On learning to love
what is destined to perish
Exploring the work of Rebecca Russo AKA Cigarettes and Kale
“To me, there’s nothing more beautiful than a flower that’s about to die. It shows us we are real.” When I met her I wasn’t expecting to find someone who shared my fondness for the gradual deterioration of flora. “My work has to reflect that sense of aging,” she tells me, “that sense of imperfection”. Replaying her words in my mind, I stare at the long-deceased bouquet sitting on my desk. The petals have taken on the appearance of entangled spider webs and softly wrinkled skin, frozen in a dreamy, pastel-coloured petrification. To me, there’s something quietly beautiful about flowers that have ceased to bloom, something honest about the slow surrender to their delicate demise.
In some ways, American artist Rebecca Russo makes art the same way flowers die. Free of force and void of expectation, her work exists as a pure extension of her being, fallen shards of the curiosities that beckon from places that are real, and those that are unseen. Featuring mostly portraits and figures—with a focus on faces, eyes and lips—her work embodies an ad hoc kind of depth, juxtaposed against what feels like an important emptiness. For the New York-born artist, developing her craft has been as much about letting go as it has about what needs to be learned; about vigilantly adding, subtracting and multiplying ever-lingering thoughts into visual equations.
“I had spent much of my life ignoring, denying, [and] running from art,” she tells me, “I was so afraid”.
Preoccupied with the equivocal notions of art that is supposedly brilliant, and art that is supposedly bad, Russo’s anxieties were rooted in the perception of the final product, robbing her attention from the poetry of the process itself. It wasn't a fear of beginning; it was a distrust of where the work would eventually end up, stemming from doubt of where it, and she, had initially begun.
“It never occurred to me that the art was good when I said it was,” she says. “I really had to learn to love myself in order to make anything believable. The biggest part of that is knowing we’re flawed and imperfect and beautiful.”
In overcoming the impulse to run from her creativity, Russo conquered something that many artists are all too often conquered by: self-doubt, a condition that, when left untreated, threatens to slowly suffocate the imagination. There is no cure, of course, but that’s the most beautiful part. A great deal of art is born from feelings of self-loathing that must be felt before being softly slain by feelings of self-love. The work Russo creates is no exception. Today, the artist’s focus has shifted from the artwork’s happy and/or other ending to the narrative itself, telling visual stories that exist mostly in a genre of their own.
Describing her artistic style as fearless, gentle, and intuitive, Russo approaches her subjects as if travelling through them and on them, just barely touching their skin. Working predominantly with pen, charcoal, ink and pastel—with a little crayon here and there—the artist illustrates genderless forms on whatever paper she can find. But it has little to do with structure; it starts with a something unnameable that is stirred from somewhere within.
“It’s like the beginning of one long hum, I try to not look at the paper and really focus on my natural response to the subject matter. Sometimes less is more, sometimes the more I draw the more I discover. Sometimes I have to visit the same drawing [for] months and months before it makes [any] sense.”
Admitting that there are days when she feels like she never wants to draw again, Russo’s aesthetic embodies a hypnotic, calm chaos, perhaps a reflection of the artist’s metamorphic drive; a hunger that lurks in the depths of the artist’s psyche, rising as a feeling that is never felt the same as it was the day before.
“Every day is endless inspiration for me…sometimes I feel overwhelmed, and then discouraged, because there’s never enough time, never enough space. I don't want to lose it.”
It’s this affliction—combined with a lingering sense of something fragile and lovely—that anchors the artist’s work. Spending time with the subjects of Russo’s illustrations is like spending time with strangers who have hidden stories to tell—tales filed away in places you look for, all the while wondering if you really want to know the secret you are trying so hard to find. Mostly though, Russo’s art is an unfiltered reflection of a soul trying to make sense of its environment, and organising it to make it pretty. The result is an aesthetic that is as refined as it is unapologetically raw.
“I grew up with a parent who was an addict. Anyone who has lost a parent before they actually die can understand the chaos it can cause, the instability. Everything was always breaking. Some of my work still holds that pain, I think you can feel that breaking, still.”
Engaged in a never ending dance between beauty and horror—a melancholic waltz that sometimes makes you feel sad in a satisfying kind of way—Russo’s only self-expectation nowadays is to discover, forever running out of paper in unspecified pursuit, always dying for something that is extraordinary.
“True beauty is frightening, and most things that frighten us are the unknown. There is nothing more beautiful than life, and yet we know it’s going to end.”
In surrendering to the imperfect truth of the art that once made her so afraid, Russo demonstrates, one illustration at a time, a very real part of the human condition—the attempt to come to terms with mortality, before transcending that feeling of self-acceptance into a feeling of self-love. Her pieces don't simply evoke thoughts that are pure and pretty, they arouse the parts of yourself that are both fragile and fierce, subconsciously inviting you to fall in love with all aspects of your truest being.
“I think I want them to see themselves,” she tells me when I ask her what she hopes that we will see. “I want them to feel something, [to] see someone they know, someone familiar.”
The exact parameters of these reflections are of no importance, the measurements don’t matter, as long as the reverberations of the echoes are observed and touched and felt. Breaking down what she sees into visual poems made from marks and lines, Russo provides us with entry points into the parts of our landscape that we’ve never really known, inviting us to look past what we thought we knew; to challenge what we’ve already been told. This is why Russo’s subjects are always stripped of gender, completely void of labels that attempt to categorise things that need not be strictly classified.
“Beauty has no gender, it’s all a landscape to me. When we take aspects from each end of the spectrum and we move them around, we create a new kind of a beauty, a raw curious unedited beauty, a true beauty—one without restrictions. We as people are capable of so much more.”
Much like a flower that’s about to die, the illustrations of Rebecca Russo show us that we are real. In the words of the artist herself, everyday is a masterpiece, a victory, and a defeat. An opportunity to learn to trust and love what is so beautifully destined to perish.
This story was first published on Self Practice