Superhero Surprises

Of mutants and myths

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

When Steeb Russell was in the sixth grade, he responded to a school assignment about the future with the edict that he wanted to “live on an earth with superheroes.” To drive the point home, he included a drawing.

And, although his teacher interpreted Russell’s response to mean that he wanted to be a comic book artist when he grew up, decades later he’s adamant that nope, he really just wants to live in a world where magic and mutation is commonplace and mild-mannered reporters can turn into caped crusaders at a moment’s notice.

In hindsight, though, his teacher was at least partially correct. Russell isn’t a comic book artist, per se, but he’s made a name for himself in the region by painting colorful characters that have big ideas and are easy to admire—sort of like superheroes.

Russell says his grade school wish about a world populated by mythical men and women has never really gone away. It’s one reason he decided to curate “Mutants ‘R’ Us,” a group exhibit opening Oct. 4 during the downtown Bellingham Art Walk at Make.Shift Art Space.

When inviting the 40-plus artists, Russell asked them to reinterpret exiting characters in the known pop cultural universe of both superheroes and villains. He encouraged them to play with “moody magical mythology, fantastic costumes and superhuman powers” however they wished, and hoped they’d mutate in new and inventive ways.

When coming up with his own creations for the show, Russell says the Incredible Hulk, Mighty Thor, and Batman and Robin were his inspirations.

“While researching them, I became a little overwhelmed with all the other characters out there in the super-universe, and then I had about a week where my 10-year-old self really wanted to paint an ode to Captain Carrot and his amazing Zoo Crew,” he says.

While Thor and the Incredible Hulk won out over the big orange guy, Russell says he’s also been inspired by the art that’s been pouring in from those who contributed to the show. Among the submissions: Male superheros dressed in embroidered drag, a series of famous heroes with modern financial troubles, Wonder Woman hand-painted on vintage plates in real-life hero situations, and a quilted marine mammal wearing the mask of a famous super-friend.

“More than 45 artists worked really hard to make something that was specific to their own style and aesthetic with the superhero/villain theme intact,” Russell says.

When asked what differentiates a superhero from a villain, Russell was quick with an answer.

“Superheroes help others in need,” he says. “Villains harm others or destroy things that people care about. Mutants are born with powers or a gift, so a mutant could be either a hero or villain—or undecided.”

While it’s too soon to tell if the superheroes won out over the villains, those who are interested in finding out how their favorite characters have morphed are encouraged to come to the opening reception for “Mutants ‘R’ Us” and ask the contributing artists what motivated them.

For his part, Russell will be happy to share his artistic process, and hopes the exhibit sparks conversations among both the contributors and the general public.

“This giant group art show represents two things I believe with all of my heart that we need more of: poetry and cartoons!” Russell says. “Also, if you are so inclined, wearing costumes—or at least your underwear outside of your pants—is strongly encouraged.”

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