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Calvin Russell

Maverick sculptor and visual artist

Maverick sculptor and visual artist

Born: March 4, 1964; Died: January 13, 2014.

CALVIN Russell, who has died of cancer aged 49, was a visual artist best-known for sculptures strongly influenced by Salvador Dalí, by surrealists such as Alberto Giacometti and by the baroque sculptors of the 17th and 18th centuries. Born in Thurso, northern Scotland, he was brought up at the opposite extreme, on the coast of East Sussex, and later on another coast, in the Spanish Mediterranean city of Valencia. As a result, his work reflected what another artist, the American singer Jimmy Buffett, described as "changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes."

Had he lived in the UK, Mr Russell would undoubtedly have been considered one of the YBA (Young British Artists) group, including Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin, but Mr Russell's works were far more subtle and visionary than Hirst's formaldehyde shark or Emin's much-soiled and unmade bed.

Like Dalí, Mr Russell had an eccentric and maverick streak, to put it mildly. "An art guerrilla," a critic once called him. Although never one for self-glorification, he knew how to get publicity, pulling off several stunts to attract the media and get his work recognized in the later years of the 20th Century. Rejected as an official exhibitor by the Tate in London in 1997, he smuggled in one of his bronze sculptures, titled Iron Man, under his coat and displayed it alongside works by sculptors including Rodin. Planned with the precision of a heist that might have starred Clooney and Pitt, it took him only 20 seconds to put his exhibit on show. It was half an hour before security men and Tate officials realised they had been scammed. 30 minutes of fame? That's double the time many of us get.

It was, to his delight, an art robbery in reverse and received widespread media coverage. "At least I can always say I exhibited at the Tate," he said. Mr Russell was banned from the Tate thereafter, but took great joy from the experience, merrily conducting interviews with a succession of journalists from the national press in his local pub afterwards.

For his next trick he filled a row of parking spaces on Cork Street, in London's posh art gallery Mayfair district, with sculptures and toy cars and launched his own private open-air viewing complete with wine and canapés for a bustling crowd of art enthusiasts and curious passers-by. With a toy car parked in each parking bay, he kept topping up the parking meters until a bunch of zealous cops and traffic wardens spoiled the party. Boo. But by then the journalists and photographers, who had downed most of the nibblies and wine, had assured Mr Russell of more publicity. Job done.

"He was gifted and entirely without pretension: the visual arts were second nature to him," according to a close friend, Katy Milner. "He studied sculpture at the City & Guilds of London Art School, graduating with first class honours and effortlessly producing exquisite pieces with a confidence that other artists could only wish for. His work was primarily figurative, with a strong tendency towards abstraction and often with an acerbic sense of humour."

After graduating, Mr Russell paid his bills by sculpting or painting props for shops and theatres, his reputation spreading by word of mouth. He sculpted large hands for British Telecom ads, a swan for an Elton John concert and eight large golden fibre-glass figures to flank the screen of the Odeon cinema in London's busy Leicester Square. He was commissioned to sculpt a life-size horse for kids to be photographed upon at Aintree during Grand National week. He became known for his sculpted limbs -- hands or legs -- which seemed to move before the eye although they were static objects. In the words of one art critic: "He was a clandestine intervenionist, a situationist. He wanted to engender a live critique of a stagnant institution (traditional art galleries) by realizing an idea in the public sphere ... to challenge the status quo, principally the art structure ... by involving the audience in the art."

"Calvin was eccentric, witty, always charming, and the beating heart of any social occasion," according to Katy Milner. "Notoriously forgetful, he once went out for a pint of milk and returned with a lemon. He did not seek popularity but was loved by many. He lived for many years in Spain, and relished the relaxed lifestyle, speaking fluent Spanish and surprising locals with his Valencian dialect. Sadly, in 2005, his promising career was thwarted when he was diagnosed with lymphoma."

Calvin Russell was born in Thurso on March 4, 1964, his father having returned from being a farmer in Kenya and switching careers to open a betting shop in Thurso. Calvin, whose grandfather was originally from the Shetlands, went to Thurso Primary School before the family moved to Brighton, East Sussex, when he and his brothers Sean and Alan were still boys. They would later move to Valencia, Spain. They returned regularly to Thurso to visit the grandparents for holidays and Mr Russell, despite his travels, never hesitated to say he was Scottish. He would later acquire another brother, César.

"It seems the three Russell brothers in Thurso were quite a handful," according to Katy Milner. "They escaped a couple of times, once from the grandmother's house, and managed to get down to the beach, down the cliff rather than the path, when Calvin was 4. Calv always remembered that he got stuck climbing down the cliff and froze before he was able to get himself to the beach. After another attempted "escape" by the three, Calvin's brother Sean, four-years-old at the time, made it as far as Thurso railway station, the most northerly in Britain, trying to find a train to a town called London.

Calvin Russell is survived by his 14-year-old son Clay (whom he once described as "my greatest-ever sculpture," by his mother and father Marion and James (known as JV), and his brothers Sean, Alan and César.

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