Friend wants Lumberyard show to reflect Baldwin City artist’s complexity
Walt Bailey was concluding a two-month labor of respect and love Monday as he started hanging the works of late friend and colleague Tom Russell for a show at the Lumberyard Arts Center.
The show of paintings, drawings and lithographs Russell produced during his more than 80-year artistic career will fill the art center’s gallery and overflow into its courtyard. It’s not the show Bailey envisioned when he and Russell agreed to a joint show at the arts center late last year.
“When it became clear Tom was in his final days, the decision was that it should be a solo show honoring Tom,” Bailey said. “I think that was very appropriate.”
Russell died in July at the age of 97 in his Baldwin City home.
Sandy Cardens, Lumberyard Arts Center board member, said the arts center’s board anticipated the show would be well-received in the community.
“It’s an honor to show work of this quality,” she said. “It’s a show we think the community will want to see and should see. It’s one of the larger shows we’ve had at the arts center and one with a number of large and impressive works.”
The show will open Friday with a “Celebration of Tom” reception from 6 to 8 p.m. at the arts center, 718 High St. The show will continue through Oct. 24. The Lumberyard is open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday.
With Russell’s death and the change in the show’s focus, the arts center turned the job of organizing the show over to Bailey. A year after Russell was hired in 1963 with the charge of rebuilding the neglected Baker art department, he hired Bailey as the second member of the department’s faculty, first as a part-time assistant and then, after one year, as a full-time instructor.
With that background, Bailey had a thorough knowledge of Russell’s art and where he might find works for the show. However, even as he started hanging paintings, Bailey didn’t know if there would be room at the Lumberyard for all the 27 works of art he collected. Some are as much as 70 inches wide, which takes up a lot of available wall space.
“A show like this really needs much more space and many more paintings,” Bailey said. “I sent letters to people I know who have Tom’s paintings, asking would they consider putting it in the show. I did warn everyone it was possible there might not be room for their piece in the show.”
Further limiting wall space is Bailey’s adherence to his late friend’s dictates of how paintings should be displayed.
“Tom was very concerned when paintings got too close,” he said. “He wanted adequate transitional space so people could move from one work to another without them blending together.”
Among the works in the show are two from Baker’s collection, a number from either Russell’s estate or his family members and others borrowed from private collectors, including those of former students such as Jesse Dominguez, a Baker graduate who completed his master’s at Yale University and is now on the faculty of Central Michigan University, Bailey said.
Although he didn’t know how many works he could display, Bailey did know the show would be arranged to reflect four periods of Russell’s life. The earliest period will be Russell’s student work from high school, his days at the Kansas City Art Institute — where he was a drawing student of Thomas Hart Benton — and his pre-war studies with the Art Students’ League in New York City. The next period will have works from his post-World War II post-graduate years and those he completed while teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute. The final two periods will be Russell’s Baker years of 1963 to 1982 and works dating from after he retired from teaching.
It’s not the first time Bailey has been involved with a show of Russell’s work. Russell insisted on annual faculty arts shows in the years the two men worked together.
“It served to keep us active,” Bailey said. “It was a great example to students that things don’t just happen, but that you have to work at it.”
The idea that committed artists are dedicated to producing work was central to Russell’s teaching and art, Bailey said.
“He was willing to help anyone serious about art,” he said. “He wanted to see students work, rather than just talk about art.”
The show reflects Russell’s commitment to the work, from a painting of two dogs he completed while at Parsons High School to a view from his studio window that he painted in his last years. As that painting suggests, his retirement from teaching did not end Russell’s commitment to producing art. Once he was rid of the requirements to teach, attend faculty meetings and other academic duties, he had to more time to work and explore, Bailey said. One result was painting excursions with his friend, retired Kansas University art professor Bob Sudlow.
“Particularly when he had more time, that became very important to Tom,” Bailey said. “I did an exhibition once where I hung paintings by Tom and Bob side by side. It was the same scene, but they produced radically different images.”
It was a lesson to students that artists bring their own vision to what the perceive, Bailey said.
His goal with the show, Bailey said, is to introduce viewers to Russell’s artistic complexity. People shouldn’t come to the show expecting to see 26 works like “Margret’s High Pasture,” which is well-known in Baldwin City through its print reproductions, he said. Among the works much different than those familiar prints are an oil study for a mural for a bank completed soon after World War II that suggests some Benton influence, an almost abstract landscape done at about the time he came to Baker and a drawing of seed pods he completed in his retirement.
“People form an opinion based on a small number of paintings they’ve seen,” Bailey said. “Artists can’t be defined through a small sampling of their work. That wasn't true of Picasso or Rembrandt or any true artists, and it wasn’t true of Tom.
“My goal is to get Tom’s vision reflected in the show. It was a vision that continued to grow and expand. Anyone actively involved in art continues to grow and expand. The same was true of Tom.”