Russell Day, Mentor to Many: Chihuly, Ely, Close, Weller, Tretheway

By Jake Luplow

In August, I sat down with a man who would forever change my perspective on art and life—two things that form the symmetries of beauty. I shall pay attention for just one more minute. I thought. I shall observe, take in the silence. Artist and Lacey resident Russell Day, age 99 and still sharp as a tack, sat before me, hands clasped in his lap. His eyes held the scrapbook of his life. His face held the sentiment of years of artistic passion that bled into his work and into the lives of many students whom he mentored. I’m going to take you on a journey. I’m going to show you who Russell Day is and who he is to many artists in the world today.

He had asked himself “should I impose?” He was close enough to Chihuly that the answer would have been a resounding yes, yet he was reluctant. And so he begins…

“I had a reunion with a group I had toured China with. They asked me to get the group into Chihuly’s studio; I didn’t want to impose upon him, but I did. So he came out, greeted me warmly, and then proceeded to paint a painting for us. He got out a piece of water color paper, threw it down on the concrete, wet it, and started squirting his paints onto it. Then, before we left, he told his secretary to take me into his store room and choose anything I wanted.”

Day received his Master’s degree in design from the University of Washington. He had always been interested in glass windows, so he chose to work creatively with glass. His committee was so enthusiastic about what he had done that they conned the director of the Henry Art Gallery into having his show there, instead of in the art department.

At that time, Chihuly was a sophomore majoring in interior design. Day said, “Now, I’m not certain, but it’s my impression that my glass art show got him started with glass art.

“The first time I was at his place he was playing around with glass in a small ceramic furnace. He had asbestos gloves on and would reach into that hot furnace and pull out glass; this I thought he was nuts for doing.”

“Eventually, when he was getting ready to graduate, he came to me for advice on his portfolio. The first piece he brought me wasn’t very good. Eventually, he brought me four different pieces before I told him he had a good one. He got a fellowship award for it.”

Chihuly says, “In 1965, I blew my first glass bubble. It was very late in the evening and Russell was the first person I called to come see it. He got in his orange corvette and hurried down to see me. He is a fabulous artist, mentor and friend.”

Day was an extremely influential man: he didn’t just impact Chihuly, but also artists Lloyd Weller (photography professor at Everett Community College), Timothy Ely, Chuck Close, and Donn Tretheway, to name a few. “His artistic qualities and skills are amazing,” says Weller, “He also brought this level of artistic quality to his teaching, which is why he has so many successful former students who still revere and honor him, many decades later.”

After Day earned his undergraduate degree, he taught at Everett Community College —1948 to 1976. In Christopher Finch’s book Chuck Close: Life, Christopher explains briefly why Day was such a valued asset at Everett Junior College: “The campus might have been modest, but the art department was exceptionally well equipped…a consequence of Rus Day’s energy and passion.

“Day was a talented and versatile designer…with exceptional gifts as jewelry, and especially as an artist working with glass… Day’s own work is distinguished and inventive, but above all he was a seminal figure in the evolving worlds of design and art education in the Northwest.”

There are many successful people in this world, but few of them go beyond their own work to teach others: Day was one of them. Artist Timothy Ely shares a memory that gives us a glimpse into Day’s willingness to embrace his students.

“Late fall or early winter, very dark, rainy afternoon, after classes I had a conversation with Mr. Day about Cezanne, or rather he had it with me. He just began to talk to me about something I had done and how it connected to Cezanne. That one conversation began to really teach me that the intellectual or research side of art making was vital.  It was a fork in the road of many paths. The conversation opened a lot of doors, was a fantastic experience, and I still have the book on Cezanne that he recommended.  Drove home dazed.  I think that the piece I was working on was probably ok, but this was a great bit of encouragement and his way of making me look more deeply into what was right there. Russell contributed to several generations of artists and, like any Zen master, set up ones thinking so as to be able to roll but with grace.”

Day was more than just a professor; he was and is an artist, friend, and mentor. “I’ve always said I was very lucky to have such good students. They have all been great friends and are amazing artists,” says Day.

When I asked for some words of wisdom from Day in regards to aspiring artists and life in general, he said, “Work like hell. Follow your heart. Good things will come. Happiness is the most important goal, not money. Only you can make yourself happy.” Truth is, life will go on just as faithfully as seasons passing, people will pass like autumn fading to winter, but words will remain as eternal as wisdom passed from generation to generation. Day’s work and life has been influencing people for years, and I’m certain his wisdom will continue influencing those who are willing for years to come.

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