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Russell Yuristy And The Value Of Experimentation

April 2010

Even two decades in Ottawa hasn't taken the prairie boy out of Russell Yuristy. Photo by Mike Levin.

By Mike Levin

For someone who at age 35 played in backyard mud with Marxists and by 40 had three pieces of art in the National Gallery of Canada’s permanent collection, Russell Yuristy‘s lifelong experimentation with media is just part of the pedigree. He’s worked with pencil, paint, clay and metal, and in recent years has moved into woodcut printing. With most, he went as far as his idea of artistic balance would allow. “I’m always gambling. In art, everything is up for grabs.” But he never strayed far from the themes of his youth.

Canada’s Prairies have rarely been a place with the luxury, or perhaps indulgence, of intellectual deconstruction. Attitudes aren’t opinions; they are hard-wired realities that sweep out of Saskatchewan’s Big Sky with few trees to break their momentum. On the grasslands there’s one view of nature: it has huge scope, lots of warts and its inhabitants are disinclined to consume what they don’t need.

Being born during the Great Depression’s dust storms leaves more than grit on the soul; it leaves little patience for sulkers. “Art that whines is not honest. Someone telling you what to think is not good, so if you draw something powerful, people will get it,” Yuristy says. He feels the bravest artists are those who speak for others, like Francisco Goya who gave up a lucrative career painting Spanish royalty to document the atrocities of war and other dark idiosyncrasies of humanity. But the best artists are those who speak for themselves.

Yuristy has never been afraid to talk, and not all of it is politically correct. He believes women understand animals better than men, but that men can draw them better. And that if you don’t gamble with your art, you’re wasting your time. After seven decades of creating, he figures it’s not just his right to express his mind, “it’s my job.” That, too, has prairie roots.

In bed with a childhood hernia in Goodeve, Sask, confined and left alone to watch the birds

Great Grey Owl (woodcut and pastel). Photo courtesy of Cube Gallery

outside his window, Yuristy needed to speak. When he was given an empty ledger book by the manager of a grain elevator, the artist was born, tentatively.  “I was hurt when I did abstract drawings and my mother said she didn’t get it.”  He switched to realism, which wasn’t difficult because it was all around him. His father was a farmer and his grandfather was “about 100 years ahead of his time, not using chemicals, not clearing all his land and knowing which plants worked best.”  Later in life he’d truly grasp the implications.

Rural people look in, he says, to a thicket of trees to see a rabbit or to find the best solution for a problem. City dwellers look out, to clutter built up around them that never seems to offer suitable answers. Growing up in the country also taught him nature’s most important lesson, the one about death and rebirth. “A big problem is we’ve forgotten our animal nature, the thing that makes you understand what you need. If that means making mistakes, then you make them and go on from where you were. I guess I did learn that long ago.”

Two Oaks (woodcut on arches paper). Photo courtesy of Cube Gallery.

Yuristy would go to Wisconsin for a Masters of Fine Arts because Madison was still enough of the Great Plains to make him feel at home in a foreign land. The university also had one of the best arts reputations he knew of, and his time in America comes back in uncensored snippets. “If I had stayed in the States, my prices would be 10-times what they are here,” he says. But then the prairie boy returns, one that doesn’t like to blow his own horn. “I’m fortunate at this point because if I sell, it’s fun.”

He returned to teach art at the University of Regina in 1967, but only lasted until 1971 when the administration refused him tenure. He quit and moved into an old church in Silton, Sask, to lick his wounds. There was some experimentation, with art, with drugs and with an idea of honesty that could only come from staying up all night doing one line drawing after another. “I didn’t know what I was doing at the time. I was angry, trying to be open, looking for something new I guess,” he remembers. He’d find it back in Regina. Funk Art is abstract expressionism made from found objects. It was a Californian creation of the 1960s and slid north in 1970 when California funk ceramicist David Gilhooly taught at the University of Regina at the same time as Yuristy, who was drawn to Gilhooly’s, and Funk’s, lack of rules. He experimented with that “funky type of material,” but when he left the university, financial considerations came first.

Buffalo by Creative Playgrounds. Photo courtesy of Medical Services Incorporated.

In Silton, he started Creative Playgrounds, a project using federal funds instead of welfare to employ people on society’s fringes.  He hired draft dodgers, Marxists and a few others to build playground structures in muddy backyards from scrounged (found) materials: Funk Art for kids. The structures were well-received, one ending up on Canada Island at the 1974 World’s Fair in Spokane. But it turned out that Russell Yuristy didn’t play well with Marxists.

He joined the “Regina Clay” movement with friend Joe Fafard, and when a Canada Council for the Arts grant came through in 1972, individual projects became his focus. Yuristy’s relationship with ceramics lasted only five years before he returned to painting. For the next decade he reproduced the natural world that had engrossed him as a child. He didn’t look for deeper meaning at the time, but “I’m from a farm. This is part of life and you take it in and it becomes part of you. Every mistake gets you closer and closer to really understanding.”

Self Portrait (ceramic). Photo courtesy of Kelowna Art Gallery

In his 40s, he realized two things: that he had never really learned how to draw, and that it was time to leave Saskatchewan. He, wife Mayo (Graham, a Regina art curator) and daughters Anna and Zoe left for Ottawa in 1985. Within the confines of a city, his work took on bigger proportions and moved toward that power that Yuristy was learning to associate with honesty.

In 1993 Mayo was offered a job as chief curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and Russell relaxed into a “house-husband” period, experimenting with sculpture. “Like I said, everything in arts is up for grabs. It doesn’t matter (changing media); it’s all the same person, just another way of saying something.” One long-held statement bursting to come out was how much he had loved baseball growing up. The memories were still distinct; even the players names came back. The result was his two-dimensional aluminum Switch Hitter that sits in front of Ottawa’s Jetform Park baseball stadium.

The family was back in Ottawa in 1998, Mayo (now retired) taking up the job of curator of National Outreach and International Relations at the National Gallery of Canada, and Russell moving to prints. He still paints, especially stimulated by the natural world of backyards or along the Ottawa River near his home. Like the varied media in his career, settings change but the muse stays the same.

I first met Russell Yuristy in St. Vincent de Paul, a second-hand store on Wellington Street West. He was looking for beautiful things that, on the off chance, others had overlooked. Mostly he bought rags for his studio, and he bristled a bit at a store full of items used briefly and then discarded. It didn’t resonate with his idea of a life in balance.

“If I look at something of mine I haven’t seen for 20 or 30 years, I think a different person made that. I see the mistakes,” he says. “You know, some things don’t deserve to last.” There’s something of the prairie boy in those statements, about the natural world’s law of death and rebirth and about the importance of being honest.

Louise's Day Lillies (woodcut and pastel). Photo courtesy of Cube Gallery.

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