This month, we welcome friend and collaborator Robert James Russell: writer, publisher, cartoonist, to-do-lister. There’s a lot we love about Robert, so we decided to get to know his arty side: who is the artist behind the writer?
We love so much of your work, with its vivid colours and sometimes comic elements. How would you describe your style?
That’s a good question. I guess I’m an illustrator or cartoonist – I grew up taking art classes upon art classes, practised constantly. I was convinced, up until late high school, that I was going to go to art school, be an animator at Disney. I don’t know exactly why that changed, but I started falling more in love with writing as I got older – something I’d done when I was younger, yes, but just grown fonder of it as a means of storytelling. So I gave up drawing.
But even now, all these years later, learning to lean back into art as a way to tell unique stories, to express myself in ways I can’t with my writing, I still consider myself a cartoonist: I draw the world in my own way (not photorealistic), often with bright or comic elements.
I like that interplay, these pop-y elements drawing your attention even when there’s something more harrowing or sad going on (like a watercolor of an abandoned baby bird, left to die, that I’m still haunted about not helping).
How did you first get into drawing/art? When did you realise you were good at it?
I have early early memories drawing on paper – Disney and Looney Tunes characters. My dad is an industrial designer, so I used to watch him work on his drawing board all the time, and I suppose some of that seeped into me, but also: I just always loved cartoons, loved the motion and energy, loved how these made-up fantasies could make you laugh and cry and feel real raw human emotion.
When I got older, I just kept up with it: Doodled on napkins and walls and any spare piece of paper I could find. In middle school, I started discovering other mediums and was especially fond of charcoal and pastels and watercolor. At one point, in late elementary school – inspired by Darkwing Duck – I created a character named Rat-Man and a rogue’s gallery of villains.
For fun, I’d make comic book pages and trading cards with stats on the back. Some friends of friends saw them and thought they were pretty great – that was the first time anyone other than my family and close friends had seen my work and it gave me a boost. In 6th grade, I started drawing and selling Rat-Man comic books at lunch for $.50 each.
That, I think, was the turning point, when I realized I could draw people’s attention toward my work, what I was doing. I’m reluctant to call myself ‘good’ – I’m only just brushing off the cobwebs and learning to get back to it, to let myself make mistakes and try new things and tell these new types of stories. I have a long way to go, but I love the journey.
You’re a writer as well, and an editor, publisher. How do you balance it all?
Simple answer is, I guess, that I’m good with time management? I’ve always had a brain that won’t stop working and generating ideas, and I always want to have a million fires going, so I learned from a young age to hold myself accountable: I can doodle and practice drawing while watching TV. I can finish reading a book and then draw for 30 minutes before bed, to make sure I get time for both.
And yeah, as I got older, it got harder, harder still now. But I like lists, and I like making sure I know, at all times, what’s a priority: If someone contracted me to do a piece, for example, that’s at the top of my to-do, and even if I’m desperate to get back to a piece of writing, it has to take priority.
And art... I dunno! I find the smallest moments to work on things, to get something on the page every day (same with writing, really). What’s the old adage: If you have time to lean, you have time to clean. I absolutely veg out and take time for myself where I’m doing nothing of value, but I really think about this a lot: no one else is going to create art or write for me. So I have to do it, have to find time to do it.
What have you found about the differences between being an artist and writer? Are there similarities, do you get more or less commissions, is it still waiting-in-progress game?
Well, art commissions are a whole new ballgame for me – I’d love to do more of them but I haven’t been proactively marketing myself. And I think that’s the biggest difference for me: I don’t have a Creative Writing MFA, but that hasn’t stopped me from feeling like I belong in the creative writing community.
But art... goodness. I still feel like an outsider, that because I didn’t go to art school, because I stopped taking classes in high school, because I left art behind for so many years, that I’m a fraud, that there’s no place for me. I know this will change with time – it’s only been this year that I’ve really started to lean back into art, publicly calling myself an illustrator.
So that’s the biggest difference, that I feel more confident when I’m writing, more able with a final product. But I think both communities are incredibly welcoming, and I’ve started to find this huge and fantastic world of artists on social media that inspire and sincerely make me feel like I’m a part of it.
It’s also been really interesting to learn that there is a huge market in the writing world for visual storytelling and art in general, a world I haven’t been plugged into. So finding homes for my work has been incredibly rewarding in a way I couldn’t have fathomed. There’s also a wonderful immediacy to visual art in the literary world: people might bookmark a long essay or story to read later (which makes sense), but can digest a one-page watercolor right away. And yeah, I’m finding some ‘success’ with my art, and I hope to do more with it, but I still feel like I have to pay my due right now – that the training wheels are still on.
You’ve had a few art projects in recently, firstly a commission from us for our YOU, ME issue, your own essay and illustration series, and designing the logo for Pidgeonholes. What else are you working on right now?
I’m working on a series of watercolor portraits of pop culture cowboys and landscapes for a nonfiction book I’m writing. I’m going to be illustrating a poetry collection with watercolor later this year. I have a few logo projects and have started the very early stages of plotting out a longer comic (refraining from calling it a graphic novel, but something in that vein).
Mostly, I’m still exploring art for myself, getting to know myself as an artist across new mediums, finding new ways to tell stories, to integrate my writing with art, all of it. I’m just really loving creating; I’m trying to hang onto that feeling as long as I can.
What would you most like to do with your art? Where do you see yourself as an artist in the future?
To be honest, I don’t know. I want to create, I want to continue exploring being a storyteller through writing+art, but also just through art. I suppose that’s the next step for me: to feel more comfortable calling myself an artist, to continue to push myself out of my comfort zone, to continue looking at the world in this new way, to see where I, as an artist, fit into it at all.
I’d love to continue finding venues for my art in the literary world, as I think visual storytelling is a new area that publications are just starting to explore.
Mostly, I guess, I want my art to still be a place of refuge for me in the future.