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An assortment of sculptures by Charles Russell.
An assortment of sculptures by Charles Russell.
Courtesy of Charles Russell

100 Colorado Creatives 4.0: Charles Russell

Not at all your typical artist, Tesla-loving techie Charles Russell fell into his mad-scientist oeuvre while tinkering with electronics and found parts from thrift stores. The resulting sculptures, inspired by his background in history and technology, were and still are weirdly retro and interactive and intriguing to fellow tinkerers and curious audiences. Is Russell a newfangled brand of nerdy artist who’s deeply entrenched in twentieth-century design? You be the judge, after reading his answers to the 100CC questionnaire.

Charles Russell builds an imaginary circuit for a new work.
Charles Russell builds an imaginary circuit for a new work.
Courtesy of Charles Russell

#7: Charles Russell

Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse?

Charles Russell: I grew up going to art galleries and museums with my parents. My dad was a teacher and my mother an artist, and they wanted me to be exposed to culture, but for me as a small child, even amid the Picassos and Monets, most of those visits were torture, because for a kid it’s still just a picture on the wall. From the beginning, I set out to create art that was interactive and fun for everyone. I am highly influenced by the design aesthetic of the Art Deco/Art Nouveau movements, particularly the Streamline Moderne designs of the great industrial designer Raymond Loewy. Just as steampunk took the industrial designs of the late nineteenth century and took a fantasy artistic slant, I strive to take the designs of the ’30s and ’40s and add an early science-fiction twist. I spend a good deal of time searching for vintage items and using their inherent beauty to create machines that expand on that beauty to transform the viewer/user into another time with interaction and sensory immersion.

Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?

I think Nikola Tesla would be first on my list. In addition to his genius, he was a showman, and most of us have seen the famous images of him immersed in lightning. Would love to see what he thought of my work. I also would love to share my art with Neil deGrasse Tyson. I think he would have a good time with my machines, and this might be a cheat, but I would love to have some child in the autism spectrum who has trouble communicating but loves to push buttons. I have had some experience with special-needs kids and my art, and every time I see them open up and really experience my art it reminds me why I do this.

A young fan interacts with a Russell sculpture.
A young fan interacts with a Russell sculpture.
Courtesy of Charles Russell

What’s the best thing about the local creative community in your field — and the worst?

First of all, the artistic community in Denver is fantastic. Since I first started showing here four years ago, I have met some amazing people. The best thing about it here is that there is so much peer support. At every show, I meet so many amazing artists who just love to come to shows and support one another. As far as the worst…I wish there were more alternative art galleries here. It seems like every year as gentrification grows, we lose another gallery or creative space. My wish would be that we could have more galleries willing to take chances on non-traditional art, and that those galleries could find a way to draw new customers, from some of Denver’s new industries, like high tech with disposable incomes, who are willing to buy art that breaks the mold of typical Western art.

What's your day job?

I am a database administrator for AAA (the Automobile Club of Colorado).

Charles Russell, "Airborne."
Charles Russell, "Airborne."
Courtesy of Charles Russell

What's one art trend you want to see die this year?

I think it is difficult to wish “death” on any kind of art, but I think we are getting carried away with the “pot” murals. Denver is already a cliché with pot in general (not that I am against it), but I just think we are getting saturated with dispensaries covered in pot graffiti and THC puns.

What’s your best or favorite accomplishment as an artist?

Last year, a family from Ohio happened to stop at my Alto Gallery show. They had their teenage special-needs son with them. They were on a cross-country road trip, and they took me aside to thank me and told me that in their two weeks on the road, their son had been reserved and unhappy the whole time. That is, until he saw and interacted with my machines. He stayed there for over an hour, pushing buttons and playing. They said it was one of the first times he looked happy in their memory. That was powerful and made all the work and time I spend doing this worthwhile.

Russell with his work at Alto Gallery in 2017.
Russell with his work at Alto Gallery in 2017.
Courtesy of Charles Russell

You’ve come this far in life. What’s still on your bucket list?

I really want to be shown in a museum. I love galleries, but I dream of being shown at the MCA or some other space like that. I think it is the ultimate validation of an artist when a museum curator thinks your work is worthy.

Denver, love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?

I love Denver. I moved here in 2000 from Southern California, and I think it is an amazing place. The art scene has kept me here for eighteen years. I am torn. I am excited for some of the exciting things going on, like Meow Wolf and even independent events like Temple Tantrum, but I fear that as the city grows and the cost of living continues to skyrocket, it’s going to be more and more difficult for new artists to find venues. I am going see how things play out and hope we can keep our scene going and not lose our way.

Russell tests a tube of liquid neon.
Russell tests a tube of liquid neon.
Courtesy of Charles Russell

Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?

That's a tough one, as there are so many, but I would have to say Thadeaous Mighell. He does so much for the art community in general. He “discovered” me and helped me get out there the first time, and is just a powerful voice in a place where we need more powerful voices.

What's on your agenda in the coming year?

I have some things coming up. I have a few big machines coming down the pipe: a two-piece robot and communication station, as well as a couple of other really exciting new machines. I am looking at a couple of venues for solo shows in Denver and Colorado Springs, and I am trying to put together a pop-up gallery for sick kids with other 3-D artists at one of the local hospitals. It’s going to be a busy year!   

Russell in his studio.
Russell in his studio.
Courtesy of Charles Russell

Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?

I think Joshua Coates of the Gallery Below in Colorado Springs. Not only does he run the best alternative gallery in the Springs, with his partner Jonathan Bataille, but his own art is amazing. He combines recycled toys and items into sculptures that are both creepy and enduring at the same time. His work reminds me of the late Click Mort of The World’s Best Loved Art Treasures. He also does a tremendous amount of good for the LGBTQ community down there.

Charles Russell is one of several Denver artists creating installations for the Temple Tantrum Labor Day block party on Saturday and Sunday, September 1 and 2, from 1 to 10 p.m. daily at the Temple, 2400 Curtis Street. Find information and purchase tickets in advance at the Temple Tantrum website.

Learn more about Charles Russell and his work online.

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