The Starving Artist Of Clever, Mo.

Jammie Russell has spent the past year as a quiet fixture on the First Friday Art Walk in downtown Springfield. But the people who pass by her table don’t know what pushes her brush across the canvas.

story by Sarah Elms / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published June 6, 2012

Once a month, she unloads a rickety card table, a small TV table, a single folding chair and two suitcases full of paintings out of her four-door sedan and sets up shop downtown. She drapes a maroon tablecloth over the two tables, creating the illusion of one continuous stage for her work. She haphazardly props her paintings up against the sandwich storefront, and, lastly, positions a plastic jug labeled “Starving Artist Fund” at the back of her modest display.

When people stop by, Jammie Russell talks with her hands.

She slips her hands out from her pockets when a friendly face stops to chat. “Tell me about your art,” the passerby says, and her hands flutter in a way that makes you think they’ve been waiting in the cotton confines of her sky-blue jeans, biding their time for this moment.

The left gestures from canvas to canvas, while the right grips an imaginary paintbrush, mimicking the strokes used to create each piece. As the man nods and continues on his way, the hands fall back into their respective pockets to rest until the next curious visitor comes along.

She doesn’t always talk with her hands. But when she’s discussing something she is passionate about, words just aren’t enough. There are three things that make those hands come alive: God, her family and art. And it’s no surprise that for Russell, those three things are all intertwined.

Russell, 35, a native of Cabool, Mo., who now resides in Clever, Mo., has been an artist for 15 years. She picked up oil painting as a sort of therapy after her father’s death in 1997, and she hasn’t put the brushes down since. She is especially drawn to landscapes, but over the years, still life and abstract paintings have crept their way into her repertoire.

And that’s exactly what you see on this overcast Friday evening. Russell’s small setup is right on the edge of the hustle and bustle of the First Friday Art Walk in downtown Springfield. She’s a couple blocks away from the live music on the square, down the street from the eclectic Good Girl Art Gallery, 325 E. Walnut St., and directly across from Transformation Gallery & Tattoo, 330 E. Walnut St. It’s a prime spot to catch foot traffic; everyone from 20-something hipsters to suburban families to avant-garde studio artists pass her stand as they follow the Art Walk-sanctioned route. Many linger to look and talk — some even return and make a purchase — but others pass by without so much as a nod.

Her display stands in stark contrast to the glossy, high-priced collections mounted in the windows of the downtown galleries, and she knows it. Russell’s art is not polished, by any means. It is somewhat juvenile, but that’s what makes it so compelling. The crude brush strokes and simple lines present honest images, devoid of the gaudy elements that so often plague high-end galleries. For Russell, as her art goes up, her guard comes down.

“Some people tell me it’s beautiful,” Russell says, “but then I have the other end that say, ‘Oh, my kids can do better than that.’” But art, Russell says, is whatever you want it to be. “There’s collectors that like my work and collectors that like their work. And there’s people who like both. So it doesn’t bother me.”

It never has.

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Russell's art, on display on Walnut Street in Springfield. Russell paints primarily oils on canvas.
Russell’s art, on display on Walnut Street in Springfield at First Friday Art Walk. Russell paints primarily oils on canvas.

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Over the course of 15 years as a painter, Russell has taken only three lessons. The first was on the basics of painting in the style of Bob Ross, and the next two were workshops on the style of Springfield-native and oil painter Dorothy Dent, taught by artist Jean Green. [1] Other than that, everything Russell knows is self-taught, much of it through trial and error.

For inspiration, Russell turns to God, her family and the great outdoors. The first images she put on the canvas were landscapes, reinventing scenes from her family’s Missouri farm in splashes of greens and blues and purples. She often digs into her memory while working in her home studio, letting her imagination guide the brush across the painting, but Russell also likes to paint en plein air. [2]

When Russell does set up outside – and when her finances allow her the gas money – she often ventures to the Delaware Fishing Axis on the James River. “I’ve been fishing since I was two,” Russell says. “And my family camped a lot. Fishing is my favorite thing to do, but I love to hike and whatnot as well.”

No matter what or where she is painting, however, Russell takes care to thank God for her gift. “It’s my ministry,” Russell says. “I try to put a cross in all of my paintings.”

Like her art, there is more to Russell than meets the eye. On the surface, she’s simple: an enthusiastic creative trying to make a living off of her work. But when you peel back the layers, you can finally put your finger on what it is that sets her apart. She possesses a quiet awareness of how her past and present continue to shape her future, and she can’t wait for what lies ahead.

“I want to be recognized for my art, to be in a gallery and to have a steady income from it,” Russell says. “I want it to make people happy. When they see my paintings, I want them to like my paintings just because they’re there.”

When Russell was only four years old, she fell ill with a high fever and suffered a seizure, triggering a rare condition known as Foreign Accent Syndrome. [3] She now has some trouble enunciating and occasionally stumbles over her words. In addition to her slight impairment of speech, Russell suffers from chronic back pain. “I’ve always had the back pain,” says Russell. “I really can’t remember a time without it.”

Twelve years ago, the discomfort grew to be so bad that she could no longer work a full-time job. As a result, her only means of income are through government-issued disability benefits and selling her art. “I don’t eat very much,” Russell concedes. “When I say I’m a starving artist, I mean I’m a starving artist.”

But just as she doesn’t let negative comments about her paintings affect her morale, she won’t let her physical or financial limitations stop her from doing what she loves. In fact, it’s the sacrifices and imperfections that give both her life and art so much character. “This is who I am,” Russell says. “What you see is what you get.”

Russell and her mother sold the family farm in Cabool in 2003 and moved together into Russell’s current Clever home. Her mother played a huge supporting role in Russell’s life and remained encouraging up until her death in 2007. “My mother said, ‘Let God open the doors, and everything will be okay,’” Russell says. “So, now God has opened the doors for me.”

After her mother died, Russell converted the home’s second bedroom into an art studio. Over the years, the four white walls have slowly filled with Russell’s own paintings, with more inventory spilling out from the closet. The yellow ocher carpet is scattered with tubes of paint, brushes, canvases and paint mats. A chair stands by in the background, ready in case the pain in Russell’s back becomes so intense that she can no longer stand.

Although the space is rather haphazard, the first thing you see when you walk through the door is Russell’s most prized possession: a $20 easel that she and her mother purchased together from The Salvation Army. Erected next to a window so Russell can gaze out at the trees and shrubs that surround her house as she works, the easel is the backbone of the studio.

“If I have the canvas, I paint.” Russell says. “Sometimes I paint everyday. Once I start, it’s a release.”

As soon as Russell saw the easel, she knew she had to have it. There was only one problem – it would be quite the struggle to fit it in her small sedan. But Russell was determined – every painter needs a proper easel – and after some seat readjustments and patient pushing and pulling, she got it in.

“My mother said that the woman who was working there asked her, ‘Do you think she’ll get it in her car?’ and my mother said, ‘She’ll leave me here and take it home. She wants that,’” Russell says, laughing.

That easel has not only played a pivotal part in her life as an artist, but it also serves as a reminder to Russell of her mom’s continuous support and the opportunities God has given her. Though she’s experienced her fair share of hardships in life, Russell always remains positive, an attitude that is reflected in her art.

“I like bright colors,” Russell says, grinning. “Luckily I haven’t gone through a dark phase yet.”

She clicks on the radio, props a pre-stretched canvas up on her easel and gets to work. Sometimes Russell will sketch out an image with a pencil, sometimes she outlines the scene with a thin brush dipped in brown paint. Often times, however, she just lets it flow.

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Jammie Russell holds up one of her paintings, a simple nature scene. Some of her art reflects real locations. This one is entirely of Russell's imagination.
Jammie Russell holds up one of her paintings, a simple nature scene. Some of her art reflects real locations. This one is entirely of Russell’s imagination.

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Even if she doesn’t sell anything, Russell’s night at the Art Walk is still worthwhile. She is surrounded by artists – a rock band is setting up on the square, Springfield Little Theatre’s cast of “Rent” is harmonizing away, and gallery after gallery has forgone exclusivity for the night and opened their doors wide. Russell sighs as she takes in the energy of it all. “I love the arts community,” she says. “It’s all downtown, and we have everything – musicians and painters and 3-D artists and writers.” The list goes on.

Events like the First Friday Art Walk and the Artfest not only connect artists with other creatives, they provide continued exposure for people like Russell as well. “We are a smaller community, but our art community is incredibly vibrant,” says Clarissa French, Communications Director for the First Friday Art Walk. “We have so many people with so many different disciplines and levels of expertise and training. It’s just an incredible, multilevel art scene.

“In the early days of the Art Walk, only a few dozen individuals would show up for the event. Now, thousands of people turn out for the festivities downtown. It’s the formal displays put on by our galleries,” French says, “but it’s also turned into a sort of happening.”

For Russell, it’s just another chance to connect with people and make an impression. And, if she heads home without selling even one painting [4], she hasn’t lost anything by putting herself out there.

Even on this dreary June evening, Russell is all smiles. Relaxed and approachable, she stands proudly next to her artwork, striking up conversation with anyone who looks her way. The rain drips off the Pickleman’s awnings and onto the front half of Russell’s display, beading up into translucent droplets in the skies of her vast landscapes. The threat of water damage doesn’t phase her; the oil paints, which take three to four days to dry, have been set for days. “All you have to do is wipe the water off,” she calmly explains.

A photographer, who introduces himself as Curtis, asks if he can snap a few shots of the drops as they bead up on Russell’s canvas. He is more interested in the accidental raindrops than the intentional paintings, but Russell just shrugs. She is accustomed to loading as many paintings back into her car as she brought out at the beginning of the day, but she doesn’t let that get under her skin. “I get a lot of lookers,” Russell says. “Always a lot of lookers.”

She’ll be back next month to give it another go.