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A lifetime of art, education and philanthropy

Abstract artist, alum and former Concordia professor George Russell, who recently passed away, received belated recognition while supporting the Arthritis Society
June 21, 2016
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By Wayne Larsen

George Russell, MA (art ed.) 70, died at his home in Laval, Que., on May 8, 2016. He was 83. Shortly before his passing, Russell spoke to Concordia’s Advancement & Alumni Relations News about his career and support for the Arthritis Society.

Kaleidoscope A-Z, 2010-2014 Kaleidoscope A-Z, 2010-2014: Russell describes this as his “culminating work, and by far the most complex.” | Photo: George Russell

A simple strawberry started George Russell, MA (art ed.) 70, down a path not well-trodden in his hometown of Leroy, Sask.

“When I was in grade 3, we made our own report cards,” recalled the 83-year-old artist. “We made a picture on the cover and the teacher wrote the marks inside. I chose to draw a strawberry, and it turned out well. That was my beginning as an artist.”

As one of Quebec’s most venerated abstract artists and a major benefactor of the Arthritis Society, in the past year Russell received some long-overdue recognition for a life devoted to creativity, art education and support of a worthy cause.

The retired Chomedey Polyvalent High School art teacher donated his life’s work to raise funds for the Arthritis Society after receiving a visit from Elizabeth Kennell, the society’s director of development. The gesture — involving hundreds of paintings, some dating back to Russell’s youth — initially raised more than $10,000 and is ongoing.

“George sacrificed what could have been a career of perhaps tremendous affluence,” Montreal art dealer Alan Klinkhoff said at the opening of Russell’s There is Art in Arthritis! exhibition last April at Loyola Jesuit Hall and Conference Centre on Concordia’s Loyola Campus.

“It would have been an honour for me to have gotten together with him perhaps 40 years ago. We could have had some fun.”

A Prairie Childhood

Born in the family farmhouse near Viscount, Sask., during the Depression, Russell’s early years were anything but artistic. “There was no art at all in the family,” he said. “My idea of art was that it was something you put on the wall.”

Monument to Mystery, 1976 Monument to Mystery, 1976, is typical of Russell’s hard-edged, geometric style | Photo: George Russell

But encouraged by a boarder — an art teacher at the local school — Russell attended the Emma Lake Artists’ Workshop at age 16 and began working seriously on landscapes and portraits.

“Of course, I was aware of an abstract movement, but I really didn’t understand it at the time,” he said.

Russell’s eyes were opened years later. In 1969 he came to Sir George Williams University, one of Concordia’s two founding institutions, to study for a master’s degree in art education.

“My direction became clear,” he said. “I decided to do some hard-edge geometric art; there was so much of it going on here in Montreal and in New York, so I decided I should give it a try.”

Russell believes his signature style came about naturally, as geometry was always a favourite subject. “Art wasn’t offered at my school; I may not have taken it anyway. But we did have geometry,” he said.

“Walking to school, I often did geometric problems in my head; I had an affinity for geometry.”

Although Russell’s work inevitably invites comparison to contemporaries Guido Molinari and Claude Tousignant, as well as Montreal’s Les Plasticiens of the mid-1950s, he doesn’t espouse any artistic philosophy.

“At Concordia I started using geometry to explore colour using simple forms — which must be geometric,” he said. “I wasn’t following any movement; it was more a case of just doing geometry.”

Developing Concepts

Russell credited a well-known Montreal artist for inspiring the philosophy he would apply in the classroom.

“I took a painting class taught by Alfred Pinsky in my MA year,” Russell recalled of one of Sir George Williams’s founding art teachers.

“He started each class with a discussion about some concept. He let us do whatever we wanted and acted mainly as a critic. So I became interested in art concepts.”

Russell adds, “It’s about not assigning projects, but rather teaching concepts and allowing students to develop in their own way. For example, if you came into my high school art class you’d see students working in clay, some drawing, some painting and some doing collage. It’s about developing concepts.”

As Klinkhoff pointed out, Russell “dedicated his artistic career to teaching, to the benefit of decades of students, a very noble contribution, foregoing the potential for public recognition and great financial reward.”

Yet as Russell said proudly from his Laval, Que., home studio as he awaited the pickup of more paintings for the George Russell Gala Arthritis Society fundraiser on August18, 2016, “It’s been worth it!” 



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