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By Mark Ellwood | June 29, 2015 | People
Within the city’s burgeoning arts scene, which we celebrate in this issue, collage artist J.K. Russ creates a suggestive—and otherworldly—Vegas landscape.
Late last year at the Cosmopolitan’s P3 Studio—an open space where passersby can observe acclaimed artists at work and even participate in the creation of their projects—a boy and his sister worked quietly for two hours while artist-in-residence J.K. Russ chatted with their mother. When it was time for the family to leave, as a gesture of thanks, the woman pressed into the artist’s hands a sketch her daughter had produced. “She didn’t speak a lot of English,” says Russ, “but she asked me, in the role of a practicing artist, what advice would I give her daughter: How could she develop the drawing? And I told her, ‘Think a little bigger.’ Because people have suggested that to me before.”
It’s advice that Russ has taken to heart. For her residency—sponsored by the Cosmopolitan in partnership with the New York–based Art Production Fund—the artist produced collaborative versions of her signature collages, each one exuding her trademark trippy sensuality, under the umbrella title “House of Paper Birds.” Visitors could contribute their own cutouts to the expansive walls, adding f lourishes to surreal landscapes. Like a fusion of Salvador Dalí and Georgia O’Keeffe, feminine figures overlap with images of birds and desert plants—beast-women roosting in a wild, arid landscape. Visitors to the show were then invited to add elements of rock or sky using images that Russ had ripped from old National Geographic magazines.
Such unsettling yet beautiful work has earned Russ attention well beyond Las Vegas: In the next year, she will have shows at galleries in Houston and her native New Zealand, as well as an exhibit at Sin City Gallery on East Charleston Boulevard.
Russ’s residency concluded in early January and she returned to her regular studio: a spare bedroom in her apartment, located in a low-slung Downtown complex. Piles of magazines are stacked against the wall, while a jaunty blue boa (reflecting the artist’s passion for burlesque) is draped over a portrait of a long-tongued woman. Russ lives and works here with her husband, artist Matthew Couper, whose workspace is an apartment he commandeered across the stairwell, where he produces large-scale paintings. Dressed in paint-spattered cargo shorts, Couper explains that theirs is a typical setup for artists in Las Vegas: “Artists’ loft spaces are so expensive to air-condition in the summer.”
Despite the bawdiness of her work—imagine a Playboy spread shot by Hieronymus Bosch—Russ has a distinctly Kiwi modesty. She wears a shiny black PVC cap that would look fitting on one of Austin Powers’s bombshells, yet she peers out from under its brim with endearing shyness. She credits her father, an executive in the tobacco industry, with sparking her interest in art. “He was always drawing and painting,” she says, “and he always took us kids out on Sunday drives to sit and sketch.”
Russ (whose given name is Joanne) worked for a time in London designing book jackets, back when it was still done on paper, and says that experience with layouts piqued her interest in collage. After returning to New Zealand, she decided to enroll in art school, although by now she was somewhat older than her classmates. “I remember the first day there, the others thought I was one of the tutors,” she says with a laugh. She graduated in 2001 and was soon combining her fondness for poring over the bric-a-brac in thrift stores— “I love finding things other people have discarded, like old prints from the 1960s that people used to have above the mantelpiece”—with her creative process, producing the color-saturated collages for which she has earned such renown.
After meeting and marrying, Russ and Couper spent several years working in their home country, but Couper had a yen to experience life in the United States. He applied for a green card through the federal lottery system and unexpectedly won. Within six months, the pair had decamped to America, settling down in Las Vegas in 2010—a jolting contrast to their somewhat quiet life on New Zealand’s rural South Island.
Five years later, Russ admits that the city isn’t a typical destination for creative types, nor did she feel instantly at home. “We made a concerted effort to check out what’s happening here,” she says, “but it takes a while to get a feel for the place, as it’s quite transient. People come for a short time and leave, so the locals sit back a bit and wait to see if you’re one of them. But after a year, that felt like a marker.”
Las Vegas has proved to be a fertile source of inspiration for the artist. With her rockabilly-inf lected style sense, Russ was drawn to the local alternativemusic scene, but nothing captured her attention more than the burlesque underground. She remains transfixed by it, hunting down the shows every week, often driving to nondescript strip malls in quiet parts of the city for unadvertised performances. Russ sees burlesque as staunchly feminist, offering a safe environment that encourages women’s creative expression and fosters female empowerment. “I love the showgirls [on the Strip],” she says, “but there are a lot more limitations on who can be a showgirl—you’ve got to be six foot tall. But in burlesque you can be all sizes and shapes, and it’s a lot freer than the constrained shows.” (Despite her enthusiasm, the gamine, soft-spoken Russ says she’s never been tempted to give burlesque a try herself.)
Also among Russ’s favorite haunts around the city and in nearby towns like Barstow are secondhand bookstores, which she trawls for anything visually arresting. She’s especially keen on 1960s and ’70s pornography, whose Hipstamatic-style color balance and acres of flesh are well-suited to her aesthetic. “I just love the depictions of female sensuality,” she says. “What is seductive—and how?” In preparation for a new piece, Russ will often rip through a pile of recent purchases, blade in hand. “I have envelopes with legs, arms, lips, flowers. Once they’re cut out, they get put in a little categorizing system.” At the moment she’s bubbling with excitement, ready to tear into a particularly noteworthy find from a couple of days earlier: a copy of Vogue Italia from 1984, full of models who are big-haired, firmfleshed, and oozing greed-is-good glamour. Russ shrugs off concerns over shredding these period periodicals: “If it’s in a thrift store, it’s fair game.”
Only once has she ever unearthed a magazine she considered too precious to repurpose in her work. She found it years ago in a bookstore in Wellington, New Zealand’s artsiest city. “It’s a little pornography magazine— very early, probably 1960s, and it’s tiny but in color,” Russ says, nearly swooning. “The models are multiracial, and you can tell for the time it was quite out there. It actually feels really quite unique, because you hardly ever see these around.” She pauses. “I don’t think I could ever cut that one up.”
Photography by Jeff Gale. HAIR AND MAKEUP BY ANDI MILLER