I like Russell Biles’ work. A lot. But I admit not everyone shares my enthusiasm. My wife, for example. I say this guy is provocative, she says he picks at scabs. Perhaps it depends on your perspective or approach to art. Everyone should be able to agree that he is a skilled craftsman and extremely imaginative.
JW: How do you work? Do you sketch ideas out first and then build them out in clay? Will you tell me about your process?
RB: All my hand-built work is very thin coil built. I model plastilina for the cast work. I like to work directly out of my head with little if any drawing. When making a specific person I use photos. I prefer hand-building. I have developed a very technical style of hand-building on my own.
JW: Are there 2-3 pieces you could discuss in particular detail: where the idea originated, how you made it, decisions you made along the way, etc?
RB: Let’s first look at a sculpture I call “Captain America Calling.”
After I decided to do a RBG piece about her struggle, the image of Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies kept going through my head. (I’m a big fan and have great respect for the Beverly Hillbillies and did a very successful piece “Beverly Hillbillies 911” which was acquired by the RAM; I can recall every TV episode.) The episode that kept going through my head was when the Beverly Hillbillies took on professional wrestl’n – It was Grappll’n Granny vs the Boston Strong Girl and family.
This is how I saw RBG in her fight against death to defeat Trump. Having taken care of my parents, I knew exactly the struggle RBG was going through. This was a classic fight against death and evil for the good of our country and the human race.
The image developed from the bottom up which is how I work. The choice of black and white was a reversal of the perception white is good and black is evil (a concept I’ve frequently used).
To the left: “Capitan America Calling” in process.
The second piece I choose to describe is “Nuts” because it was recently acquired by the AMCA and I had to give them an explanation. My belief is every man is possessed by a dog and monkey (monkey drives the dog nuts). They represent the struggle or need for lust and it’s confusion with love. My representation is personal but also inspired by “Night of the Iguana” by Tennessee Williams and the subsequent movie. (This film review may help explain.)
I have successfully used the dog and monkey theme in several sculptures.
Here is another example.
JW: Can you give me a sense of the scale of your figurative work? Some pieces look very small, others look quite large.
RB: I have slip cast works up to 13 ft. long.
JW: You made clay monsters and animals as a child. How have those “characters” changed since your days as a child? And do those changes reveal anything about you?
RB: As Charles Bukowski said, “I don’t hate people. I just feel better when they’re not around.”
Growing up I was considered very shy and paid the price. Now I’m labeled anti-social (born this way). In the first grade I would draw monsters all over my work papers with dots along the bottom of the page (these were people). Now people are the monsters. Actually people have always been monsters to me.
I think this change reveals I’m better at articulating myself without fear of repercussions. Also, I’ve learned to be social.
JW: I see many commercial, religious and political references in your work. Do you incorporate this iconography consciously or do the references come spontaneously?
RB: Very conscious. The images are direct reflections of our culture.
I was born and raised a Christian. I deeply believe Christian philosophy but not the magic. Religion good and bad is another reflection of our culture.
JW: Is there a trajectory or some type of progression in your figurative work?
RB: I think I will always critique our culture but I do believe my imagery has evolved. I produce what appears in my mind and what appears is figurative. Will I make pure abstract or feel good shit for the market? I don’t think so.
JW: How important is widely distributing your work and making it affordable to a wide audience?
RB: Making affordable work is very important to me. I really enjoy seeing people being able to own a piece of my work regardless of their economic situation. At one point I made gumball machines where anyone could get a series of my work for pennies.
Making affordable work is a creative challenge. People usually don’t realize that I make every one of the little pieces and although they are cast they take a lot of work – mind-numbingly boring work. The main creative challenge is simplifying the image in my head into a form that can be made from a two piece mold. Early pieces such as cookie jars took up to 13 piece molds and at that point the complex mold became a piece of art.
JW: How would you define your work and what you’re trying to achieve with your ceramics?
RB: I would define my sculpture as an honest critique of our culture from my perspective. The issues I pursue are historically and culturally relevant. My work represents subjects regardless of their popularity or political correctness and reach a broad audience on many levels. As far as pure ceramics go I would like to be able to say I can take the Pepsi challenge with any porcelain hand-builder in the world.
More of Russell’s work can be viewed on his website.