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Nancy Chen

Legacy Russell is a passionate feminist, artist, actress, curator, editor, writer and all-around badass. Flawlessly fusing academia with art, her work has been featured in Refinery29, the Village Voice, the New York Times, and more. By exploring iconography, remembrance, and idolatry through her work, she’s changing the art world, one project at a time. This week, Sariel Friedman got the chance to ask Russell about the inspiration behind her art, her college experience, and her perfect playlist.

You do so many things. You're an artist, a curator, an actress, a writer, an editor, and more. How do you manage it all?

Everything I do informs everything else. All parts are interconnected. I take on new projects and assignments that can act as research for other aspects of my creative practice. This keeps my hands full—it can be a juggling act, for sure—but all parts fully activated. When I feel overwhelmed, I focus in and meditate on just one strand. However, the symphony comes in the synergy, and for that reason I lean in to the desire to combine and cross faculties, as it heightens my awareness in-the-round and makes me conscious of being purposeful as a creative producer in this world.

What was your first job? Did you know what you wanted to do right off the bat?

My first job? I worked at a smoothie shop. I think I was thirteen or fourteen. My parents figured out that they were throwing their own money away paying me an allowance that I would then go out and spend on the typical teenage things—clothes, food, making trouble with friends. So they told me that I had to learn some responsibility. I went out and applied at Lucky's Juice Joint, which is now Liquiteria in the East Village. I was a failure as a smoothie-maker—I spent most of my time spilling things, people-watching, or flirting at the counter. There was a guy who used to come in every once in a while who I thought was super cool—dressed all in black, with a cap on, and always with a booklet of photographs that he would show me. Every week we'd chat. It wasn't until some of the older employees saw me chatting that they took me aside and said, "Yo, that's Q-Tip!" I had no idea who Q-Tip was, so I remember going to the music store and looking him up. That was the first time I ever heard "Vivrant Thang". It was amazing to realise that a guy making incredible music like that was also able to take such beautiful photographs. A good lesson in multi-disciplinary practice and the passions required therein, for sure.

What was your college experience like? How did your education inform your art?

I went to school in Saint Paul, Minnesota, to Macalester College. Macalester is a small liberal arts school in a small quaint city. It's lots of manicured houses and historical this and that. It's lots of folks going running in unison along Summit Avenue in matching university sweat suits. At the time there was like a Thai place, a cafe or two, a couple vintage shops and some bars in the immediate vicinity—it wasn't exactly hopping. But that's why it was a good place—it was this quiet sanctuary. Saint Paul is right next to Minneapolis; the two are both cities, but where Macalester is located in Saint Paul feels like the deep suburbs in comparison to Minneapolis. When it snows everything goes silent and for miles all you can see is white. I spent my four years there making a lot, writing a lot. Going to school in Minnesota kept me focused in a lot of ways that I don't think I would have been if I had gone to college in a place where the weather was sunny and everything was green year-round. All winter we'd more or less be inside, so it allowed me to really get obsessive about my writing and art-making. I'd say that my experience at Macalester was formative for a variety of reasons—there I fell in love and learned what that could be like in a real way, I met some of my closest co-conspirators and friends, and was mentored by the likes of Professors Ruthann Godollei, Wang Ping, Christine Willcox, and James Dawes. They each taught me a lot about myself. There were many occasions where I felt pretty burnt out and confused by the state of the art and literary world and therefore entering into that space felt daunting; I truly believe that if I had not gotten the training I did from the teachers who taught me at Macalester that I would have been a bit lost. Instead I used that four years to heavily incubate in a creative community and then the second I graduated I flew back to New York and hit the ground running, entering into my first real full-time job in the art world, producing programs at The Whitney Museum of American Art.

Who are you inspired by? Why?

Boriquas, punks, drag queens of the East Village and the original Lower East Side, now mostly erased and displaced. It was in that community, and from those folks, that I began my journey into the study of performance, visuality, and cultural identity. I also am incredibly inspired by both my mother and father, who played a central role in my art education, both at home and out in the world. As for artists—the list is long, and it changes daily—there's a lot of brilliance to be found. Some of my enduring favourites—Camille Henrot, Charlotte Prodger, Rashaad Newsome, Devin KKenny, Niv Acosta, Jesse Darling, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Liz Magic Lazer, Sara Cwynar...I'm naming these in no particular order, but without a doubt those are some fantastic makers.

Do you have any advice for aspiring Renaissance women?

Non-negotiable: make work, make friends, build yourself a solid foundation. The art and literary worlds are not safe spaces, they're incredibly volatile and can enact some seriously violent forces on budding young women (and men) in these fields. That said, don't build just a social network—build an actual community, who will participate in an ongoing dialogue about your work, who will celebrate you when things are up, and who will give you some honest feedback when things don't go your way. Be sustainable by investing in "self" in this way.

How do you feel about the state of the art world?

Ever read Hans Christian Anderson's "The Emperor's New Clothes"? If ever there were a manifesto or augur of future-comings about the art world in its current state, that would be it. We're in an incredibly confused art world at the moment, where the money rules the making; it's incredibly perverse that so much of art history is being determined by that which exists in the commercial realm. Artists need to remain conscious of their power in the equation.

Compose your perfect playlist.

The Shirelles, Michael Jackson, King Krule, Eyedress, Mariam the Believer, Mariah Carey, Sam Cooke, Al Green. Real loud. On shuffle.

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