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Michele Russo

American, 1909-2004


Waterbury 1909




Portland 2004

Occupation or Type



Northwest artist

Oregon artist


When Michele Russo was five years old his mother took him to Italy for a visit that became a prolonged stay in a community threatened by WWI. Because he could not speak Italian and attend public school, Russo became the charge of a Catholic priest. This man became a surrogate father to the boy, teaching him the Italian language and culture, and introducing him to the priest's own enthusiasm for birds, gardens, art, and humanistic values. It was through this mentor that Russo's interest in art was cultivated by trips to art galleries. When the time came for the boy to leave Italy, the priest painted a canvas for him, which he kept as a reminder of the man and his influence. Russo was ten years old when they returned to the United States, and Italian enough to feel like a misfit among his peers. Although he was an excellent student, he worked as a laborer after high school until he entered Yale in 1930, where he found the academically conservative approach to art frustrating, especially the rejection of Modern Art. After graduation he became a political activist although this was not reflected in his paintings.

He met fellow artist Sally Haley in 1934 and they wed in 1935. Russo was awarded WPA mural projects in Connecticut at Nathan Hale School in Hamden and Columbus School in New Haven. After attending the Colorado School of Fine Arts, Russo returned to New Haven and taught art and history in a Federal Education Program. During WWII, he was employed as a technician with U.S. Rubber Company. The Russos moved to Oregon in 1947 where he began teaching art history, painting, and drawing at Portland's Museum Art School in 1948, remaining there until 1974. During this time he was sent, by the Museum Art School, to teach at venues throughout the state. He introduced academic subjects in art programs statewide. The Museum and the School were important advocates of Modern Art at that time.

Russo considered his early paintings allegorical and mysterious, his palette dominated by dark blues, browns, and black. He was chided at Yale and again in Colorado for his generous use of black, but it remained an important part of his work. He said he sought clarity, not complexity, in his paintings. The formal aspects of art, the structure of a painting, the composition of the forms as well as the simplicity and monumentality of shapes, and the impact of this simplification were problems that continued to occupy him. He tried to avoid specific references in his work and used the figure as a symbol of universality. His simple, powerful style and strong colors lend themselves to the large scale of his canvases. One critic remarked that his work was "classical and abstract, simple and complex, provocative and staid, reserved and confrontational." Art critic Rachael Griffin wrote of Russo, "If the design, the treatment of images in the canvas reassure us with their simplicity, the total import of the work does not." It was a paradox of his work that the apparent lightheartedness was undone by the "lurking, furtive, and menacing" implications felt but not seen.

Michele Russo has been a tireless advocate for the rights of artists, earning him a position as a leading figure on the visual arts scene. He was one of the founders of Artists Equity, considering it a vehicle for uniting artists and the community. Later he helped found the Portland Center for the Visual Arts. In 1977 he was the first artist appointed to the Metropolitan Arts Commission in Portland, continuing his advocacy of artist and community unity, and in 1979 was presented the Governor's Award for the Arts.

Artist biography reproduced with permission from the authors, Oregon Painters: the First Hundred Years (1859-1959), Ginny Allen and Jody Klevit.



Related People

Student of: George Biddle (American, 1885-1973)

Spouse: Sally Haley (American, 1908-2007)

Student of: Boardman Robinson (American, 1876-1952)

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