun practiced in the trash room at dormitory Christie Hall, playing for a "stumble-in crowd" that followed the noise to the garbage. Pieces of refuse, such as words printed on a cereal box, became impromptu song lyrics. "We ruled over that trash room for a good year," Russell said. "We had Friday night gigs there and cut our teeth."

Four decades later, Russell is still making art, using trash for material. Although he performs occasionally with a band, Russell is known primarily as a visual artist. An exhibition of his work, "Riddleville," opened October 7 at the Flynn's Amy E. Tarrant Gallery. It's Russell's first solo exhibition in Burlington in 10 years.

"Riddleville" is a pronounced departure from Russell's large metal abstract wall sculptures. Flynn executive director Jay Wahl called it a "theater piece that belongs in a performing arts center." Sure enough, the show, which is visible through the windows facing Main Street, attracted a steady stream of admirers on Saturday night, long after the gallery had closed.

"The toddlers are enthralled," Russell said in the gallery a few days before the opening. "The 5-year-olds live in this world. It's a confirmation of their wildest dreams."

The Mayor of Riddleville courtesy of Head Stretcher's Society (produced by Solidarity of Unbridled Labour) on Vimeo.

The installation consists of hundreds of "scenarios," as Russell calls them, that he assembled from found objects, childhood toys, family heirlooms, free stuff on the sidewalk, castoffs unearthed at ReSOURCE and items scooped from dumpsters. The vignettes are arranged upon hand-cut metal platforms; the scaffolding is mounted on painted panels, pilasters and "towers" with sculpted metal bases.

The thousands of minicomponents — a toy cop busting a cool skateboarder, a blue plastic firefighter chopping down a miniature tree, a tiny rocking chair from Russell's mother's charm bracelet — form a world whose parts are familiar but whose whole is inventive and original.

"A lot of art is so distant to people who are trying to relate to it," Russell said. "I'm trying to close that gap, if I can."

Russell has been working on "Riddleville" on and off since 1984. In fact, he said he resisted making it even as he collected material. "I consciously refused to make this art for years and years and years," he said.

"It took me a while to embrace it," Russell continued. "I'm a true believer in abstract art, but I kept material just in case." In contrast to his wall sculptures, Russell calls "Riddleville" "literally figurative."

An early viewer of the installation was Cornel West, a political activist and professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. West was in Burlington on October 1 to speak at the Flynn. He met Russell before his talk and saw "Riddleville" as the artist was installing it in the gallery. In the Q&A session after his speech, West mentioned the artwork and gave Russell a shout-out.

In a telephone call with Seven Days, West called Russell "my dear brother Clark."

"His work overwhelms me in its power and its spirit," West said. "It just comes at you in so many ways and on so many different levels. I had to say something [to the audience] because he's a towering artist, in my opinion."

Russell has lived and made art in a third-floor apartment next door to the Flynn since 1984. The earliest iteration of "Riddleville" dates back to that year, when Russell put a toy tank in the mouth of a plastic alligator and lassoed it to a door transom.

Clark Russell with the “Riddleville” installation - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Clark Russell with the “Riddleville” installation

His apartment has almost no furniture but is filled with his art and art-making tools. A piece called "Chimes" stands by the windows that overlook City Hall Park. It's composed of chains, slinkies and brass lampshades, hung upside down, that function as bells. The interactive sculpture invites a viewer to throw a little red ball into a round metal piece at the center of the artwork. If you hit the target, it's a win. If you miss, chimes play.

Working on "Riddleville" over the past couple of years, when Russell devoted substantial time to the piece, he sometimes wondered if elves made it. There are vignettes in the work he doesn't remember assembling. Yet at 1 or 2 a.m., it was Russell carrying toy figurines, cranes and plastic dinosaurs "like a fucking waiter," he said, down the hall from his metal studio to his glue shop.

"I live in my palette," he said. "Every waking minute."

One scenario in "Riddleville" might convey a theme for the whole, Russell suggested: a deflated globe smushed into a plastic cup with a straw sticking out.

"We're sucking the life out of the world for our own enjoyment," he said. "And it might come back to bite us."

Before "Riddleville" emerged in Burlington, hints of the work appeared in Russell's childhood. He's the eldest of Clark and Sarah Russell's three children. His mother was a dean at Washington University; his father was vice president of the soft drink company that makes 7UP.

Detail of “Riddleville” installation - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Detail of “Riddleville” installation

The Russells practiced a lenient form of parenting that their son described as "benign neglect." This suited Russell when he moved from making dioramas in the house at ages 5 and 6 — setups that lasted until his cat, Sugar, knocked them over — to taking his games outside.

Russell was about 12 when he started setting his toy soldiers on fire, conflagrations that added what he called an "eerily lifelike" dimension to miniature reenactments of World War II. He and his buddies used spray paint as a flamethrower, a method that produced surefire ignition, along with tinted flames and a backyard battlefield seared with hints of color. Russell built fireworks into his model tanks and exploded them, and he remembered watching "pencil-thin smoke signals" rise in the suburban St. Louis sky.

"I've always been something of a troublemaker," Russell said. "But a well-intentioned troublemaker."

After Saint Louis Country Day School, Russell left home for Colorado College. In his sophomore year, he transferred to UVM, where he graduated in 1983 with a degree in history. After a short stint in Berkeley, Calif., Russell returned to St. Louis and worked for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

"I knocked on 5,000 doors," he said. "I interrupted people at dinner to tell them what we're headed for." ("Riddleville" could be it.)

In 1984, Russell moved back to Burlington to perform with Mullins. "Playing music is my social side," he added. "It provides a counterpoint to my solitary art-making."

A party he hosted in the fall of 1986 nearly derailed his career. At 1 a.m., according to press reports at the time, a guest removed a bowling ball from one of his sculptures and used it to prop open a window. It fell onto the head of an 18-year-old first-year college student standing on the street below, fracturing her skull. Despite being in a coma for days, the young woman recovered and the next year sued Russell, his landlord and the errant partygoer for $1 million in damages.

"It was a very unfortunate incident, and I was cleared of any wrongdoing," Russell said, noting that the lawsuit was settled out of court in 1990 before the jury reached a verdict.

Clark Russell in his apartment/studio - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Clark Russell in his apartment/studio

After the accident, however, he became more guarded and less trusting of people, Russell said. He stopped showing his work for four years. "I didn't want to be in the public eye," Russell said.

"It forced me to focus on making the work and forgetting about presenting it," he continued. "In a way, it made me more appreciative of the creating and less concerned with the presenting. And it's part of why this exhibition is so important to me."

Russell has managed to live off his artwork for 35 years, selling his work locally — two pieces hang in Muddy Waters on Main Street — and beyond. His metal sculptures, which he said sell for thousands of dollars, support a simple lifestyle: He doesn't drink. He eats cereal and berries for breakfast, and rice, beans and kale for dinner.

"I may be the only person with a positive carbon footprint," Russell said. "I don't have a car. I live low. I'm saving this stuff from the landfill."

About two weeks ago, Russell began moving "Riddleville" from his apartment to the gallery at the Flynn. He disassembled the vignettes that populate the 31 towers in the piece and regrouped them two flights down. Each tower is named for a suburb of St. Louis; one is Ferguson, where in 2014 a police officer fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown. Russell refers to the killing in his Ferguson tower; West was arrested protesting there.

"The spirit of St. Louis and the spirit of Burlington are intertwined in a wonderful manner," West said of Russell's work. "That hit me hard, took me back, to marching and going to jail in Ferguson."

For Russell, it was the "thrill of a lifetime" to meet West, whom he called a longtime hero.

"I have more affinity with the socially conscious than the arts-minded," he said.

The original print version of this article was headlined "'Towering Artist'"

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