Interview with Russ White: The Hurt Hub Muralist

Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you found yourself in an artistic career.

After graduating from Davidson in 2004 with a degree in Studio Art, I moved to Chicago on a whim with a group of friends and worked at various odd jobs for a while, ending up as a high-end cabinet maker for seven years. I kept making artwork nights and weekends, showing at small art fairs and maker marts. I’ve been welcomed with open arms by the arts community here and been very lucky to build a successful professional practice here as a self-employed artist.

How did you come to work with the Hurt Hub?

After inviting me to be a part of an alumni exhibition at the Van Every Gallery in 2019, Gallery Director Lia Newman suggested my name to the Hurt Hub, who had just started their search for a mural artist. I had previously been commissioned by the city of Hopkins, MN, to design a series of metal screens depicting the history of the city through vehicles, which was similar in approach to what the Hurt Hub had in mind, so it was a perfect fit!

What was your overall goal or what were you trying to convey with the piece?

My main goal was to bring some funky energy into the spaces, especially the Student Project Rooms. I also wanted to amplify the vibe of the Hurt Hub’s design elements — bright colors, youthful energy — while acknowledging the building’s history as a cotton mill.

What made you choose the specific colors that you chose in the mural?

I wanted each room to have its own identity, without losing any cohesion to the overall design. In working with the Hurt Hub management, we came up with color combinations that hopefully feel fun and inviting without being distracting from any work or presentations being made in the spaces — nothing too high contrast on the color wheel within each Project Room.

How long did the murals take you and what went into the planning process?

We worked on this project off and on over the course of nine months, delayed in large part because of the uncertainty around the pandemic. In December 2019, I spent time working in The Hub, walking the campus, and digging into a pile of materials that addressed some history about the cotton mill and the cotton mill industry. Turns out, to no one’s surprise, that the story of cotton in this country is one of racism, misogyny, and labor exploitation. We all agreed it was important to create designs that did not overly romanticize that past but paid respect to the labor that was done in this place.

How do you come up with ideas for your pieces?

I mostly just try to keep my antenna up, to catch what interests me so I can stay excited about my work. In the case of the Hurt Hub murals, we went through several different ideas and inspirations before finally landing on the gears and driving belts from old photos and diagrams of cotton mill machinery that I found in my research. The idea was to abstract what this space actually looked like 120 years ago. I see it as both an homage to the work that had been done here and a metaphor for the overarching energy of the Hurt Hub, driving different entrepreneurial endeavors forward.

How has art in general impacted your life and what is your most favorite project that you worked on?

Really good art punches you in the gut and pulls you in for a hug at the same time. Sometimes it whispers a joke in your ear as well. It’s some piece of a person’s humanity distilled into an object or a performance or an experience. Art is also a craft, a discipline, a practice of seeing and thinking and asking and making. It can connect you to people across cultures, across experiences, across eons. It’s the best.

I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember, although it took a while to get comfortable calling myself an artist. I come from a family of preachers and teachers, and being an artist, to me, is very similar except that I filter my experience of the world into images and objects, in the hopes that they will resonate with someone else and help them make some sense out of this hot mess we call reality.

As for favorites… the key to my success is that my favorite project is always the one I’m working on right now.

Emma BalinInterview with Russ White: The Hurt Hub Muralist