For much of modern history, the general public was skeptical that an artist could have a successful career creating and making revenue from their own unique forms of self-expression. The idea of a starving artist was ingrained in the minds of the American people, which further sowed the seeds of doubt in the minds of many budding artists across the nation. It takes courage and passion to stare that doubt in the face and pursue a career in the arts, and that’s exactly what street artist and muralist Jolene Russell did, and has been doing for nearly a decade.
Russell began drawing at a really young age. She attended the Waldorf School of Mendocino County, a private school focused on allowing students to explore their own unique self-identities, which she says really helped solidify her artistic interest. In high school she was president of her campus art club, continuing her art education through college as a Fine Arts major at UC Santa Cruz. Her choice of study was more fueled by passion as opposed to a career choice. Part of the culture at the time was the belief that becoming an artist wasn’t a lucrative choice of work. It wasn’t until between 2010 and 2011 that she realized she really could make a career out of her artwork, so that’s exactly what she did.
Her first exposure to street art was during her time at San Rafael High School, where every summer the city hosts one of the largest street painting events in the country. She was just fourteen when she completed her first street painting: “It wasn’t very good but I enjoyed the process, I enjoyed being outside, and being with all the other artists, y’know, getting dirty and drawing on the ground”. Several years later, she attended the same festival and witnessed the ever-prevalent and talented Tracy Lee Stum bringing a 3D street art piece to life, something she described as amazing. What made her decide to fully pursue 3D street art was the challenge of the learning process as well as the intriguing combination of art and math that can have limitless creative opportunities that spectators can interact with: “It’s something I’ve kind of strived towards mastering, it’s definitely something that’s been different for me, it’s something that I had to learn, how to think about differently only because there’s a lot of math and perspective involved that I don’t traditionally know a lot about, so there’s been kind of a learning curve for me, but it’s been really enjoyable”.
While most artists are offered jobs by corporate clients well into their careers, Russell got her first big job at the beginning of hers. In 2011, she was working as a bartender at Pyramid Brewing Company in Berkeley and during one slow shift her manager offered to let her draw something on their chalkboard for drink specials. Having nothing else to do, she took her time with it and shocked her manager and coworkers with her detailed artwork, as they had no idea she had a background in art: “Being an artist was such a part of my identity at that point that I was kind of surprised that he was so surprised that I was an artist”. From there, she was introduced to the company’s higher-ups where they spoke to her about working on bigger chalkboards for the entire bar. She eventually ended up making three to four more for other locations and even was flown out to do work for their sister companies in Oregon, New York, and Florida. This experience is what solidified her belief that she truly could have a successful career as an artist, and this was only the beginning.
Like most artists, her process varies from project to project. She usually begins with the size of the space she’ll be given. For example, she recently finished designing a piece for the upcoming Marietta ChalktoberFest in Georgia and was given a block about 10 x 20 feet. Most of the time she takes a photo of a street and uploads it to her computer to figure out the dimensions and how it’ll look from someone’s perspective that’s standing directly in front of the piece. She’ll then fit her design within that shape, import it into Adobe Photoshop and stretch it so that it fits into the real-life 10’ x 20’ space using the perspective tool to envision what her design will look like on the ground. This results in a very distorted image where everything towards the bottom looks normal but everything else is all stretched out. Next, depending on how large the piece is she’ll use one of two methods: the grid method wherein she sketches out the piece, putting a grid over it and works on it one square at a time, or something called pouncing where she’ll print out the images on very large pieces of paper and uses a pounce tool (a small serrated wheel) to punch holes out along the lines that you want to see for the design. These punched papers are placed out on the pavement and chalk powder is dusted over them to make an impression of what will eventually be filled in with chalk pastels or tempera paint.
Russell’s main tools of the trade include the iPad Pro drawing app Procreate along with Photoshop and Illustrator interchangeably. Photoshop is mainly used to create the perspective distortion, something she picked up from other artists. While out in the field, if using the grid method, she’ll use a snapline, a tool often used in construction that lays down straight line, or if using the pouncing method, she’ll have the hole-punched papers and a bag of chalk dust to spread over the top. If a piece will be 3D, it’s ideal to use tempera paint, essentially liquid chalk that doesn’t smudge once dried, which is perfect for spectators to pose on. Sometimes she’ll use a combination of tempera paint and chalk pastel because the latter has a detailed blending look to it that’s a lot harder to achieve with tempera paint.
Her most complex project to date? A custom commissioned trompe l’oeil (French for “trick of the eye”) 3D mural at a residence in San Jose. The homeowner had a two-lane bowling alley in his basement and desired an illustration that made the space look like a larger bowling alley. Russell created an absolutely incredible piece that did just that and more, it included family and friends of the owner and even incorporated objects that were in the real world such as lighting fixtures, couches, and a bar!
Russell explained that for her, the most challenging aspect of creating her artwork is the initial design process: “Once I have the design, it’s kind of like I’ve got my work cut out for me, I’m taking everything that I already have and I’m just transferring it onto the ground or the wall or whatever I’m working on, but actually coming up with the concept and making sure that it works visually is the hardest part”. Through it all, she stays inspired by checking out the work of other artists. She follows artists that she knows and has worked with and ones she hasn’t met yet on social media to keep up with trends, ideas, and techniques in the art community.
When asked why she decided to share her art with the world, Russell explained that she does it partly because she loves it so much and it makes her happy and partly because it makes other people happy: “Especially doing things like street painting festivals where people can actually see the work being created and see the process, people just get so excited and they love learning about who I am and how I got started and how I make this happen, and it’s just really fun to be able to interact with people and answer their questions and see how excited they get”. She absolutely loves the feeling of seeing others interacting with her completed pieces, especially children: “I’ve seen kids at street painting events and they’re just amazed that this is something that they might be able to do. So that’s just really exciting to me to talk to them about if they like doing art and how it’s actually possible to make a living out of it”.
Russell says art means everything to her: “I’ve been doing it my whole life and I honestly cannot imagine not doing art”. It’s something that makes her happy and feel accomplished, whether she’s in a good or bad mood, it’s something that she can focus on and look forward to if she’s not doing very well. Her advice to anyone interested in getting started with the arts is to go for it, as cliché as it sounds: “The truth of it is, you’re never gonna know unless you try, and even if it doesn’t work out, then you know to practice more, what areas you have to work on, things like that. I get stuck myself trying new things, but as long as I go for it and work through it and try and try again then it usually works out”.
The truly driven and passionate are the ones who find success with whatever it is they’ve set their mind to. It all takes time and effort to gain and maintain the skills necessary to do whatever it is you wish to accomplish, so stick with it, don’t be afraid of failure, and never give up. As the late Steve Jobs once told the Stanford University graduating class of 2005, “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish”.
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