Born in Randall, Minnesota in 1948, Russell Sharon began making art alongside his chores on the family dairy farm. His art — intricate wood and metal sculpture, and expressionist landscape paintings — reflect a knack for hard physical labor and a deep appreciation for nature, often riffing off the horizon line, or capturing the “bubbles” of time when one feels fully immersed in their surroundings. At age 20, Sharon left Minnesota to study archaeology and architecture in Mexico City. From there, he went on to lead an active creative life in some of the most exciting art scenes in the past half-century: Boston in the 1970s, the East Village in the 1980s, South Beach in the 1990s. In his own words, "I was there for the beginning of practically everything."

Shortly after leaving the farm, Sharon found other artists and eccentrics who he identified as “kindred spirits.” This included his long-term partner, the Argentine painter Luis Frangella, who he met walking through the streets of Boston. In 1975, the two artists moved together to New York City. While living together in eclectic lofts downtown, Sharon and Frangella joined the emerging East Village art scene, participating in the iconic Pier 34 project and in Hal Bromm Gallery's "Climbing the East Village" show in 1984.

I've grown up hearing Russell's stories about the vital artistic community he was a part of in New York, and the close friends and loved ones he had who died of AIDS. After the death of Luis Frangella in 1990, Russell sold his loft in New York and moved to South Beach, Florida. Russell currently resides in Randall, back on the land he grew up on, where he continues to paint and work eclectically with nature. After a lifetime painting and sculpting, Sharon has just joined the Visual AIDS Artist+ Registry.

Russell Sharon
Russell Sharon. Photo by Glen Straight

When did you realize you were an artist?

As a teenager I was often blue and depressed. When these feelings came on I had a therapy that consisted of putting on a pair of bright socks. Usually bright red but bright pink or bright yellow would do. One day we were having a party at the farm with all my aunts, uncles, cousins. One of my aunts looked down at my socks and looked at my mother and said, "Look, Russell is wearing pink socks." She put a little criticism in the way she said it. And my mother responded, "Oh, Russell is an artist, he can wear whatever he wants." So that gave me a lot of slack and permission not only to wear what I wanted, but do what I want and paint what I want. My mother knew for some reason that an artist was someone special, in their own special world, and they didn't have to reflect any other world except their own.

The place I wanted to find and the place I eventually did find was a place called New York City where almost 100% of people would say "Wow, I love your socks."

Tell me more about growing up in Randall.

In the first grade I would think, "How am I going to get out of here?" because most of the stuff around didn't interest me although I was totally in love with nature and the trees. Not so much with the people as the trees.

Our community had one church, a Lutheran one. We went every Sunday. It was what I would call comfortably boring. A good time to take a little nap or just relax. Look around at different people. Conversations were about the weather and gossip about different families. I guess it was more news than gossip because gossip would imply negativity. We didn't hear too much negativity or too much positivity either. It was very middle-of-the-road and non-disturbing. Except for me, it was too non-disturbing.

Chainsaw people
Chainsaw People, c. 1985. Painted carved wood, lifesize.

We had a pastor, an elderly Norwegian, Pastor Frietheim, who introduced me to literature. He would rant and rave and told us about the authors whose ideas should be avoided. He mentioned names like Voltaire, Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre. He especially didn't like Voltaire. He even ranted against Emerson, who turned out to be a relative of ours.

I was about sixteen at the time and eager to learn more about everything, inquisitive but didn’t know where to start. So Pastor Frietheim gave me a reading list. I ended up reading Voltaire and loved the sense of humor. I liked the French Enlightenment and I liked enlightenment, period. I read Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, who was Nietzsche's inspiration. Dostoevsky, whose characters were so full of ideas, they would dance and cry and do very unusual and brave actions.

I saw what human beings were capable of. What emotional heights they could reach. I wanted to find friends who were similar to the characters of Crime and Punishment or have a little chat with Voltaire. I wanted to go up and down and to and fro and meet interesting people.

Untitled 1984 Acrylic on stretched plastic 65x48 5inches 2022 10 23 233806 woim
Untitled, 1984. Acrylic on stretched plastic, 65 x 48 ½ in.

It's interesting that you talk about books having such a big impact on you, because when I look at your work it feels so simple, like it's drawn from the elements rather than someplace intellectual.

Yeah. I like that. I like to see what happens when Mother Nature — that's what I call the forces of nature — is given a part, or is acknowledged as being a part of things.

I have a squirt gun. When I squirt, I have some control but the paint goes flying through the air and there it lands. I'm making some choices — I pick the canvas up, decide if it goes this way or that way. The photorealistic painters, who work with a photo — I don’t see where the joy lies in that. You have the image of what you want to achieve and the narrower it is, the more you force yourself to get every detail right. It’s no fun. I like to throw paint against the wall, watch, see the liquid and how it flows. At certain points magic happens. You see something come up from underneath so you only need to know when there's enough. When the painting is perfectly satisfied.

How can you tell when that moment arrives?

You have to stand back once and a while. That moment, when the stuff is running all over — it’s really tricky. You have to know what the relationship is between the different colors, and how you think it will look. Sometimes it will look better than you think, sometimes not. When you put blue next to red, something happens, they become exaggerated. Eventually it becomes too much, but just a little bit is nice. You have to know when to stop. When I fill the painting’s stomach too much it will vomit. And you don't want to look at that.

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Untitled painting by Russell Sharon at Pier 34, 1983. Photograph by Andreas Sterzing.

When did you start to find that community of kindred spirits you were looking for, when you left Randall?

The “Climbing” show was my introduction. I knew that this was a community where I could breathe. You knew this group of kindred spirits—they would go into agreement with you on almost anything. You could go out to dinner, go to an interesting spot. You could talk about sex, literature, art, music, rock and roll. Make something up and make everyone laugh. Basically we understood each other's sense of humor. Remember I told you once, "the family that sneers together stays together?"

We would all sort of sneer at the same stuff, and the same stuff would give us pleasure. We would encourage each other to do whatever extreme thing we had in mind if it would give them happiness or a thrill, as long as it didn't damage anyone. We weren't bound by a strong sense of any type of morality. I mean we were bound by being in a state of civilization. But that gives you a lot of room. This was very basic. Try and take care of one another. Be decent. If you can help, go ahead and help, but don't steal someone's house or burn it down.

All this action, which is so powerful, took place mostly in the East Village, from 14th Street down to 5th Street or maybe Houston.

Sculpture Garden Ave A East 11th St East Village NYC trio
Sculpture Garden, Ave A & East 11th Street, East Village NYC

You told me recently you were thinking about how the first half of the '80s was like a giant party. What was that like?

We were protected from the outside world because most of the mob, let's say the mob, considered that part of town to be very dangerous. After a few new galleries opened up, the media suddenly noticed, and then the art buyers would show up. Usually with a driver. In a limousine with a driver. Unlike the galleries in Chelsea or Soho, Uptown, elsewhere, where wine was served at the openings, at the openings in the East Village gallons of vodka would appear. The vodka was a major attraction. Probably almost as big an attraction as the art itself. The enthusiasm around these openings was extremely intense and beautiful. Everyone chat chat chattering and gulp gulp gulping.

It seemed everyone was working all the time, and working from a high-octane energy derived from inspiration. Discipline was something else. The artists didn't really need to draw on discipline since they were eager to work all day and all night on the energy they got from the inspiration surrounding their work and from the community's encouragement. "Go for it," people would say all the time. It was never, "Are you sure?" or "That's crazy." So everyone went directly to their core and expressed whatever it was they wanted to.

For about ten years it was as close to heaven as one could get on Earth. 1980 through 1985 was a period of celebration, partying, and constant work. Meeting new artists, showing your work to them, they would show their work, meet each other's friends, we were all connected. A family of 1000 had grown so quickly, everyone somehow knowing and accepting everyone else. Everything was new and welcoming. No one needed to feel lonely or uncared for. That was the feeling I got, anyway.

I've always liked the image you've talked about, about the genies on your shoulders that help you create.

The genies are these two little creatures I imagine. One perched on one shoulder, one on the other. One is concerned with my future, with my health, happiness, and longevity. The other is concerned with immediate gratification: don't worry, take the plunge. Get it now. These two friendly spirits we are born with love us completely. More intensely than our fathers, mothers, they have our best interests in mind. They don't really hold anything against us when we go against their advice. We can notice them just by sitting still and paying attention.

For me they appear most when I am walking quietly through the woods and see something that blows me away, or when I am working on my art. I lose track of time with these spirits when I am in the full flow of creativity 100%. I am acting, moving without questioning why what or where. The painting is telling me what it needs. Not what I think it needs. And suddenly it's finished. It's balanced. It's beautiful. Art hits you out of the blue, powerfully. Art hits you with the feeling the art had while totally immersed in its creation. It feels so delightful. It is so short.

P60x60 copy
Untitled, n.d. Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 in.

About The Author

Ruby Sutton is a writer and journalist from Minnesota. Her column, “Scene or Not Scene,” appears in Astra Magazine.

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Russell Sharon