The last time I blogged about outsider art, author and blogger Maranda Russell introduced herself as an outsider artist. Since then, I’ve come to enjoy her WordPress and Instagram, where she posts visual art, poetry, and stories from her life. Since I just brought out my own book of poetry and self-taught visual art, I asked her if she’d be interested in exchanging copies of our books for possible review, and she agreed! I’m delighted, and have enjoyed her ebook Stories Behind My Art a lot, though discussing art rather than making it is a little outside my comfort zone.

The collection is laid out effectively: Russell introduces herself and then offers images of her artwork with a brief explanation of each piece. The explanations are straightforward and thoughtful. The star of the collection, though, is Russell’s art, as it should be. 

“I don’t claim to be a super-talented artist,” she writes in the introduction. I beg to differ. Skill at realistically rendering what you see is not the only kind of artistic talent that matters — as evidence, see most of the twentieth century, with its Picassos and Kandinskys and Rothkos. Russell is not, and is not trying, to draw realistically; her work is much more…expressionistic? surreal? dreamlike? spontaneous? expressive of an inner rather than an outer world? At any rate, there’s an eye here that’s authentic and stark and more interesting than most art one finds online. It’s all too easy for art, whether realistic or abstract or anywhere in between, to strive toward simplistic, pre-packaged ideals. Russell’s art doesn’t.

But sweeping statements are often less informative than nuts-and-bolts reality, so I think I’ll focus the rest of this post on five favorite pieces of mine from her book, talking both about how they affect me and the issues they raise in my mind. 

The first piece Russell identifies as her own favorite: “Crick in the Neck.” It depicts a figure with a triangular hat something like a dunce cap caught in a noose against a background in brown and black, with finer lines providing slight texture and shading. Russell writes that the rope represents “society, expectations, guilt, pain, or anything else that may hold a person back or cause suffering.” The figure’s expression is serene; the rope does not bite deep; but the figure is entirely green, the color of death or envy or stone rather than flesh. The darkness of the image, its unexplained strangeness, and the morbid humor of the title all resonate with a lot of Russell’s work. When Russell speaks of embracing the childlike in her introduction, she is perceptive — but childhood is not about sweetness and light; sweetness and light are often (not always) a veneer of convention that comes with the restraint of maturity.

“Facing the Storm” may be my favorite, at least from a purely visual standpoint, though even there it’s hard to choose. In it, a charcoal-gray bird — a crow? — with bowed head faces into slanting rain under the scribbled arch of a cloud above. The subdued color palette works marvelously (everything is black or gray except for the brown wood beam where the bird sits), and the textures are expressive. The quick, rough pen strokes of the rain give a splendid sense of motion. The roiling, curling scribbles of pen over the clouds combine compellingly with the scratchy horizontal strokes of gray beneath.

Regarding “Cats Watching from the Window” — Russell’s commentary on the cover image of this book speaks for itself: no deep story is evident behind these strikingly colored, strong-minded cats, but they are so very cat, and intense, and, as Russell observes, one wants to know what they’re looking at. The humor here is interesting — Russell writes about liking cute things, and I think, probably, these cats are cute. Cute or not, though, cute is not the first word that comes to mind (for me, at least; I think everyone processes and defines cuteness differently) even for this artwork. Funny, certainly, comes to mind, but it is inadequate. Playful? Enigmatic?

“Picking My Brain,” the next piece, is very simple visually: a thick black outline around a simplified human figure with no limbs, in which a black bird silhouette flies away with what looks like a piece of the outline. Russell writes, “Ever feel like someone has flew away with your stream of thought or left your brain a jumbled mess? I often feel that way, so thought I would show that visually.” I do know that feeling exactly — and this is a striking symbolic depiction of that event: a bird is literally stealing a thought. It gets stranger, though: the figure’s skin is turquoise, its head holds scribbles that might be hair (but I suspect they are instead its brain), its shirt is red, and its background is orange — sharp, clashing, unnatural colors that capture the discomfort of that state of mind.

Last, “Release the Inner Light” shows what I take to be a South Asian woman in a sari, half behind a wall or curtain, with something like a lower wall in front of her, and a diagonal stream of dash shapes flowing between her and the upper right-hand corner of the piece. The woman, rendered in more detail than much of Russell’s art, looks anxious and uncertain; it’s not clear whether the stream flows to her or from her, but the title suggests from — I like the idea she is finding the courage to ignite the sun! Or perhaps she and the sun exchange light. In any event, the enigmatic image is striking and appealing, and the message one that seems central to Russell, and one that by now you may know resonates strongly with me as well. For this reason, I love her dedication: “For everyone who has something important to say…and just needs to find a way to say it.”