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The Bend Magazine

A Rockport Renaissance Man

01/29/2021 10:00PM ● By Kirby Tello
By: Kirby Conda Tello  Photos by: Lillian Reitz

A founding member of the Rockport Art Association, established in 1967, Steve Russell has long been an integral figure in the local art community. Russell was born and raised in Corpus Christi, and is a true historian with a plethora of knowledge, experiences, and memories that date back to a time when the third coast looked a lot different than it does today. And it is this rich history that Russell weaves into the narrative of his artwork. 

Steve Russell is a legend in Rockport. He has mentored numerous artists who now make up a large part of Rockport’s Cultural Art District. Similarly, Rockport is home to many well-known artists who have shown their work all over the nation, who mentored Russell in his early days. Having the invaluable influence of major art players guide his own artistry, Russell has been able to explore mediums including painting, glass blowing, jewelry, sculpture, and many other variations of art. In each of these disciplines, the viewer can get a sense of the profoundness found in the atmosphere of the sub-tropic, coastal plains. 

In his latest endeavor, Russell is working hand in hand with the Rockport Cultural Art District (RCAD) on a public art installation: a series of bronze sculptures that explore the days of European conquistadors and the Karankawa Indians, who are native to Corpus Christi. In fact, RCAD is sponsoring Russell to create this iconic depiction of historical Corpus Christi at a time when the natural resources available to survive were (and still are) fish, shellfish, crab, and game such as deer and wild hog. 

And there could be no better person than Steve Russell to tell this story, since he has witnessed the many changes and evolution of the community – not to mention that his ability to recall even the most minute historical details is unmatched. RCAD’s executive director, Jennifer Day, says Russell can “tell you where the beach used to be.”

Day calls Russell a “true renaissance man.” His broad portfolio of accolades makes him an excellent storyteller, too. He’s invested a great deal of time and effort into constructing this series, consisting of two sets of three nine-foot-tall bronze sculptures, and the narrative is peppered with references to local culture and industry. 

As if six nine-foot bronze sculptures aren’t impressive enough, Russell’s installation will showcase a European conquistador, a pirate, and a monk together on a boat emerging from the horizon. Yes, emerging from the bayfront! This first set of sculptures will be situated atop a large 40-foot rock in the water. As the first set of bronzes will tell the story of the Europeans approaching the coastline of land which belonged to the native Karankawa Indians, Russell is creating a sculpture of a male, female, and baby which will be placed on shore.

“There are a lot of requirements from an engineering standpoint,” says Day. “We have been working on this with Steve since last year.” After a few rounds of successful fundraising, Russell got started on set one (the portion of the installation that will live in the water). “It is an out-of-the-box idea that brings up all sorts of geotechnical aspects to protect art in the water,” Day explains. 

Knowing the potential limitations that he would have to work around, Russell thoughtfully made the decision to use bronze because of its complementary relationship to saltwater. Day stressed the importance of the sustainability and integrity of the art, and how that can only be a reality if the wellbeing of the surrounding natural habitat is cared for, too. 

Russell is mentally and physically ready to begin the second and final set for his installation. Another successful online art auction in which local Rockport painters donated their pieces to this virtual bidding event has enabled Russell to focus on completing part two of the project. 

The collaboration has given Russell the chance to create and showcase without having to personally attend to all of the administrative and logistical aspects, and hand over concerns such as the feasibility of securing a massive bronze art piece in the middle of the bay.

When it is all said and done, while this project is a solo installation, Russell is actively engaging Rockport Fulton’s “art colony” – artists who he’s mentored or been mentored by – to collectively create other forms of public art, i.e. murals, in the cultural art district. He doesn’t have to do much for the ears of admirers to perk up. He is a Rockport legend, after all.