Sunday, August 21, 2016

Spotlight Sunday – Mary Lanigan Russo

Spotlight Sunday is a series of interviews designed to introduce and highlight Chicago Urban Sketchers individually.  Now that our chapter has over 500 members it has become more of a challenge to meet every sketcher in person and have a conversation.  These posts concentrate on individuals and speak in their own words and sketches.

Meet Mary Lanigan Russo!
Mary Lanigan Russo

Interviewed by Barbara Weeks

If you’ve attended a Chicago Sketch Seminar you know Mary Lanigan Russo as the remarkable registrar, tireless question answerer and desk anchor. Now, let’s shine the spotlight on Mary, Urban Sketcher and photographer.

Barbara Weeks: Hi Mary, welcome to the spotlight. 
Thank you for agreeing to the interview. Let’s jump right in! Tell us a little about yourself.

Mary Lanigan Russo: I was born and raised in Chicago – a proud South Side Irish White Sox fan. I have a wonderful husband, Rick, and I am mother to three fabulous stepchildren, and grandmother of four. My sister, brother, and I have thousands of cousins, and we love them all. I’ve had many jobs over the years, and apart from 5 years in Los Angeles, I have lived only in Chicago and a few suburbs.

Barbara: I know you’ve been part of Urban Skechers Chicago since the beginning. What prompted you to join USk Chicago?

Mary: I had been immersed in photography since the year 2000, printing in a darkroom, later digitally, and participating in art fairs. After my son passed away in February of 2012, I completely lost interest in photography (and everything else), and decided a change was needed. I heard about USk Chicago from a watercolor teacher, who included a link to USk Chicago in an email. I joined immediately by showing up in Lincoln Square in May of 2012.

Lincoln Square, 2012 and 2013

Barbara: Many of us turn to sketching in times of stress. I’m glad you joined us. I remember that day in Lincoln Square and your sketch from that day. It’s great that you shared it here! What else attracts you to sketching?

Mary: I always loved to draw when I was young. As an adult, it has been an excellent form of therapy for me. It’s sad that life sometimes gets in the way of creative pursuits, and I am very happy to be drawing again. It really takes you out of yourself when you concentrate on creating art. Now I sketch because I enjoy the process, the outcome (usually) and the company (always!).

Barbara: Do you have a favorite sketching medium?

Mary: I have always enjoyed drawing with pencil. But, I am also having a lot of fun sketching directly with ink, and then adding watercolor. If I couldn’t use pencil, I would probably just draw with ink - and let the mistakes be!

Barbara: Do you have a favorite subject matter?

My Right Shoe

Mary: I don’t think I have a favorite subject matter. I seem to do my best sketching and painting when my subject has personal meaning to me - e.g., an antique child’s rocking chair from my cousin’s farm, my bronzed baby shoe, my family. When my son died, I joined the Sketchbook Project and dedicated the sketchbook to his story. Special projects seem to motivate me and hold my interest.

Barbara: If you could sketch anywhere in the world where would that be?

Mary: Ireland, of course! I have only visited once, before I started sketching with Urban Sketchers. It is a beautiful country, and it feels like home.

Barbara: Is there an artist that has had a great influence on your work?

Mary: There are so many! Not that I am able to emulate them, but I love the work of Mary Cassatt, Renoir, Degas, Caillebotte, Homer, among others - and contemporary painters like Mary Whyte and Charles Reid (my two favorites). I also idolized my art teacher in high school, Sister Mary Chiara, who did beautiful watercolors of Italy. I have to say that the sketchers in Chicago are the most wonderful, and more immediate, influences. There is an incredible amount of talent and sharing in this group.

Barbara: Caillebotte and Charles Reid are at the top of my list, too. I agree with you about the sketchers in this group. They are immensely talented and generous in sharing their knowledge!
Is there a sketch you are most proud of?

Mary: I still like the very first sketch I did with USk Chicago! Maybe that’s because it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship with sketching and sketchers.


Barbara: Do you have a tip to share for sketching on location?

Mary: I was a little apprehensive about sketching on location, but I soon realized that a) no one cares what you are doing, as long as it does not disturb others, and b) when people do pay attention to you and your sketching, they are always complimentary! So, my tip would be, don’t worry - be open to enjoy the moments, especially when children join you and ask you to draw something for them. In Chinatown, a six-year-old boy commissioned me to draw the red Angry Bird for him. His older sister then drew the modern Chinese symbol for “horse” next to my sketch of a horse statue. Great fun!

Barbara: I know that sketching is only one of your art endeavors. Will you tell us a little about your other art projects?

Mary: I am still learning about watercolor painting. I am working on painting portraits of my four grandchildren. And, I have recently decided to draw all the places I’ve lived - which is a very long list - and I plan to have them in a Japanese-style, accordion-fold sketchbook. I plan to use different media like graphite, colored pencils, light watercolor, etc. I also enjoy making journals, which I give as gifts. I recently learned how to do the Coptic stitch in Jodie McGovern’s workshop this past July, so I will be using that technique in future hand made journals and sketchbooks.

Barbara: Are you still pursuing photography?

Mary: I’m still hooked on photography and have been since I was a child, taking pictures with my parents’ Brownie camera. I received my very own Brownie Starmite when I was 12. (I still have it!) I continued to annoy all family members with stealth photography for years. After taking photography classes from 2000 to 2003, my husband built a darkroom in our basement, and I began to produce fine art photos, which I sold at various exhibits. I transitioned to digital photography around 2006, and continued to sell both silver gelatin prints and giclee prints at art fairs and private exhibits. My photos of Ireland are the most popular.

Lincoln Park Zoo
Barbara: We know you’re on Facebook and post to Urban Sketchers Chicago. Are there any other social media accounts where people can see more of your work?

Mary: I do have a blog, which I have completely neglected for the past two years. I am planning to start blogging again by adding my current project to the blog, which can be found at I am also on Instagram as mlrphotos.

Barbara: Thanks, Mary, for taking the time to do this interview and sharing your experiences with us. Hope to see you at the next sketch meet!

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