Russell attended the Boston Museum School and the Art Students League. He cultivated a theatre career, much of it spent searching out talent for the Peg Santvoord Theater Foundation, and then switched to printmaking and sculpture.
From Donn’s website:
Donn Russell is one of Nantucket Island’s most acclaimed artists. The painter / printer / sculptor was born in 1929 in Braintree, Mass. of an art-minded family. His talent for drawing and painting was recognized early and while still a teenager, he enrolled in the Boston Museum of Art School on scholarship. He also studied piano and vocal singing, and during the years of World War II became a crooner on the nationally syndicated CBS weekly broadcast, Youth on Parade out of Boston’s local radio affiliate station WEEI on Saturday mornings. Weekends were spent entertaining at bond drives in theaters and traveling to surrounding military camps and hospitals, often in tow with Hollywood celebrities like Ida Lupino and others traveling the famed Hollywood Stage Door Canteen circuit.
That stint on radio and its accompanying personal appearances led to private tutoring and eventual acceptance in the Boston University College of Music, where he majored in musicology, earning part of his tuition costs by choir singing in local Back Bay churches and solo stints at weddings and concerts in and around the Hub, sometimes accompanying himself on the piano as well. He came by his talent naturally. Family on both sides contained serious musicians, and two of them, an aunt on his father’s side who studied to be an opera singer and an uncle on his mother’s side who became a choral master and tenor soloist, both had careers in the field. All members either sang or played instruments or both at every subsequent family get-together.
In 1965, Russell co-founded the Peg Santvoord Foundation for the performing arts in memorium, after that close friend’s untimely death in a plane crash in the Virgin Islands. It vowed to carry on her entrepreneurial interests by supporting non-traditional stage and film productions as well as funding workshops for new dance and musical enterprises. In April 2011 he and the foundation were honored for their lifelong devotion to evolving arts at a gala 25th anniversary celebration of Dixon Place in lower Manhattan that received its first grant from them. A book by Russell detailing those early exuberant years, ‘AVANT-GUARDIAN: 1965-1990. A Theater Foundation Director’s Twenty-Five Years Off Broadway’ was published in 1997, and became a reference staple of New York City’s Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and the Yale Drama School Library, among others. The initial book signing party was hosted on the Lower East Side of New York at La MaMa Experimental Theater Club by its charismatic founder and director, New Orleans born Ellen Stewart. (And true to her unorthodox style, all the waiters were young petty crime prisoners doing time at Rikers Island, where she was fostering a culinary arts program.) She donated rare early theatrical posters for ‘An Evening With Donn Russell’ when he appeared the following summer to lecture on the book at a sell-out Nantucket theater charity benefit.
Russell’s early training in music developed into a lifelong love and appreciation of it. For many years until the onset of weakening eyesight, he practiced on his piano every morning, and attended concerts at Carnegie Hall and Met opera performances in New York often thereafter. (In fact most of his own later benevolent gifts were grants for study in colleges of music.) But it took one summer back at the family Homestead in Medway, Mass., painting and sketching with his artist mother - with encouragement from her brother who was a noted successful illustrator - to convince him that he should make art his real career choice. That fall he enrolled in Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, later studying at The School of Visual Arts, and finally The Art Students League, NYC.
At first he majored solely in painting, and had early success in winning top awards at the National Academy in New York City and the Hartford Atheneum and Silvermine Arts Center in Connecticut. He became a regular member of the “Waverly Gallery” stable of artists on Washington Square in Greenwich Village where he now lived. (The gallery owner Mildred Milch’s grandson, the award-winning playwright Kenneth Lonergan wrote the Broadway play Waverly Gallery in 1999 to honor her, with Estelle Parsons playing her role. Another character was ‘Don’, a mediocre artist and arriviste from Boston trying to muscle in on the territory. The writer swore it was not based on reality but few were convinced.) Russell also took to displaying his watercolors on the wrought iron fences around the Square during the annual spring and fall outdoor art exhibits, winning honors and, better, cash awards. From that exposure, his work was discovered by the publishing firm of I.B.Fischer and reproduced widely.
He expanded his artistic scope further by taking up sculpting, using carving tools handed down by his maternal Swedish grandfather, a professional wood carver. For over ten years he worked in the medium, turning out satirical pieces that were popular enough to be shown in galleries from Madison Avenue to London. Photos of them graced the pages of the New Yorker, Time, Life and Fortune magazines in Irving Trust banking ads that won a New York Illustrators Club award in 1975. A retrospective exhibit, called ‘Donn Russell’s Wood Larks’ got a 2-month run in the street floor gallery of the U.S. Plywood Company’s headquarters in Manhattan. Later, photos of the work were regularly incorporated into the New York Times Book Reviews as illustrations. A Book-on-CD with the same title followed in 2000.
In 1970 Donn Russell’s interests expanded to the graphic arts and print making, especially silkscreens or ‘Serigraphs’, an obsession that would continue for the rest of his artistic career, as illuminated in the following sections of this website. By then he had built a summer home and studio on Nantucket Island after numerous earlier visits of short duration. He began exhibiting his paintings, sculptures and prints with growing success in local galleries, and in 1979 set up his own print gallery on Old South Wharf in one of the weathered fishermen’s shanties that lined both sides as it thrust out into Nantucket Bay from downtown. The other shanties were also being converted into arts and crafts shops and in time it became a thriving focal artistic center.
In over two decades there he gained widespread recognition, becoming dubbed affectionately ‘The Mayor of Old South Wharf’, in no little part for his 15-minute appearance on the hour long TV special “4th of July on Nantucket” on Channel 5 WCVB Boston in 1989, in which the program host led the viewer down Russell’s storied in-town garden path to a tour of the interior of his studio and a discussion of the artwork in the loft, followed at the end by an actual on-site demonstration of screen printing in the adjoining workshop. The program was repeated the next July. On an equal par with that was the surprise designation he received from the Artists’ Association of Nantucket in March 2010, of being the only living member among 16 bygone artists to be honored in a special exhibit of their work called “ICONS: Influential Artists From The Association’s 65-Year History” In his case it was for his unique output and for inventing his own formula of ink preparation for printing that challenged fading from age or light.
The winter months during those years were devoted to his foundation activities in New York City, seeking out exceptional burgeoning talent in all the facets of public performing for grants, and sometimes even designing sets and costumes - with widely (and wildly) mixed results. Sculptures were sketched and executed in his Greenwich Village studio, as well as layout plans for future serigraphs. But travel was the reward for all those efforts. After turning 20, a major foreign trip was planned for every year thereafter. He briefly kept a studio (a leaky derelict greenhouse in an immense overgrown rose garden with lovely light) in suburban Clapham Common, while putting finishing touches on a big sculpture exhibit for London, a city he came to think of as his spiritual home.
He traipsed all over the European Continent, Middle East, Mexico, the Orient, South Pacific, Greece, Russia, Turkey, India and North Africa, to name a few. The culmination was a trip completely around the world in 1989. The photos and sketches from each sojourn became important inspirations for later work. In 2010, he completed a book about all of that, titled “The Long and Short of It: Stories From a Lifetime” Looking back, he found, was the greatest reward of all.
He also found that the past could catch up to the present. Example: An image from an early Off-Broadway theater poster he created for the 1972 stage play, “Nourish The Beast”, was incorporated as a set design/prop in the 2013 Hollywood feature film PARANOIA, directed by Robert Luketic and starring Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfus and Gary Oldman!