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Russell George Wilson Mixed Media Artist

September 28, 2021

I have been a keen admirer of the stunning work by artist Russell George Wilson for quite some time now.

He is a maker who is confident working across many different areas, including painting, illustration, needle felting and ceramics to name but a few. His work is always considered, precise and beautifully constructed and it is because of this attention to detail that it has taken a while for Russell to find the time to answer my questions and join the creatives here on Fishink blog. I’m so glad that he did, as I’m certain you will love his work as much as I do.

Let’s start off with some hand-made paper moths to whet your appetite !

Hi Russell, Please can you tell us a little about your artistic journey prior to today?

I’ve always loved being creative and I was forever drawing or making something as a child, I used to make lots of models and always had some sort of project on the go that I’d get completely obsessed by ( I probably drove my parents mad!) Later on, I studied Graphic design at Derby University to degree level. I’m not sure why I chose graphic design as a course as I came to realise in my final year that this was somewhat misguided and not at all what I wanted to do as a career. I think if I had my time again I would have done a ceramics or craft based degree. Luckily, I did get the opportunity to do illustration and 3D work as part of my degree which was more my sort of thing.

After leaving university I worked in a local theatre painting stage sets and eventually became an Assistant Scenic Artist whilst I also did some freelance illustration work for various card companies. I was eventually offered a job at one of the card companies as an illustrator where I worked for 21 years before deciding to go it alone and pursue a career making my own work; something I’d always wanted to do but never felt sure until the pandemic happened. I had been making ceramics and other craft work whilst I was employed and selling to galleries etc but I never felt that I was giving it 100% but hopefully now I can. I would describe myself today as a mixed media artist, I work across several different disciplines including ceramics, illustration, needle felting, painting and paper. 

How did you first get involved with ceramics and model making?

Like I said previously, I was always making something as a child, paper mâché, air drying clay…..you name it!  I suppose I just tend to have a brain that can think in 3D.

I remember vividly being introduced to ceramics in the first year of senior school, everybody did pottery class back then….I’m not sure if that happens today (which is a great shame if not). Whilst a lot of our class weren’t remotely interested and spent most of the lesson throwing clay at each other, I was fascinated and hooked from the first lesson. I was amazed how clay magically became solid after firing. I made some really lovely small pinch pots that the teacher glazed in the most beautiful glazes, I have no idea what happened to them but they were in our house for years. Later on, years later in fact whilst I was employed illustrating greetings cards, I enrolled on an evening class to do A level ceramics. I hadn’t touched clay for years up to this point but it bought back the memory of the enjoyment of making things from clay years before. I loved doing the evening class every Wednesday night and made some great friends! It wasn’t very long before I purchased my own kiln and began making ceramics at home. 

My needle felting work developed from my time again working for the greetings card company. I stumbled across the work of an American lady (I can’t remember her name now) who made characters out of needle felt, I found them quite amazing and had no idea how they’d been made etc. I basically found out all about the technique and through trial and error taught myself, my first attempts were probably quite awful looking back but eventually I became the go-to person at work for 3D character briefs.

My characters were photographed to go on greetings cards, they were all mainly cute animal type things! My birds sort of just emerged from a desire to make needle felting a bit more of an art form, something more worthy – I think needle felting has a very crafty and quite twee image and isn’t particularly well regarded as a media, I’ve found some galleries don’t really like the idea until they have seen photos of my work so hopefully I have gone some way to change perceptions.

Where does the inspiration for your lovely characters derive from?

My approach to making my ceramic animals is very much my own really, I work instinctively – sometimes I will use reference for a particular animal as a starting point but often I will just use my imagination and create something from my head. I’m particularly interested in stylisation, the animals are not meant to look real or anatomically correct, they are more about form and simplicity of shape. It’s interesting to see how far I can push the shape of something and it still be recognisable as type of animal that someone will recognise. This can probably be best illustrated by my ceramic lions, their faces are so un-lion like but they are still undoubtably a lion, I’m not really sure where the face for my lions came from, it just sort of happened!  

I suppose the best way to describe my animals would be naive but controlled. As for inspiration, I am strongly influenced by the simplistic animal forms found in prehistoric cave paintings, primitive sculpture from early history, my love of folk art and Staffordshire pottery figures/ animals. I also love the naivety of 19th Century carved Noah’s Ark animals, traditional wooden religious toys that were bought out on a Sunday for children to play with (and educate them about the bible). The animals were all carved often by people who had never seen or experienced the animal being depicted, so they were often rather odd or quirky looking, something which I find really appealing. I hope someway I can capture a little of that feeling in my animals.

As for my felted birds, I think these are all about detail and being as real as possible, anyone that knows me will know that I love detail and can become quite obsessive about it, so the birds sort of reflect that side of my character, weirdly contrasting with my approach to my ceramics?!  The birds were initially inspired by traditional taxidermy, my aim was to make a sort of alternative version that didn’t involve killing anything, but still give a similar effect, something that I think works best with the larger birds I’ve created. I had a phase of putting smaller birds inside glass domes but had limited success with this idea, maybe the idea was a little too Victorian!

Look at these stunning sighthounds too, another reason I was drawn to Russell’s work !

Do you have a website where people can view and purchase your work?

Yes, I do have a website but unfortunately it needs updating as currently it only shows my felted birds. My website is russellwilson-felt.com I need to update it as it’s not really showing the rest of my work and its a few years old too now. I don’t currently have an online shop either, again this is something I’ve been meaning to get set up. I tend to sell my work mainly through galleries and occasionally I will sell pieces, particularly paintings on Instagram (@russellgeorgewilson). I’m fairly new to social media, I resisted for a very long time as it just isn’t my thing but I now see the benefits as it’s great for getting my work seen by a wider audience and it’s encouraging to get feedback etc.

What part of the making process do you enjoy the most/ not enjoy at all and why?

With ceramics, I really enjoy the making process , actually handling and using the clay. I make most of my animals using the technique of pinching combined with random coiling (probably better described as adding small pieces of clay in a haphazard way to build the shape). I’m careful to try and make the inside as smooth as the exterior of the piece, keeping the walls of clay quite thin. When I first started making ceramics my pieces were really hefty and thick but over the years I have refined this!I always think I’m more of a maker than a decorator with ceramics, I often find the glazing/finishing stage quite difficult and often get stuck and really have to think how to proceed so I don’t ruin the piece.  I have lately developed a method of using just three different stoneware clays that I make my pieces with and also use the same clays as slips to decorate the animals, avoiding the need to use glazes. Having said that, I do have a couple of fairly reliable matt glazes I sometimes use.

Regarding my felted birds, I actually find the making process quite laborious, it’s basically hours of stabbing wool with a felting needle, very time consuming….anyone who has had experience of needle felting will understand how long it can take, I suppose I take it to ridiculous levels though for the standard of finish I aim for. I must admit that the finished result is what tends to keep me going, particularly when making a larger bird the actual making process can be very long-winded! It’s always great adding the eyes to a bird, I sometimes use glass taxidermy eyes and it’s great when I know I’ve really captured the look of whatever bird I happen to be making.  I find pricing my felted birds very difficult as I can never get back all the hours they take monetary, I sometimes think people find them a little expensive, usually the uninitiated who don’t appreciate the amount of work involved.

I haven’t really mentioned my paintings yet…..but I enjoy all aspects of painting. I tend to paint still life subjects and landscapes. I love plants and gardening so most of my still life paintings feature seasonal flowers or plants combined with old/vintage pottery, often old advertising ceramics such as Dundee Marmalade pots etc.  

My landscapes are more about playing with space and composition.

I find that painting can have its frustrations especially on days where nothing goes well and I tighten up and get too detailed. I’m constantly trying to keep a looseness to my paintings but I have to be on my guard not to start adding too much.

I don’t tend to use sketchbooks for my ideas, I just tend to do rough scribbles or thunbnails on scraps of paper, or just write ideas down. I sometimes wish I could keep a beautiful sketchbook like other artists do but it just doesn’t seem to come naturally. I find I get most of my ideas whilst out walking when my mind can just wander.

And those ‘rough scribbles’ turn into these beautiful creatures.

I would so love a Lion or a Tiger from Russell’s animal range. Their curious faces are just perfect !

Who’s work do you find inspirational and which artists do you follow regularly?

I love lots of artists work, I’m constantly inspired by what I see in exhibitions, books and on Instagram etc.I love the ceramic work of contemporary artists such as Jane Muir who makes wonderful simplified sculptural figures with amazing colour/ decoration. I also love the ceramic animals and birds by Susan O’Byrne, theses are pieced together from intricately patterned fragments of clay, I have a couple of her birds here at home.  I’m inspired by the painter Mary Newcomb, her work is just incredible. I first saw her work years ago when I bought a book about her, but recently I saw her paintings for real at the recent exhibition at Compton Verney. I think she has to be my favourite artist.  

Other painters I like include Mary Fedden, Elizabeth Blackadder and contemporary painters Elaine Pamphilon, Barbara Peirson and Vanessa Bowman.  I also love the work of illustrator Laura Carlin, she has such a sophisticated but child-like, playful style, she also makes ceramic pieces too which are just wonderful.  I follow lots of artists on Instagram, too numerous to mention really….. I think its the best reason to be on there really to see peoples amazing creations. Of course, my greatest source of inspiration for my work has to be nature and the natural world itself.

Where do you see your work going in the future? Either in terms of materials you use, the places it featured or the items you create?

It’s not really something I’ve really thought about, I guess I just hope to continue developing and making good pieces of work that people covert and want! My head is full of ideas, many of them never come to fruition but hopefully there are lots of ways I can continue to develop further.  I had wondered whether I should concentrate more on one media, but so far it’s only been just a thought.  It would be very nice one day to be able to do a two person or solo exhibition of my work at a gallery when I’ve had a bit more time to expand my work. I’ve actually always fancied having a go at woodcarving…..but maybe that would confuse matters further!

If you could make one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?

I would like to have the time to concentrate more on my ceramic work as I feel it has potential. It seems to have taken a bit of a backseat lately as galleries have mainly been interested in my paintings and birds. I have had my ceramics in a really great gallery in Derbyshire this year, they sold really well which was good.  So far my ceramic animals have been fairly small in scale so it would be lovely to work on some much larger, sculptural pieces maybe. I still feel I have so much to learn about ceramics, the more I learn, the more questions there seems to be.

You have a natural brilliance when working with many different materials, your work is beautifully precise and a joy to behold. What would you say spurs you on to make things and what is important to you when creating new pieces?

Thank you for saying that!  Yes, I must admit I’ve struggled with the fact that my work ranges across different media and is difficult to pigeonhole into one thing. I feel like the expectation is to concentrate on one medium as working across many is difficult for galleries particularly to categorise, but working in this way seems quite natural to me. I’ve always just used whatever media feels appropriate, I think I’d feel restricted doing just one.  The jobs I’ve done too, particularly being a greetings card illustrator were very varied and so I suppose I just like variety!

I think I’m just spurred on by an inbuilt need to create things and by the urge to keep improving and developing my work.

Well Russell I can honestly say that I think you should continue to work with whatever mediums you feel excite and interest you. As long as you can sell and show all the different work through different galleries, shops and your website / Instagram account, then there is no reason to be restricted.

What do you think readers ?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Deirdre O'Sullivan from Australia permalink
    September 28, 2021 3:45 pm

    His love of animals and the natural world, really shines through his exquisite work. Very interesting how he said his obsessive interest in fine detail with felting, can adversely affect his other work, like painting – overworking with paint can ruin the joyful spontaneity of a painting. It’s easy to do – and very hard to undo! But I reckon he is gloriously talented in all areas of art. He revealed his gentle sensitivity (essential to all artists) when he said he did not like taxidermy, because it hurt the animals. You can see the love he has for them – it comes out through his fingertips into the clay.

    P.S: As an Aussie, let me tell you that his felted Honeyeater bird -next to the wattle – is simply superb and really accurate! It’s a very common bird here in Australia, with a strident call that we all love.

    • September 28, 2021 4:13 pm

      Another comment, beautifully expressed Deirdre. Thank you x

  2. September 29, 2021 12:36 am

    So amazing – so fantastic! ❤️❤️❤️

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