Welcome to The Dean’s List! The Dean’s List will profile up-and-comers in Memphis who are certain to be the next group of leaders in the nonprofit, corporate, government, and faith communities. The Dean’s List is curated by Kevin Dean, the Executive Director of Literacy Mid-South.
You may have seen Maggie Russell’s artwork around town. Her images, typically portraits, are haunting, beautiful, and often fanciful. There’s the little girl with antlers. There’s a woman with peacock feathers in her hair. Another painting features a little girl balancing a bird’s nest on her head. There is no mistaking her visual aesthetic, which often seems to be a quirky, dreamy companion to Norman Rockwell. Her inspired pieces are so recognizable that you can spot a Maggie Russell painting from across the room.
“I like to draw,” Maggie says. “As a kid, it helped me cope. As a teenager, it gave me a voice. As an adult, drawing saved my life. The portraits I make serve as a conduit for emotions and thoughts that I would otherwise keep hidden away. I want my work to validate the quirks and flaws that we all share as if to say ‘Me too.'”
Maggie is a full time artist/illustrator based out of Memphis, TN. She holds a BA from Hendrix College (2008) and an MFA (2011) from The Memphis College of Art. We chose Maggie because we believe in her potential to become a Memphis great in the art world. We already know she is a commodity, but the rest of the world needs to know, too!
If you were to paint a picture of Memphis, describe what that piece of art would include.
While there are lots of wonderful landmarks that set us apart and very much serve as identifiers of the city, I think the true essence of Memphis is represented by the people who have made and are making this city what it is.
Everyone from the soft spoken lady who rings up my food at Kwik Chek, to the man in headphones that boogies at the bus stop on the corner of Cooper and Union Ave, to my kind-hearted Cooper-Young neighbor who reliably cuts my grass every week, to Kat of Muddy’s Bakery, who has baked her way into all of our hearts, to Tony Allen and, of course, The King should be in this painting and it would stretch from one side of the Mississippi to the other. That would be awesome, somebody pay me to do that please.
Absolutely and once again, I’m thinking less about how the actual place inspires me and more about the people in this place inspire me. I feel really lucky to know a lot of creative spirits that have shared heaps of wisdom with me. My connections with these people keep me motivated and serve as reminders of how important it is to continue to show up and do the work required to stay afloat in this business.
From a visual standpoint, Memphis can be loud, colorful and mismatched and I find that my work is kind of an echo of that.
What’s the arts community like in Memphis, and how is it different from other places?
I like that Memphis is a pretty decent sized city but it still feels a little like a small town. We’re big enough that the arts audience is pretty diverse, some people want landscapes and tradition but then there are heaps of people who are looking for something different. And this city isn’t so big that an artist gets lost in a stack of a million other painters, potters, designers, etc.
Name three people in Memphis that you view as mentors.
I haven’t talked to him in forever but Tad Lauritzen-Wright was an adviser in graduate school and he was kind enough to allow me to be his teacher’s assistant for a few of his painting classes. I learned a lot about “art-speak,” grace-giving (towards self and others), and my own abilities through shadowing him in his classes.
Brit Mcdaniel of Paper and Clay is a great friend, but I think that before that, she was someone I really looked up to. In spite of having a BA and an MFA, I knew very little about the business of being an artist when I first started trying to sell my work and she kindly stepped in and volunteered much needed suggestions and ideas about direction. I sell prints, posters, and greeting cards but arriving at this wasn’t without some leveling of pride. I really thought that to sell reproductions meant to sell out. I was so misinformed and Brit helped me to come around to new ways of seeing.
Also, my high school art teacher Jenna Fergus has always been a great influence. I was a pretty misguided teenager and she continually reminded me that art was a worthy pursuit and that kind of saved my life. We’re friends to this day and encourage each other to stay on the creative path.
If one of your friends was coming to Memphis to visit and wanted you to build their itinerary, what would it look like?
- Coffee from City and State
- Shopping on Broad: C&S, Falling into Place, Five in One, FOUND
- Shopping on Summer: Antique Warehouse
- The Civil Rights Museum
- The strange spectacle that is The Ducks’ Penthouse at The Peabody
- Kwik Chek’s lunch-y delights
- Shangri-La Records
- Goner Records
- More coffee from Muddy’s Grindhouse
- A walk through East Midtown / Cooper Young
- Molly Fontaine’s
What’s the one Memphis restaurant you couldn’t live without?
I really enjoy grabbing a cocktail and a bite to eat at Bari’s bar. It’s reliably good and the atmosphere is intimate and cozy.
What’s your favorite place in Memphis to go for artistic inspiration?
My studio is always a good bet. It’s a safe place for me to make mistakes and learn from them. I also have very recently grown enamored with Spillit at Amurica. The space is alive on every level. Since portraiture is kind of autobiographical, I can make a connection with the stories told at Spillit and my work.
Memphis is cool and it’s relevant but not by trying too hard, it is unapologetically unpolished and I think that’s what makes it pretty cool. In my mind, this city was once dying… and now it’s thriving. The container is still the same, it’s still the same Memphis, we haven’t embellished it too much but the people that have come together to make up this city have seen the best in it and as a result, we have risen into relevance.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
For a person that anguishes over the uncertainties of the future, I don’t spend very much time designing a safety net… Before I started making art full time, I had a pretty clear vision of my future; I planned on being married to the man that I was dating at the time, advancing from my entry level job title to something greater, maybe living in Maine (where he was from), and maybe having kids. I had no clue what I was dreaming my way into and it dissolved before I knew it. So these days, I just plan on doing the best I can and not totally screwing everything up.
What’s the one misconception people have about Memphis that is simply untrue?
I think some people think that Memphis is just generally unexciting, uncool and lacking in culture. I even believed this for a very long time. In order to experience Memphis at its best, engagement in community is a must. I think this circles back around to what I was saying about how Memphis’ awesomeness isn’t defined by landmarks as much as it is defined by the people that are around and within those places.
What area of town is your favorite and why?
Cooper-Young. My studio is on the North side of CY and my home is on the South side. I can walk or ride my bike to and from if I choose. I also love it because it is a legitimate neighborhood. I grew up on a busy street and you just didn’t see people walking to the neighborhood bar and kids playing in front yards. Cooper-Young is so alive to me and I love that.
What is one thing you’re most excited about for Memphis?
As Memphis continues to grow into itself, more and more amazing people will continue flock to the city, bringing their awesome talents, spirits, and visions and that will further elevate this place.