Island Park artist celebrated by Ottawa Art Gallery

Russell smiles as he wears a purple sweater. He stands next to some of his pieces of artwork.
Russell Yuristy, 88, was recognized by the Ottawa Art Gallery on Nov. 30. Photo by Ellen Bond.

By Bradley Turcotte

The Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG) has honoured Island Park resident and multi-medium artist Russell Yuristy.

The 88-year-old Kitchissippi-based artist was among a handful of others who were recognized at the first inaugural Artists Investiture Ceremony, held on Nov. 30. The new annual event was started to celebrate the careers of the city’s accomplished artists.

“He’s a real Canadian treasure,” said Don Monet, artist and curator of Cube Gallery. “He paints with such joy, such pleasure. You can feel it on every canvas or in every drawing he makes.”

Born to a Ukrainian family on a farm in Goodeve, Saskatchewan, population 40, Yuristy improvised his first creative materials with charcoal, as well as grain paper sourced from his father’s agriculture work. Charcoal etchings on the side of his family barn were Yuristy’s earliest compositions.

From sooty barn graffiti to a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Saskatchewan in 1959, it was in Regina where Yuristy said there were “people who were impressed that I had talent.”

A painting of red fish sits on his wall. They are swimming in a yellow backdrop.
A painting crafted by Yuristy. Photo by Ellen Bond.

After earning a MSc in Art from the University of Madison-Wisconsin, Yuristy returned to the U of Saskatchewan to teach, in addition to coordinating for the Emma Lake Artists’ Workshops, which began in 1955. The versatile artist also taught woodcut printing at The Ottawa School of Art. The National Gallery of Canada, The Canadian Museum of Civilization, and the OAG claim Yuristy pieces in their collections.

Introduced to sculpture by his good friend, renowned artist Joe Fafard, Yuristy created many sculptures in the ‘70s known as his “Funk works.” Crafted between 1969 and 1970, the collection titled “The Inside of Elephants and All Kinds of Things”, which ran at the OAG from 2020-2021, cemented Yuristy as an anti-establishment artist who addresses capitalism and consumerism in his work.

Motivated by his creations depicting animals and people in imaginary crafts, Yuristy brought these creatures to life with interactive wooden pieces. The Creative Playground Workshop built several artistic structures in the ‘70s and ‘80s, including a fish at former Ottawa City Hall in New Edinburgh, a beaver, and an elephant with a slide for a trunk, in addition to a commission for Expo ’74 in Spokane, Washington. 

Yuristy fondly remembers children from the communities assisting with the builds.

Farm life influenced Yuristy’s view of the natural world and he proudly identifies as an environmentalist artist. While his contemporaries created large abstracts, Yuristy chose to channel the beauty of our environment.

Some of Russell’s paintings are on disable on a wall. They are small in size and mostly done on paper.
Yuristy said he enjoys to paint plants, trees and animals. Photo by Ellen Bond.

“I love plants, trees, and animals,” he said. “I learned that from my mother and father growing up on a farm. I thought that’s what I should do.”

Yuristy’s menagerie of paintings include birds, owls, coyotes, and a large, textured piece depicting determined salmon returning home to spawn and die.

 “My favourite is his leaping bunny,” Monet confessed. “There’s a rabbit that is so beautiful. It captures the moment of flight. It’s magical.”

When he settled on Gwynne Avenue in the ‘80s, Yuristy noticed the contrast of plant life in Ontario.

“When I was out in Saskatchewan, the trees are quite small there, then I came here and thought, wow, these trees are just amazing,” he told KT in a previous 2015 interview.

The Kitchissippi urban forest near Northwestern Ave and the Parkway, as well as Mud Lake at Britannia Beach are Yuristy’s favourite local sources of artistic inspiration.

“I like to go down and walk by the river for an hour or two, that’s where I find a lot of my subjects,” Yuristy said previously. “Sometimes I’ll bring a large paper with me and do a live sketch, or other times I work from a photograph.”

The top level of the house Yuristy shares with his wife Mayo Graham is bright and showroom-like, while the basement is Yuristy’s eclectic workshop, looking and feeling like a whimsical artistic playground.

Russell poses for a photograph next to his painting of fish.
At 88, Yuristy is still recognized for his artistic talents. Photo by Ellen Bond.

An image of an unraveling face by Norman Takeuchi, an artist honoured along with Yuristy in 2023 by the OAG, hangs upstairs.

Supporting fellow artists is important to Yuristy and the couple have collected works by Leslie Reid, Ruth Dick, Eric Walker, and John Barkley.

Graham, an accomplished art historian, has worked with many arts organizations, and laughed that “anything that’s hanging in my house are my favourite works of Russ’.”

One grandiose piece on white canvas sectioned off like a calendar tells the story of a family trip to Europe.

“We did that piece on vacation with the kids,” Graham explained, “We went to France and Holland. Every day is a story. You see us going in the airplane on the top and then finally we’re in Amsterdam with the seven bridges on the way back. Each one of the kids signed. They participated.”

At 88, Yuristy openly criticizes the government, discusses sex, and recounts institutionalized violence he experienced growing up.

When asked what truly inspires him, hitting on the dynamics of capitalism and social inequality, he remembers a neighbouring wealthy British family while growing up in rural Saskatchewan.“They inspired me that you can live simply,” said Yuristy.

A black and white collage of pictures. They appear to be hand drawn sketches.
Artwork created by Yuristy hangs in his Island Park home. Photo by Ellen Bond.
Paint brushes sit in pots.
Yuristy’s paint brushes sit in pots on a table in his home studio. Photo by Ellen Bond.

Leave a comment