Nathaniel Russell: Muralist in ResidenceApr 30, 2019
One of the things we love about being in the coffee game is all of the rad people it attracts. Writers camping out at cafe tables, artists installing their work on our walls, and the musicians, makers and thinkers that come get their fix before making their magical projects. One connection that we’ve loved growing is with a dude named Nathaniel Russell. Like most modern romances, we met through the internet and bonded over shared passions and alignments. His work is opinionated, earnest, and totally of our time. In his own words he makes “drawings, fake fliers, bad sculptures, wood shapes, and music.”
We’ve collaborated with him a few times over now, and are always so excited to see what he creates. You may have seen his iconic “I’d rather be staring into the void” mug that gave us all the seasonal depression feels last winter or his new spring-forward mug and tote designs. As we prepared to open our second cafe in Los Angeles, we thought of no one better to craft a mural on one of our sunlit walls.
From Nathaniel: “While this mural is officially untitled, I think of it as a Peaceable Kingdom: a scene from a time or place of balance and peacefulness on earth. The main elements of this work (the bird, the flowers and other plants, the cat, the comet) are seen in works of art throughout the ages and have meanings as symbols both traditional and personal. I wanted this scene to be out of time, to be of any time.
“For inspiration and guidance I looked at a lot of paintings by Henri Rousseau, tons of children’s books from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, listened to a lot of old records, and thought about breaking things down to their essential colors and forms. I like to leave enough information out that the viewer is allowed and encouraged to fill in some blanks, if they so choose.”
“I think of this approach of simplification and dream-like imagery as a ‘kindergarten psychedelia.’ I see it as a welcoming and benevolent invitation to be with and among the wonders and magic of the earth as it is in a dream, or could be at its best. I want my work to be inclusive. I want to express the joyful, funny parts of being alive, balanced with the seriousness and sadness of it all. It is more light than dark, and that is where I sneak in the ray of optimism or hope.”
Stumptown: You really seem to work in all mediums! Woodcuts, silk screens, paintings, sculpture, illustrations, installations that incorporate all of those media, and even music. Can you tell us a little bit about how you approach being such a holistic artist?
Nathaniel Russell: I think it really comes down to having ideas that can work in many different mediums. If there are things that affect me in art or music, I want to participate in that process; I want to do it myself. That's how I've proceeded in almost all things. I want to make paintings, run prints, play music, write books, and drink coffee.
Stumptown: So much of your work features commentary and a direct opinion. What are you working on right now and what is it pointing to? Nathaniel Russell: I'm working now on doing more teaching, workshops, and artwork for schools. I feel like this individual experience with students and kids is a valuable, direct and effective action in today's world.
Stumptown: For the opening day of the DTLA cafe we'll be donating our opening day proceeds to local non-profit CHIRLA, in honor of the DTLA May Day March for Immigrant and Workers' Rights. It's important to us to support our new neighborhood so we're happy to be aligning with them. Do you have any fond memories of the neighborhood around our cafe from your time spent working on the mural?
Nathaniel Russell: I was working inside for 99% of the day, but I did get out for some good food and to skate around the city. It's a pretty rich and diverse neighborhood, encapsulating the old and new, and I really appreciate all the original and handmade signage for the local businesses. It's all very up my alley and inspirational.
Stumptown: Yes, there are so many great skate spots around our new cafe! We love being part of this neighborhood and seeing how such a historic district continues to evolve and thrive. You’ve worked in the skate community for a while now, and even collaborated with someone on our Skate Team, right?
Nathaniel Russell: Totally. I've been skating since I was 12 and continue to attempt to do so today. I've made skate graphics for skateboard companies big and small and I've made a few things for Stumptown Skate Team member Elissa Steamer's Gnarhunters brand. She's amazing and a big inspiration to me.
Stumptown: The music we choose to listen to while working on projects can become so reminiscent to that time period. Did you have any sort of soundtrack that you were hooked on while working on these recent projects for us?
Nathaniel Russell: I feel like I've been working on this for eons so a lot of water has flowed beneath the musical bridge. During installs, I always listen to a lot of STEELY DAN. It's good working music and smooths out any disturbances that may arise. The Airbnb that I stayed in for this job had a record player and we listened to The Stranger by Billy Joel a few times every night. It was ridiculous but also, shockingly, really good. I begrudgingly allowed BJ into my life and this project. We went FULL JOEL. Also, the unlimited Cold Brew supply helped in this respect.
Stumptown: How ‘bout that tote and mug - the bird seems to be a character that frequently shows up in your work. Is there a story behind that guy, or does he have a special meaning to you?
Nathaniel Russell: The bird is definitely a recurring figure for me. I see it as a symbol of hope and ambition, but also a constant reminder of our movement through time and space, in a mortal sense. The bird has perspective on things.
Stumptown: The bird knows… Ok, last question: What's your favorite place you've ever had a cup of coffee?
Nathaniel Russell: I am a father of two boys… and have only recently begun sleeping until after 6am. But I must say that making a pot of coffee and hanging out with my baby boy at 4:30 in the morning with the sky still dark while listening to some mellow tunes is hard to beat.
Thanks Nat!! Come see his work in our new cafe opening in the Fashion District of Downtown Los Angeles on May 1st.
Header and 5th photo taken by Carly Diaz