Russell’s art is full of heart | photos and video

Meaning behind work: This painting of Russell's is about culture, the land and spiritual significance. Photos: Scott Calvin.
Meaning behind work: This painting of Russell's is about culture, the land and spiritual significance. Photos: Scott Calvin.

Studio Spaces is a collaboration between the Manning River Times and the Manning Regional Art Gallery featuring artists from the MidCoast region. The project culminated with in an exhibition at Manning Regional Art Gallery in 2018. Go inside the studio spaces of Mid North Coast artists.

Russell Saunders OAM sits at a table nestled among the open plan living and kitchen area of his family home in Tinonee.

Paintbrush in hand, the Biripi elder works quickly on the canvas in front of him.

“You can see I’m doing a brown, I’m very comfortable with browns, different shades.

“What I did is I prepared the background first. I’ve used a few bits of brown and white and sort of done a few wavy lines over the canvas.”

Painting the background is the process that starts all of his work. Russell explained that it is the background that inspires what comes next.

“When I looked at it I thought to myself, what could I put on that and then yesterday I sat here and thought I could put a man here, an Aboriginal man and a boy.

“I thought the lines looked like the river, and its vegetation here and there and a bit of land and I thought, it looked like I could do that he was telling a story,” said Russell.

“So he’s got his boy with him and he’s saying, ‘Look my boy, this is our country, this is our land, this is the animals, this is our water, our rivers, we get tucker from our rivers, all the different other animals, the goanna, brolgas. Then he said the plants, the grass tree, gum trees and the other trees where you can get bush tucker from, they all have a meaning and they all have a purpose’.

“So he’s telling the story to his boy and saying look after the land, treasure the land, respect the land.

“I’ve got a saying that was passed on to me that says ‘Stand tall, my boy, look ‘em in the eye, and walk softly’. 

“Because if you stand tall you stand tall and proud. If you look people in the eye when they talk to you, you’re strong boy, be strong, because if you bow your eyes and look down at that person you bring yourself down, so look them in the eye. Then ‘walk softly my boy’ is you walk softly over this land, you walk over the footsteps of your ancestors, your people, and this country, mother earth. That’s what this story is about.”

Not far from where Russell sits in the family home (which also doubles as the Deep Water Shark Aboriginal Art Gallery) is another table set up. This is where his daughter and fellow artist Raechel Saunders works from.

While he said they tried not to set up inside the house near the kitchen and living space, it is just how their life is. “You know, art.”

In progress: Russell Saunders always creates the backgrounds of his work first, before adding in other details.

In progress: Russell Saunders always creates the backgrounds of his work first, before adding in other details.

There are plans to clean out the back shed and convert that into a dedicated studio space (“It’s our dream eventually”), but for now, what they have works.

The set-up allows the family to be around each other while they work and the tables are portable, which means they can move them to sit near a window or on the deck.

It can get messy and every surface is covered in paint.

“My wife said, sometimes I just want my house back. You know, she sees us here and she’ll see a mess there. We’ve been doing it a long time in the house.”

The front room, which was formerly the lounge room, is now a storage area and where some artworks are displayed.

Two years ago they were able to extend the home, giving them more space to live and work.

“Twenty five years of going out the back praying, Lord give me some money to extend and it finally happened,” said Russell.

“We just had this renovation and now the next thing is to work down back this way and clear the shed right out, get our kilns going again and start working and fixing and make that place really nice and comfortable. 

“People have asked many times, do you do classes? And we say eventually one day we might, we could do it but we aren’t ready.”

Russell said he and Raechel had found that art has opened their minds to Aboriginal culture and its history.

“You’re seeing things through an eye of an artist. Like animals and reptiles – me growing up if I saw a snake the only good snake was a dead snake. If I saw one I’d come back with a big stick or rock and kill it. 

“Now today I look at it and I’ll stop and look at it with my eyes and I’ll take it all in and it inspires me to come up with a painting and I’ll put it on canvas now and paint the animals and reptiles.”

“Through that, I don’t sit down and work from a picture of a proper snake. I just freehand now and do it through memories and what it looked like.

“I don’t draw, I just grab a brush and paint the animals, the trees. You know, some people will sit there with a pencil and draw it out first and then paint it... myself, I just get there and just start with the shape and I paint it. 

“The same with kangaroos. I suppose I’ve looked at kangaroos all over the years and watched their movements, and I’m able to capture that now, to the brolgas there. They are always in pairs brolgas, male and female. And when you’re doing art too, Aboriginal art, that’s what you’re looking at, male and female, ongoing life, fertility.”

Russell said he works quickly and won’t be satisfied until he finished the painting he was working on that day. “I move on quick and I’ll do something else. 

Sculpture: Russell's first clay sculpture of a man's head, and a wood carving of a numbat on a log.

Sculpture: Russell's first clay sculpture of a man's head, and a wood carving of a numbat on a log.

“Same as when I’m working with clay. I’ll think of an animal or a bird, reptile, and in my mind I can just sit here and sculpt away. 

“Don’t ask me to do it tomorrow because I’m past that. My wife many a time has said to me, ‘Oh that was good Russell, do another one’. And she’ll walk away and leave me and she’ll come back and be like ‘That’s not a goanna on a log, that’s something different’, because that’s not what I had in me that day.

“I just flow with what’s in me, what I feel like doing. I won’t go too much into realism, just capture what I want and feel I’m happy with and then I’ll stop. I can jump from paints to clay work, even now wood sculpting.

“I’m starting to get a few of my wood sculptures around town. That’s a new thing I love doing.

“If I see things that encourage me and inspire me, I want to have a go at it. I suppose I get that from watching my grandfather.”

Russell said his grandfather was the man who inspired him the most in life and art during his childhood.

He cherishes memories of watching him make boomerangs, spears, and all the artifacts they would use to go hunting.

His grandfather would sharpen his axe one day before going into the bush to chop some wood of all different shapes the next.

Family: Russell Saunders and his daughter Raechel work together in their shared studio space.

Family: Russell Saunders and his daughter Raechel work together in their shared studio space.

“He’d drop it on the ground, leave it and go inside. I knew the next day he’d come back out again and start chopping at that wood with his tomahawk.

“I’m sitting there watching him, you didn’t ask too many questions… it looked like it was going to be a boomerang shape by the bend in the branch.”

The process would take a long time so young Russell would stay watching for as long as he could before doing something else, but always returned to check on the progress.

“Then he’d put it over the fire to harden and dry out and use a file and smooth it up and that’d be it for the day and he’d leave it again. 

“He’d put it up on his verandah and no one was allowed to touch it. The next day he’d have that fire going again and he’d have pieces of fencing wire that he used to use on a stick, poke it in the fire and they’d get really red hot, the wire, then he’d pull it out of the fire and he’d start burning designs on the boomerangs and shields and spears.”

His grandfather took the finished work to Russell’s Aunty Ella Simon who had an Aboriginal art shop, called the Gillawarra Arts and Crafts Shop, in Purfleet.

I kind of feel myself on that same journey as my grandfather now.

Russell Saunders OAM

She would take the artworks and, as Russell found out later, people were waiting for him to finish them so they could buy them.

“She had a book and numbers and addresses and she’d just give grandfather the money straight away and pay him for what he’d done and she’d re-sell it to these people.”

His grandfather would take his money and a sugar bag and walk into town to buy vegetables, bread, flour, sugar and other food to fill his cupboard. 

Russell’s grandfather was also a pastor and spiritual leader in the community and people would come at all hours of the night with different needs.

“The first thing he’d offer them was a cup of tea, and cut a slice of bread and put some golden syrup on it and then they’d talk to him and he’d counsel them and pray for them. 

“He’d use that gift of his art to help his community. And that’s what I admired so much about him. 

“By watching him I took a lot in and I used to say, when I get old enough I’m going to do that. That’s why I love doing the art today.

“I kind of feel myself on that same journey as my grandfather now. I’m a pastor myself, I’ve been pastoring at Purfleet Community Church for the past 18 years now.”

Outside: One of many of Russell's sculptures that are in the front yard leading to the house.

Outside: One of many of Russell's sculptures that are in the front yard leading to the house.

He credits his third grade teacher at Taree Primary for starting him off in art, after she entered his work in an exhibition. He won, receiving a prize of $250 that he gave to his mother who bought him some clothes and some food. “That started me off thinking, art’s good.”

Some of his work is on display in his home, including one of his earliest paintings, clay sculptures including his very first one of a man’s head, and a carving in honour of his parents, made from a rock a friend from Coober Pedy gave him.

“I started to think of mum and dad’s, the word we call it, it’s not totem, it’s Buckwee, that’s your family name. Your family tree is your Buckwee. I always knew mum’s was the possum (Watoo), and Dad’s is the owl (Doridori).”

Russell said is he has clay he thinks of animals and reptiles.

“It just happens. I can sit and make them in clay.”

When it comes to how he molds the shapes, Russell often uses things he finds in nature – or around the house.

“I find all different things to use.

“Like the perfect skin on the goanna, you can feel the roughness it is just like skin. I used a nut from a needle pine oak.

“You get the nut off that and you just roll it over the skin and you make the shape of it and it just makes the perfect skin texture.

“So I’ve sort of found simple things. A bobby pin I used when I first started lines into the old wood logs. I just looked around and looked at things.”