Monday, December 12, 2005

Pam Jennings

Russell Nesbit was perhaps the most well known muse for Washington area artists. This was true for students and teachers alike. He started modeling decades ago to help make ends meet when it was difficult, largely because of segregation, to get work as an acrobat, his life’s love.Russell’s last modeling job was sitting for this portrait in the fall of 2001. He was very ill with colon cancer but he insisted on working. He got so sick that he was too weak to take public transportation from his home in DC to my studio in Alexandria, Virginia. I would drive him to and from my studio. He was so proud of the idea that he was the model for three paintings in my first solo show which was at the Art League in Alexandria.As I painted Russell I knew that my work was about much more than a show preparation. I was recording the last days of a wonderful man whom had led a wonderful life. Russell was a very patient, generous and nurturant model. While we worked he educated me about jazz and told me fascinating stories about jazz artists. One of my favorite stories is about how much Russell loved Billy Eckstein and how he would follow the singer around the country as he performed. Russell also told me about his background as an acrobat and his experiences with discrimination which included exclusion from the Ringling Brothers Circus. He trained young black girls from poor neighborhoods in acrobatics. He told me that he and his students were once invited to do a private show for Ethel Kennedy. He studied photography at the same school as Jackie Kennedy and in the army he helped train parachuters how to jump.Sometimes I was at cross purposes while working with Russell. The painter in me wanted to paint but the Clinical Psychologist was interested in knowing more about his developmental history and how it shaped his character. For example, I was very interested in the fact that he was adopted and had never met his biological parents. He once told me that he had the fantasy that they saw him when he performed on shows like the Ed Sullivan show.The psychological dignity of this final pose was in direct contrast to the way that cancer was undermining Russell’s physical integrity. The merciless and ugly process of death was the opposite of the beauty that my eyes wanted to observe and that my hands wanted to render. The cancer was violent. Once, Russell threw up in my studio. It was painful to watch the disease eat away at him as his weight declined. Sometimes his feet and ankles were so swollen that he could not wear his shoes. I remember going to a shoe store to try to find some very wide but warm shoes. I wanted to surprise him! There were moments when Russell was so weak that I had to take him to the hospital where he was given blood transfusions. Apparently he was bleeding internally. Through all of this Russell wanted to work and he did so without complaint.I hope that this pose captures this quiet, dignified man’s fight with death, and more importantly, his love of life. Yes, cancer was killing him and he was physically fading away as evidenced by the largeness of his white shirt. However, his courage and his sense of responsibility to art were eternal traits that would never end.While this portrait was very much motivated by my need to produce work for my show, my own medical history was inseparable from Russell’s experience. At the age of 19 I had a malignant parotid gland tumor that was surgically removed. Although I survived cancer, this experience has been omnipresent in my life. So, my portrait of Russell is also a portrait of me. If this portrait gives comfort and hope to even one fellow patient both Russell and I will be very happy

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