This profile launches an annual series spotlighting a dozen creatives whom we think you ought to know or know more about. The profiles will run on Tuesdays and Thursdays through April 16.
Quiet, composed, evocative and beautiful are apt descriptions of Cassidy Russell’s finely wrought, often delicately stitched works on fabric and handmade paper.
Emily Dickinson, a heroine and influence, often stitched her poems together to form a soft booklet she would hide in her dresser. The late poet would have recognized a kindred spirit in Russell’s stitching as well as her interest in secret-keeping and the way we hide things and the gap between what we show others and what we hold back for ourselves.
But visit the Village Theatre in the Old Fourth Ward on a typical Friday night, and you will see a woman who holds nothing back.
As she plays off the others on stage and garners waves of laughter from a raucous crowd, you might wonder, Who is this quick, often boisterous woman onstage performing fast-paced and sometimes outlandish feats of improvisation? And what does she have to do with Cassidy Russell, the thoughtful and deliberate artist?
Everything is the unexpected answer.
When people who know her through comedy find out that Russell, 27, is also a visual artist — she earned her BFA from the University of Notre Dame and her MFA in printmaking from SCAD — they mistakenly assume that her art is “funny.”
Ultimately, she says, there isn’t anything funny about her visual art. In fact, it is anything but funny.
Like Dickinson and her famous dashes, Russell chooses to highlight that which happens, or exists, in the space between. Both poet and artist give physical presence to the difference between the facade and what lies behind it.
Russell much prefers the “messy, lovely reality” of life and considers stitching a way to talk about this idea. She is interested in our desire, and ultimate inability, to make things perfect, and her stitching is a metaphor for how we try to cover imperfections with patches or mending.
It may seem counterintuitive, but she wants the same of her improv. (She performs with three troupes: Danger!; Rufio, a three-person team; and the all-female Botox or Bangs.)
“Stick with me,” she says. “If you’ve ever seen me perform, what we are focused on, is, yes, making you laugh, but more than that — making you feel.”
Her first improv teacher told her that he’d rather have an audience sitting silently for an entire show and leave feeling fulfilled than have an audience laugh for an entire show and leave feeling empty. She wants the same, and from the looks of the performance I took in earlier this month, Cassidy Russell and team did both.
Being an artist also makes her a better improviser. In her studio, she often steps back from a piece of art to see what’s next or what it might need. Her improv, which she says is not only about the “witty repartee,” calls for the same action. “Sometimes the most important thing you can do as an improviser is take a proverbial step back and see what a scene needs.”
And she believes that acting in improv makes her a better artist, for in both, nothing is a mistake. In improv, what initially seems like a mistake instantly becomes part of the scene and is often the reason the scene works. She has learned to treat her art the same way, confident that there is always a way to turn around what looks like a mistake.
“Often,” she says, “the thing that caused me to sit on the floor of my studio softly whimpering becomes my favorite part of a piece.”
That studio is the light-filled, high-ceilinged factory loft where she lives with Indy, her 14-year-old dog. It is filled with organized collections of materials, fabric, embroidery thread, paper, photographic references and small found objects. She likens her work in both art and improv to quilting, comparing how she works by piecing things together to create something else.
One of the definitions of improvisation is “to make something from whatever is available.” In improv, she says, “we take the pieces we have — the relationship between the characters, where they are, how they feel about each other — and figure out how to make them work together.”
Both improv and art, she says, are “about responding to the last move made. It’s the same thing!”
Represented by Whitespace Gallery, she has work in the current show at the Weave Shed Gallery of the Hambidge Center, where Russell is a fellow. She is working on a major commission at the BMW headquarters in Spartanburg, SC, where, true to form, she is stitching together a huge “quilt” using shimmering copper instead of fabric.
Take a trip over to the Village Theatre and watch her piece together a set of improv. Think about the ways in which her art and her acting are similar and how each informs the other. You’ll see both in a new light.
Russell believes that “to be a character is to be you with a different point of view.” It’s what she tells her acting students at the Village Theatre, and it’s how she lives her life.
Actor, teacher, visual artist: just a few of Russell’s many characters who share the view that “life is amazing and connected.” It is a marvel to her that the sum of art, her improv and her life “could contain the universe.”