Young at Heart

Words by Kevin Marr

With his world-famous work featured at Relevant Galleries in Cherry Creek North, Russell Young’s journey through life has been a true Hollywood story.

Russell Young thought he was done. The world-renowned artist was losing consciousness after watching the Thomas Fire of 2017 become a bright, glowing red assassin outside of his Southern California home. He had chosen to stay and ignore fire evacuations and had soon become mesmerized by this one specific color that he could see burning in this pending doom.  Always the artist. In the middle of a raging inferno, he’s noticing an elusive color for one of his projects in the looming flames.

By luck, the air came back into the valley just in time for Young to fight off collapse and high tail it out of there to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles to get treated for carbon monoxide poisoning.

“I’ve always felt comfortable around fire,” he admits from his coastal property in Carpinteria, California, just 18 miles north of L.A. “I’ve always cooked on fires outside in fire pits, and I had a wood-burning stove and pizza oven in the house. I watched the Thomas Fire for four or five days.”

Russell Young was born into fire. The irony of it all is that it was ultimately stoked and fanned in the frigid, damp, miserable surroundings of Northern England. Born in 1959 in Yorkshire, he was immediately put into a foster home, then a nunnery, and was adopted before reaching the age of one. No one exactly knew who his birth parents were, though there were rumors that his mother was 14, and his father was from Italy. Much of Russell’s childhood was spent moving from town to town and living an isolating existence.

The beginning of what would transform his life forever was serendipitously sparked by “scary trees.” At the age of three, Russell was gifted with large, beautiful pieces of paper and some graphite pencils from one of his aunts for Christmas. He immediately dropped to the floor and began drawing the “scary trees” that occupied the forest in his aunt’s backyard. “In those early days, I had the need to really experiment with what I wanted to do.” Off and running in the art department at an early age, his adoptive father would help continue to shape young Russell’s foray into the creative with a routine that the boy would never forget, “My father would take me to the movies,” he says with a glowing smile. “Marilyn Monroe. Liz Taylor. Westerns. That was my escape. It was gray, dark, and brutal under the deadened skies in Northern England, and the movies I watched were masterfully geared towards Americana. That led me wanting to come to California. This to me was nirvana, heaven, utopia.”

He would add photography to his portfolio of interests at the age of eight. It would serve him well when he acted on his instincts for something better in life. Russell realized at an early age that he was being groomed by society for a nothing life destined to go nowhere, “I knew Northern England was terrible. I knew it was a horrible place. The fights every day. The grayness. The coldness. The wet. And my school was factory fodder. They wouldn’t let us be anything else or do anything else, and that’s what we were trained for…to go work in a factory.”

Russell has the scars to prove everything, “I’ve got three big holes in the back of my head from Northern England – one from a glass, one from a bottle, and one from a typewriter. I’ve got two knife wounds in my sides, and those are just the physical wounds. There are a lot more inside.”

So, Young planned a prison break of sorts. And he would use his affinity for art to eventually Shawshank his way out of England.

He would lie about his age when he was 15 to attend art college. Had he not lied, he’s convinced he would have most likely moved to the streets of London and died. In college, he would achieve a four-year degree with honors in graphic design while specializing in film and photography. It was here where he knew he was on to something with his photography, “The art college asked me if my uncle or father was a photographer who took the pictures because they felt I couldn’t have taken them. So, I clearly had a good eye for light and dark and negative and composition and everything else.”

Five years after graduating, Young moved to London and would catch the attention of photographer Christos Raftopoulos, whom he assisted for several years. Raftopoulos introduced Young to another side of himself, building him his own darkroom, taking him to the opera, and showing him that the limits of his life did not need to confine him or his work.

It was during this chapter in Russell’s life when the music began to play. Literally.  While he was still susceptible to occasional homelessness and an admitted “rough in nature” attitude, his innate eye and decision making with photography was rock solid, landing him early magazine photoshoots with R.E.M., Bauhaus, and The Smiths. His first record sleeve cover would come in the form of George Michael’s 1986 legendary, multi-platinum album, Faith. During this period, he also shot portraits of Morrissey, Björk, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, New Order, Diana Ross, and Paul Newman. His star was on the rise while rubbing shoulders with the stars of the world.

The 80s were a groundbreaking period full of ways to get distracted. Some good. Some not so good. In Russell Young’s case, his excessive consumption was a rare breed that most couldn’t identify with…directing music videos. “I was meant to direct one music video,” he says with a laugh. “I did 100. I got sidetracked in the heyday of MTV and had some good times in my 20s and 30s in the rock n roll industry.”

In the 90s, Young would end up calling an audible with his career path, changing his fate forever, “It fell out of love with me and I fell out of love with the music business. The jobs got more corporate and less creative. I went searching for something else,” he explained in an interview with Conner Williams of artnet Auctions. That “something else” ended up being a lost love from his childhood. It was a return to the “scary trees.”

“I regret that the three-year-old didn’t get his way and that I wasn’t always an artist,” Russell confesses with stark admission. “I was really good at life drawings and, while I still draw today, I should be drawing every day. I wonder what I’d be doing now if I’d stuck with it. I think about all the paintings that weren’t done because of the disruption of photography.”

But the prodigal son did return, quitting photography and music videos cold turkey, and he started to paint seriously. Young’s artistic style would end up kicking down doors all over the planet.

His series, Pig Portraits, would be the somewhat unintentional springboard to his reputation for “fame and shame” portrayals, spotlighting the mugshots of musicians, actors and political figures while blowing them up as bold, colorful, silkscreen, portraits. “I do go to the counterculture of America and the elements of a dark side, which I love.” Among the featured were Sid Vicious, Elvis Presley, Jane Fonda, Malcolm X, Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra and Lee Harvey Oswald. “They were meant to be anti-celebrity portraits. Perhaps it was to take a dig at my former career.”

Credit Russell’s father for taking him to the movies for the resonating inspiration that’s now taken center stage with his art. His contemporary and modern pop art stems from watching films like The Magnificent Seven and falling in love with America, the culture, the counterculture and all of the aspirational images he experienced at the movies. Young explains, “I do portraits and modern takes on classic portraits, going back into the history of art to interpret them in very different ways. In no way am I putting myself anywhere near this company, but Rembrandt did certain things with colors and his marks that were so beautiful that the skin in his work looks real; and Van Gogh put paint that’s so thick that made these beautiful portraits.”

And don’t forget the diamond dust.

This sounds like a 1980’s party reference and while it’s not a drug, Young’s signature art treatment certainly has hypnotized its fans like one. The glittery, eye-popping, pulverized diamonds are shrouded in mystery as to its origins and execution because Young keeps it close to the vest, “Kevin, it’s a secret.” What isn’t a secret is the popularity and respect that Russell’s artwork has garnered, including many prominent private and institutional collections like those of Elon Musk, the late David Bowie, Drake, Angelina Jolie, David Hockney, Kayne West, and Brad Pitt, as well as The Getty Collection in Los Angeles and The White House Collection in Washington, D.C. His works have crossed the auction block at all of the world’s major auction houses, including Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips, while gracing space across the world as the only art window display in the history of Harrods in London, the Modern Art Museum Shanghai, Multimedia Art Museum Moscow, Cornell Art Museum, Polk Museum of Art, and the Goss-Michael Foundation.

His feature debut in Denver at Relevant Galleries is another feather in his cap, “I love their program,” Young begins with his praise for the popular gallery in Cherry Creek North. “They have such a great positive energy as well as enthusiasm, knowledge, and love for my work. That’s what I want to be surrounded by. They have the artist’s best interest at heart, and they understand it’s about the art and not about commerce. The art must lead the commerce and they’re one of the few galleries that really gets that.”

Outside the museums, galleries and mansions that host his artistic creations, his true playgrounds for self-growth and introspection transpire in much more unassuming settings.

It would appear that Young’s spiritual animal is a fish because he regularly swims a mile out into the Pacific Ocean in the middle of the night to see the moon rise. You read that correctly. The ocean is a different kind of canvas from what Young paints on, but it yields an equally magical experience. It’s a true exercise for both the body and the mind, “After floating for 20 minutes, you come to the upright position, and you automatically sink. You can’t fight against sinking,” Young reveals. “All the way out there and back, you’re on your own in the middle of the night and there’s something very beautiful about it.”

Then there are his campouts under a nearby freeway overpass. Once again, he’s an artist on an exploration, following beauty in whatever form it appears. Here we are with his gravitation to water once again, “There’s a spot you can go to by the freeway right by the ocean and, when it rains, the rain comes down like a waterfall and you get particularly exposed to massive waves down below,” he divulges. “I like where it takes me, where it pushes me, and how it makes me think. Life is so easy with phones and everything, right? We’ve all been sanitized to such a ridiculous degree that I know I need these experiences.”

How about an experience rolling around in goat’s blood on some bed sheets? It happened in Greece while visiting his mentor, Raftopoulos. “Something in my head had me feeling creative,” he begins. “I was at a butcher shop and I saw some blood in the back. Christos asked the butcher, ‘Can he have the blood from the next goat that you kill?’ A few days later, I get a plastic water bottle full of blood and rolled around on sheets that I found in Christos’ closet.”

“The last thing I am is an adrenaline junkie.” I thought I had misheard Russell, so I had him repeat that. I had him pegged wrong. “The experience as a human being and as an artist is what I like. There’s no way I’d jump out of a plane with a parachute. That is absolutely stupid to me,” he concedes.

Speaking of adrenaline, the Thomas Fire wasn’t the only time that Young had escaped death. Most notably, 2009 could have easily been the final year on his tombstone. While in Greece, he contracted the H1N1 virus. He was in a coma for over a week.

“I died a couple of times and was resuscitated.” The recovery was grueling and terrifying for Young and his family, with a particular story exhibiting just how far he was from living a normal life again, “I’m in a walker and on oxygen. I can’t read or write. I saw a color that I didn’t recognize so I asked, ‘What color is that?’ It was the color green. I had to relearn all of those things. One of my sons brought me a book about animals and I could hardly believe that polar bears existed. Then I asked him, ‘Do dinosaurs still exist?’ and that really frightened my son.”

What does exist with Russell Young is a bit of everything. He just turned 65, but he tells his kids that he’s really 27-years-old, if that. He’s getting married this year, he continues to surf big waves, his current projects are accompanied by a record player blasting Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, and some of his happiest moments are hiking for hours in the Los Padres National Forest with his dog.

And, of course, there are his rings. “My rings are like armor. I feel naked without them,” he confides. He wears six at a time and one, in particular, stands out, “I had a skull ring made by the same people who made Keith Richard’s ring. Keith has had his for 15 years and I’ve had mine for 13. People are always drawn to it. There are only nine of these rings made in the world. Johnny Depp has one of the nine. When I ran into him, I told him, ‘We can’t die until Keith dies. He’s going to go ‘down there’ and set up a VIP room for us. This (the ring) is the entry fee. This is the pass.”

One thing is for certain, regardless of where Young’s afterlife reservations may be, the art he brings with him is going to be fantastic. But we feel he’s got a lot more time left here on Terra firma.

Remember the old Timex watch slogan, “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking?” Russell Young is a walking Timex. He even addressed it not too long ago, “My friend interviewed me recently and said, ‘You’re like a cat with nine lives.’ I immediately replied, ‘If I was a cat, I’d be dead by now.”

But he’s still feeling forever Young.

See the complete feature in the Spring 2024 issue of Cherry Creek Magazine HERE.

View Russel’s work at Relevant Galleries in Cherry Creek North.