Conversation with talented painter Alexis Wilson Russell on life, creativity and more…
In a set of sincronistic circumstances I was fortunate enough to visit Alexis Wilson Russell at her stunning home in Hawaii. Over a delicious dinner and an inspiring conversation I was very curious to learn what is the secret sauce of creative people, and how one finds a calling.
After a long and pleasant conversation, I’ve got much more than expected. I discovered an incredibly gifted artist, and an absolutely raw-honest and vulnerably beautiful human being.
And since creativity is the missing ingredient for many of us, I had a strong urge to share her beautiful story. Through her life experiences, she generously sheds the light on what it takes to create, follow your intuition and be true to your calling.
Who is Alexis Wilson Russell?
Alexis was born in Georgia March 22, 1949. She lived there until her middle and high school years when she moved to Boston. Alexis Evans couldn’t wait to travel and experience the world. And in 1967, only eighteen years old, she arrived in Hawaii to begin her adventures. It was at this time that she first picked up a paintbrush, but in her words…“I only made mud” and thus she assumed she was not gifted as an artist. Meanwhile her innate creativity went into playing the flute and guitar and some sketching.
While traveling for a year by herself through the exotic South Pacific, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, Alexis contracted hepatitis and found herself bedridden with serious medical problems. For the first time in her life, she experienced a forced rest. She no longer felt invincible and in total control of her health and well-being. Humbled and vulnerable she returned to Hawaii where she experienced a profound spiritual awakening…her heart was seized by the power of a great affection through the love of Christ. Following this new found faith she met and married Rod Wilson.
Together they worked as volunteers in full time missions for 35 years. In 1978 along with their then 2 year old son, Lael, they followed a call to Kenya East Africa and realized a dream that had been in Alexis’ heart since the age of eight. Alexis fell in love with Africa…the place and especially its people.
Alexis and her husband had helped establish training schools, a preschool, a medical clinic, a small agricultural farm project and EARS …East African Relief Services which helped feed the hungry there during the 80’s famine. After seven and a half years the Kenyans themselves were leading all the projects. The Wilsons had pretty much worked themselves out of a job and got out of the way so that others could to take the lead.
In 1985 having completed seven years of satisfying work, Hawaii called her family back. Their daughter Psalm who was born in Kenya was then six years old. Only five days after being back Alexis underwent major surgery that required almost a full year of rest. It was during this period of recovery which Alexis refers to as her second forced rest that she found her calling…vocation as an artist.
Not having enough energy to move across a room Alexis was forced to be still! Having always been a “doer”, she began to question her identity and asked “What am I suppose to be doing?” She heard…’PAINT’. Her husband went out and bought three tubes of watercolors, brushes, paper and a book from the library. And thus began Alexis’ living out her calling.
And what years before had appeared as mud, now burst forth in vibrant colors! It was life giving. Not only did Alexis pursue her own painting with enthusiasm, she went on to help found the Fine Arts Department at The University of the Nations in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. She took art students into China in 1988, 1989, 1992, and other various places on field assignments. In 2008 she led a team of mostly Native Americans into the Northern Tibetan regions of China. Hearing and responding to her vocation opened up many nations to Alexis…and in turn to others who accompanied her.
How did you discover your gift for painting?
I discovered it from my second forced rest and a time of being still. It was a “beauty out of ashes’ experience. It came from my husband’s encouragement and the recognition of this gift others saw in me. So what seemed to be the worst experience of my life at the time became “beauty out of ashes”.
It also took me a bit of time to accept that the enjoyment I had in creating something beautiful had value and was a legitimate way to serve others. I had to learn to value this gift and not feel guilty about spending hours a day studying, researching and creating art that most people will never see.
When did you decide you wanted to become a painter?
I do not think I decided to become a painter… there was very little I could do but paint and that was life giving. At age 37 it became a way of life.
At the beginning of the year I had a traditional practice of asking my creator if there were any area in my life I needed to let go of including being an artist. Many years ago I heard within…”You do not need to ask me this, it is who you are.” Most likely I was asking this question out of self-doubt which is the number one enemy of any artist.
Why do you do what you do?
I think of it as a love relationship with inspiration that comes from without and within myself that I respond to. I have a longing deep within to create something of beauty; something that would heighten others’ and my perception of truth, of what is lovely, and good. It is something to share. I do not always get these pieces out with great success and the failures are my biggest teachers.
How do you work?
On my feet! Every since I started being an artist I have set up a studio space wherever I was and with what ever space I had. Sometimes it was a desk in our small loft apartment…sometimes it was a suitcase or a space on a lanai (porch) or in our bedroom. I now have a garage as my studio space.
I have longed for a studio with great light, a utility sink, storage space and a spacious work area with an inspiring view, but the lack of perfect conditions cannot limit the creative process for an artist. I usually work alone except once a week I am part of a small art group of three friends who meet to create, critique and encourage one other. Often I have several pieces in different mediums going at once.
Forced rest or learning to be STILL! Tell me more…
Having already mentioned two forced periods of rest …well there was a third, and a fourth. I will skip the third and go on to the fourth!
After 14 years in Hawaii painting the colorful people and places of the tropics, my husband and I were on the move again. It was while living in New Zealand and embracing the Maori culture that my art began to take on more of an indigenous theme.
In 2003 anxious to celebrate our shared Cherokee heritage, my husband Rod White Eagle Wilson and I moved to South Dakota to live and work amongst the Native Nations of North America.
There I sought to honour in my art the Native American culture’s richness of celebrating traditions as well as their simple joy in everyday life.
In 2009 my husband suffered a brainstem hemorrhage (a type of stroke). After an emotional difficult six months in intensive care, my husband passed away. Life forces us to change, and I knew I could not live alone in the winter in South Dakota. I closed the Red Feather Art Gallery we’d established, packed up our home and said good-bye to a culture I loved and had sought to honor in my life and my art. Physically and emotionally exhausted, I returned to Hawaii where I experienced my fourth forced rest.
I was counseled to take a year’s rest having just experienced two of the most stressful events in life…loss of a life partner of 35 years and a major move. It was like I needed permission to rest, and at first I felt I was being punished. What was wrong with me and how long is this going to take to get better? Grief can take you unawares.
The next years were about being still, contemplating, letting go of the old and waiting for the new. It turned out to be one of the most critical, necessary…and best years of my life. Letting go was not so much about giving up external things…but more about letting go of things I was holding onto inside of me.
Surrender became a sweet word. To rest, I had to let go of commitments to teach in Korea and several other art schools and even to family! I had no energy. Saying “no” was humbling and risky. There was also the letting go of our gallery and the work we had been involved in with the Native Americans culture. In so many ways I had become Native, my art was all reflective of Native cultures. A part of me had died. For over 10 years my identity had been with Native Americans, 35 years of marriage and being one with my husband!
Everything had changed. Now who was I? An Artist…that had not changed! Slowly my mind, body, soul and spirit were being restored. My life became less driven and more content and still within…I could say I was twice re-born.
What is the most challenging piece of work you have completed?
What would you do if you could not be a painter?
Be more focused on our families.
Serve marginalized people.
Garden, play music, learn the Hawaiian language.
What’s integral to the work of an artist?
I would say what is integral, essential to my work as an artist would be:
To have the awareness of Presence within and without.
To be aware that my space and time spent in art is sacred.
To prioritize time to create.
To take risks.
To be rested and know when to stop and rest.
To integrate with other artists.
What role does the artist have in society?
To be a visual voice of truth and beauty!
What has been a SEMINAL experience?
(SEMINAL — influential, formative, groundbreaking, pioneering, original, innovative; major, important).
I remember the light bulb that went on at a particular moment. I was influenced by a wonderful elder, mentor, teacher, Renaissance woman, Elizabeth Douglas. Her lectures and applications in Art History showed me how the arts influenced every aspect of culture.
For me the creative process is getting a vision from something I have seen, read or experienced and then seeking to birth it into an artistic expression. Example in my work are Abundant Rest, For the Joy Set Before Him, and Thirty Pieces of Silver.
Pioneering an art school, encouraging students in their gifting , seeing them blossom in their gifting and how they have gone out to touch others was immensely rewarding. I learned so much from them.
Another powerful experience in my life was taking art into women’s prison in Antigua and giving hope to some women on “Death Row” through the creative process.
How do you nourish your creative spark?
I am nourished by getting out in nature… being in the ocean, swimming and singing as loud as I want on my standup paddle board and biking in the mountains, being awed by the light, color and form. Lectio Divina also nourishes my creativity… studying other artists… working with artists and being in the studio daily.
What is your favourite artwork?
Too hard to choose one piece or even one artist. I love Rembrandts’ work, Turner, Carvaggio, VanGogh, Helen Motherwell and Kathe Kollowitz, Darrell Hill, Mark Fujimura, Ed Knippers, and many others.
Have you had any role models in your artistic career?
Yes, Elizabeth Douglas, art historian, artist, and musician.
Guna Zander… an artist and instructor who knew how to draw artistic gifts out of people.
Darrel & Pat Hill … Darrell who has passed was my favorite impressionist artist in the islands. He could allure me with one brush stroke and the use of wonderful color.
Many friends as well have been role models.
We are all basically imitators…we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. So there have been many role models and inspirations in my life.
What has been your greatest reward as an artist?
Being able to give art to people who really appreciate it. Seeing something I’ve worked on sing and be able to say…“Wow and thank you God.”
If you could change something in your life, what would it be?
Having less activity that takes me away from the creative space, yet at the same time learning that serving others is a creative space as well. Knowing that we have just enough time in each day to do the truly important things.
If you could give a new artist advice, what would it be?
Be true to your calling and give it value!
How can people get in touch with you and learn more about your work?
Where can we see more of your work?
In her own words, she is no longer seeking to impress the market place or make a living as an artist, but rather to live as an artist. Sounds like a fun challenge and quite an adventure. As an established, award winning artist with her art displayed in private collections in many nations of the world, it will be interesting to see in what new directions Alexis’ art is headed.
Meanwhile, I hope her story will inspire many of us, especially the non-artist type, to look into our own ‘mud’ and turn it into something beautiful and life giving.