Plein-air Painter Matthew Russ ’96 Finds Solace in the Natural World

Arts7 MIN READ

He goes far afield to find remote locations, where he connects with nature—and collectors

Matt Russ
Matt Russ ’96, touches up a painting he made on Pond Island while working en plein air.
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By Claire SykesPhotography and Video by Jasper Lowe and Gabe Souza
September 1, 2022

With his easel strapped to his backpack and canvas in hand, Matthew Russ ’96 hikes Maine’s spruce and fir forests out to the rocky shore. For hours, he does nothing but paint as he gazes at the water and islands.

The great outdoors is a muse for this plein-air artist, who lives in Waterville. Drawn to Maine’s preserves, land trusts, and state parks, he said, “Their sights, sounds, and smells wake up my senses and prime me for the observation mode I need to paint. It’s almost like a ritual for me.”

Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series about artists from Colby who are making art imbued with personal meaning while facing the challenges of the pandemic. By necessity and instinct, they and many other artists have taken a more fluid, nimble, and innovative approach in their marketing and promotion. Other innovative artists in this series include Wiley Holton 19 and Sam Onche ’22.

Since 2006, by consistently donating his artwork to the auctions of several environmental nonprofits, Russ has built his reputation as a prolific plein-air painter of Maine in the tradition of Marsden Hartley, Frederic Church, and others who trekked with their painting supplies to the most remote, hard-to-reach corners of Maine to capture its rugged beauty and share it with the world. Russ established his career through his love of the outdoors, his willingness to paint anywhere, and his embrace of artistic adventure that he learned at Colby.  

Early art education

Art has been part of Russ’s life since growing up in the Portland area. His parents rewarded his interest in art by keeping art supplies close at hand and taking him to see exhibitions at the Portland Museum of Art. His high school art teacher, Celeste Roberge, was the first working artist he knew, and she made an impression on him.

So did the art of Winslow Homer, whose studio was nine miles from Russ’s home. As a teen, Russ often hiked the same trails that Homer hiked along the shore of Prouts Neck south of Portland, where Homer created most of his late-career masterpieces. “I felt this real connection to an art figure from the past, an emotional thing for me as a kid. I still carry that feeling with me,” he said.

Matt Russ ’96, carries a blank canvas through tall grass on Maine’s Pond Island while looking for a suitable place to paint en plein air.

Russ considered art school, but his eclectic interests led him toward the liberal arts. He had both at Brown University, with access to courses at the Rhode Island School of Design. But after a year, he longed for Maine and came to Colby, majoring in studio art with a concentration in oil painting. Art history especially inspired him, thanks to his academic advisor, David Simon, now the Ellerton and Edith Jetté Professor of Art, Emeritus.

“He made art history come alive for me. I was enchanted by the lives of the artists and saw them as real individuals whose careers developed over time. My favorite ones got out in the landscape and painted, and I had this romantic vision of doing the same,” said Russ.

Visiting artists who spoke at Colby showed him there were many different professional paths he could take. But first, he’d give the student commencement address at graduation and receive the Condon Medal, awarded for exceptional citizenship.

After a year in Ireland, Russ worked full time in admissions at Colby and squeezed in painting when he could. In 2001 he made the decision to dedicate himself to his art. At first, galleries wouldn’t represent him, and he realized he had to go it alone. In the time before the internet, that meant pounding the pavement and cold-calling. Then he built a website and began sending newsletters several times a year.

Matthew Russ, Little Island #1, 2019, oil on canvas, 20″ x 40″

A Waterville restaurant exhibited his paintings, leading to several sales, and in 2006, Russ began donating his work to the Maine Audubon Society’s art auction. His paintings of the Belgrade Lakes and Kennebec Highlands area hung on the walls at the then-Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance, now 7 Lakes Alliance, in 2011.

That’s when things really began changing for him. The press started writing about his art, and in 2014 the Portland Art Gallery began exhibiting his paintings annually. The Cape Elizabeth Land Trust’s Paint for Preservation Wet Paint Auction also invited him to participate, and in 2017 he contributed to the Maine Island Trail Association’s events for the first time.

His world seemed to expand exponentially.

“The fundraisers also allow me to get my work seen and network with people,” said Russ, who attributes some of his success to his ability to talk easily with collectors. “When they connect with the artist, it adds to their experience of the work, often to the point of wanting to purchase it.”

Matthew Russ, View from Caterpillar Hill #1, 2021, oil on canvas, 20″ x 30″

Over the years, Russ’s relationship with the Maine Island Trail Association deepened. From spring to fall 2020, during the early days of the pandemic, he motor-boated and hiked along the 375-mile trail organized by the association that links 200 wilderness islands and coastal sites. He visited 20 of the islands, painting as he went, and his longtime friend Geoff Nickerson made a short documentary film.

The project was to include pop-up shows of his work all along the Maine coast, with exhibitions in harbors, marinas, and boat-building shops. With the pandemic, those all went virtual, along with a story map that Russ narrated.

For the next phase of his career, he’s considering connecting with interior designers through art auctions and through his paid advertising in regional home-design publications. And someday, he said, he might create a book of his work or open his own gallery.

A return engagement

Because nature never repeats itself, Russ often returns to the same location to experience it under different conditions, creating a new painting each time. Over time, the horizon line in his paintings has gradually dropped, recognition on his part of the immense beauty and power of Maine’s dramatic skies that have captured the imagination of painters for generations.

Matt Russ ’96, hands a blank canvas to his father, Joel Russ, while traveling to Pond Island off the coast of Cape Rosier.

“Sometimes, subtle changes happen in an instant. Light can streak across the water and representing it can be a powerful moment on the canvas for me. Each time I go back, I tune in more to the space so I can focus less on the familiar and explore more the emotional aspects. Painting encourages a meditative, intuitive state for me, as I follow the rhythms and musicality of that place and day,” he said.

“Most thrilling for me is that my art is seen and appreciated by a wider audience. The greatest moments are when somebody tells me my painting has brought them joy, calmness, or a sense of adventure; and that something I created was profound enough to bring it into their lives. I don’t take that for granted. And if the painting inspires them to notice their surroundings more and look for gifts in the sky, treetops, or ocean, then I feel that making that painting has been worthwhile.”

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