REFRAMING AGING - FOCUS ON Russ Ellis
Story by Cynthia Overbeck Bix, photos by Nancy Rubin
Current Interests: Sculptor; painter; social activist
Career: Professor of Architecture and Vice-chancellor, University of California, Berkeley; Professor of Sociology, Pitzer College
“We’re just making it up as we go along.”
Russ is articulate and full of ideas that come spilling out as he speaks. His laughter is frequent and infectious. He looks back at his many-faceted life, yet fully inhabits his present life of creativity and social activism.
I’ve gone slowly towards disengagement from academia. I was always “in school,” until I retired. I don’t want to call retirement a gift—it’s an offering. I didn’t want to continue with academic writing. One of my colleagues did a study among academics, asking them, “What would you do if you weren’t in academics?” Almost none of them said “academia.” They’d open a bicycle shop, a boat rental. . .a lot of it had to with using their hands.
On making art
I’ve worked in a variety of media— watercolor, acrylics, pen and ink. My sculptures have been created in bronze, stone, wood, steel, and mixed media.
In both painting and sculpture, my goal is to contribute to this extra-verbal world that is the world of art. People who got their art degrees and are well educated are obliged to make words. But they also know about that aspect of the human consciousness and interchange that’s about images, not words. So images are what I’m working with right now.
There’s a lot to learn, you know? Art’s been around as long as we have. I'm getting a sense of what that’s about just as a human being. Changing media, and changing formats kind of loosens you up. You find new things you can do, stuff that you didn’t know you were even capable of. So that has been a real delight.
I know by my formal training in sociology and my reading that all acts of perception are a transaction between the object and the person perceiving the thing, whatever it is. I have been absolutely astonished by how much people bring to the occasion of seeing a work of art.
Trump’s election posed the problem for me—what should I do about it? I’m a member of MoveOn.org, and I send money to Southern Poverty Law Center—all kinds of things. I don’t march any more, but that’s just about age and endurance. Instead, I’ve turned to images as my response. Every day through Facebook I send out an image of my own creation. It’s my contribution to an interchange that’s right brain rather than text.
On growing older
I'm always learning. As a person, I think I’ve always been that way. And it turns out that I'm not as thin-skinned about criticism of my work as I thought. I seem to absorb the blows. I think that has to do with being old—I'm absolutely certain it does!
I’ve been cleaning out things in my upstairs workspace. A lot of things just have to go. I do have a feeling about the stuff, though. It’s not inert. I think it’s sustaining to know that somewhere behind that chest of drawers with all the other junk, there’s a folder with a photograph that I want to have, that matters to me. And the longer you live in a place, the more alive the place becomes with the things that are memories, reminders, and so forth. So I think you can be too efficient, you can kill the life.
When I told my son what I was doing, he said, “Well, don’t be too good at it.”
On new horizons
You follow your nose—especially since nothing rides on it. If it’s interesting and nothing rides on it, you’re in great shape!