Drowning in rough seas, Klaire Russell grabbed a lifebuoy and clung to it, swimming for the shallows.
“It gave me a new life,” she says of art. In the last six years, it’s been her salvation. “I want to be the next Martha Stewart.”
T-shirts, clothing, shoes, wine glasses, twisted-wire jewelry (Inspiring Wiring), furniture, and angels all meet up with her brushes. The sidewalk in front of her house off of Collingwood Boulevard bears abstract designs.
Russell, 43, wants to make posters that can be used for wallpaper. Even moving targets are game: she applies color to skin, including very pregnant women and kids at birthday parties.
PHOTO GALLERY: The healing power of creating art
Clad in jean overalls and shoes she painted, Russell’s light-beam smile warms her charisma. She sells at local art shows (Artomatic 419! in April), and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter; see her work at klairerussell.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
In galleries, schools, and at charity events, she demonstrates “speed painting,” completing a floral or abstract canvas in less than five minutes. But her alacrity, complemented by a steady hand and an eye for color, has a down side: she can make well over 100 pieces a day, but it’s expensive. And, it’s far more than she can sell or store.
“That makes me sad: what am I going to do with them? And what does it mean? Who is it for? It has to be for somebody.”
As a child, Russell’s favorite shows were Sesame Street and The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. “The colors were so vibrant to me.” After she drew on walls, her mother painted a basement wall white for her doodling.
“Art took over my life,” she says. Eventually, her mother and teachers told her to focus on academics, so she stopped art altogether.
By 16, she was a mother; by 17, married. At 21, she’d earned two associate degrees, and by 23 she had three daughters. Living in poverty and with little self-worth, she ended her difficult marriage. By 1996, life started looking up. She got a high-paying job as a computer numerical control machinist in a factory, bought a home, a car, even a car for her daughter.
But in 2003, she became ill, passing out, once for four hours, when it seemed as if she had merely blinked. Dangerously low blood pressure was the cause.
She lost her job, her home, her car, and in the process of moving from place to place, lost everything she’d ever owned. Suffering from chronic back pain, she applied for and received disability. But she was miserable, even with nine doctors and 13 medications. Hounded by depression, she took overdoses. “I just wanted to go to sleep and not wake up.”
On Dec. 31, 2006, she checked in to a hospital. “I said, ‘I’m really sad. I don’t want to be a burden for my children.’ ” A nurse took her to the art room and Russell put a white crayon to red paper. The day she was released, she took her daughter Christina, then 16, to an art and craft store.
“She said, ‘Mommy, I want you to paint with me.’ ” Christina picked out a wooden birdhouse that looked like a church. Russell painted it in 15 minutes, and people told her it was good.
She bought two wooden purses, painted them, and when she drove through fast-food pick-ups, asked clerks if they liked them. They did. With acrylics, she painted a 16-inch-by-20-inch floral scene in five minutes, and a relative bought it for $25.
But devastation hit again in 2009 when a good venture went bad. With great hopes, she’d rented a building for a gallery/studio, painstakingly painted it, and then learned it was uninhabitable because water couldn’t be hooked up.
“I thought it was the end of my career,” she said.
But when she taught art to people who had breast cancer and their caregivers, she understood that she was an artist. At a fund-raising auction, she painted live and her pieces were sold. She demonstrates her technique to school kids and sees the beneficial effect of art on the mildly autistic grandson she’s raising.
Challenges continue: Ideas bombard her, sleep eludes her. She spends untold hours marketing her products on social media and donating pieces to fund-raisers around the country. She’s heartened to have more than 500 followers on Twitter and she loves her new volunteer gig at the Toledo Museum of Art.
And last June, her painting incorporating the pink ribbon associated with breast cancer was among those selected to fill the jumbotron screen in Times Square for six seconds. She took the train to New York City and watched it.