THE GENIUS WITHIN: A PROFILE OF LOCAL ARTIST TEGAN RUSSELL

By Chloe Higgins

In ancient Rome, the word ‘genius’ referred to a divine entity that lived in the walls of an artist’s studio and would come out and assist the artist and affect the outcome of the artwork.
On this topic, in her 2009 TED talk titled ‘Your elusive creative genius’, Elizabeth Gilbert said, “People did not believe creativity came from human beings, people believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source for distant and unknowable reasons…disembodied creative spirit.”
For Tegan Russell, this ‘genius’ is exactly where her art comes from. “You’re working in collaboration with this other thing that we can’t explain, and that’s what creativity is,” Tegan explained.

Tegan is a painter, drawer, sculptor, teacher, entrepreneur and curator. In 2011, she began her Bachelor of Visual Arts at the National Art School. In 2012, she transferred to the University of Wollongong where she completed her degree in 2013. This year, she opened her first art gallery, Now You See Me, in Wollongong. Now You See Me is a professional space to connect, show and support creative people. Making art is in Tegan’s veins. She has clear memories from when she was three of “looking at things and wondering why the angles appeared a certain way to [her] eye, or looking at reflections in the bath and trying to figure out how the water made everything look upside down”. She then started depicting these things on the page. At thirteen she taught herself how to use oil paints. “I started to look for more and started depicting emotion,” she said. From there, she began to look beyond the physical properties of objects and focus on their energy. “I think conveying the energy of something is just as powerful as depicting the object. If you were going to draw an orange you could draw it realistically or you could draw it abstractedly and capture its essence.” As Tegan matured, so too did her art practice. “As I learn about the world I learn things about my art, and my art teaches me things about the world.” But Tegan’s art hasn’t always stemmed from such a positive place. “I had severe anxiety growing up… not fitting in, feeling outcast, feeling weird. I got left out at school and didn’t fit in to the education system, even up to university… Everything I was taught in school just didn’t make sense.” This only propelled Tegan to make more art. “Art for me was a way to deal with that anxiety,” she said. “Finding ways for me to be happy by myself… I could just lock myself away; it was an outlet for me to enjoy myself.” Recently, Tegan realised why she never felt like she fitted in, even during her university level art classes. While everyone else was planning their works methodically, she was going the other way. Tegan’s best work is produced when she listens to the guiding voice inside and sets aside her rational, critical mind. Tegan believes her most recent work, a figure of a blue naked body with the head replaced by pot plants, is her best work to date. But it wouldn’t have come had she not listened to the ‘genius’ guiding her hands. “The process I went through with that art was like ‘rub out the head’, and then ‘don’t rub out the head, why would people want to see a body without a head?’”
Tegan pushed through and kept listening to the voice. “‘Put pot plants across her arm’ and it’s like ‘why the fuck would you put pot plants across her arm?’” her rational voice fought back. But Tegan kept her word, and listened to the voice until the end. “And it’s the best artwork I’ve created... ever.” Not planning her pieces, but letting something beside her rational mind guide her, is not the only thing she does differently. While studying art, Tegan always felt pressured to consciously create meaning in her work. She believes setting an agenda within a work before it is created stunts the work’s growth and puts the focus on getting from point A to point B. Instead, Tegan prefers to put the focus on the process over the product. She argues this leads to a more symbolic and conceptually complex work. For Tegan, the process is more important than the meaning. “I create art for fun because I love doing it. It’s a great form of entertainment… I feel like each time I go through the process of creating a piece of art, I look back and I learn something about myself.” For other people, this viewpoint is sometimes hard to accept. “I’ve had people say ‘Can you just make it up? What would it mean if it did mean something?’” Tegan believes the reason for this is built into our society. “In Western culture, people want to understand and people want to label things.” But there isn’t always a need for this, she says. “I think it’s really interesting, for some art, for us to just accept that we don’t understand it and just experience things as they are. How does it make you feel? Does it give you a weird feeling in your gut?” This need to understand is inextricably linked to our loss of the ‘genius’ as the maker of art and creativity, Tegan said. Nowadays, all credit, responsibility and quest for meaning is laid upon the artist. The Greeks had it more accurate, she believes. “Western society has missed that, I think. They’ve made it about the ‘I’.” From now on, Tegan is committed to listening to the genius inside. Tegan is curating an exhibition of 30 local artists on August 1 at Project Artspace. Email Tegan for more information or to be added to her mailing list. You can see more of Tegan’s work at www.nowyouseemegallery. com, on her Instagram account @NYSMgallery or Facebook pages ‘Now You See Me Gallery’ and ‘artbytegan’.