Inside the creator

Inside the creator

The relationship between art and mental illness is maybe too well documented. A much less-traveled topic is how artists might continue working despite a physical ailment. What happens to inspiration when the body is rebelling? Can art actually provide a rope to hang onto when someone is hobbling through the task of staying alive?

Russell U. Richards, local printmaker and painter, has a book-length answer. One excerpt, from a chapter about the major surgery that removed his colon:

“Knowing that I was going to have creative urges even in recovery I had brought my trusty Holga and several rolls of film.”


The Arts and Innards of Russell U. Richards! boils down to that kind of scrappy, driven “yes”—to art, life, health—but it detours first through a morass of painful episodes, from the romantic to the gross. The title is telling: Don’t pick up this book if you aren’t open to learning about Richards’ private life. You’ll see him naked before page five, and you’ll get a vivid picture of what exactly ulcerative colitis does to a person’s daily existence.

The world of the book, like Richards’ art, is sometimes brutal, usually fascinating and built on a humanistic belief in expression. His text (released in conjunction with his McGuffey Art Center show, opening March 6) is a straightforward account of his life, from childhood in Charlottesville, through the challenges of a working artist’s life, to the surgery that ultimately rescued his health. While his writing is not extraordinary, it’s clear and direct, and it’s surrounded on every page by full-color images—personal photos and artworks—that evidence an ever-shifting creative drive. Richards has made films, puppets, lithographs, watercolors and holograms. We see a monster drawn on yellow legal paper when he was 3 years old, and we see the kinky horror fantasy of the 2006 etching Gothic Ritual. It’s all connected by a common sensibility, a wry unflinching eye.

What’s ultimately fun here isn’t the voyeurism of watching Richards’ illness drag him through various humiliations. It’s seeing an artist come into maturity, refining and expanding his vision, even as his life presents its own demons and sources of light. (The book has a fair amount of technical detail too, maybe interesting for fellow artists.) There’s real inspiration here, proof that art is essential. In Richards’ words: “Art literally saved my life. During the most oppressive ulcerative colitis years, when I practically lost all hope, art kept me going. I actually contemplated suicide a lot, but there was always some project I had to finish first.

An exhibition of art from Richards’ book is on view at McGuffey Art Center from March 3-29, with a First Friday reception on March 6, 5:30-7:30pm.

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