Snakes are symbols of the untapped subconscious. For some, they are keepers of a silent wisdom, the wisdom that existed before anything else existed at all. Some people say Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau’s pet snake, Zombi, was a physical incarnation of the serpent spirit worship of New Orleans’ Voodoo.
Zombi joined Laveau — and her cadre of devoted followers — in sacred serpent dances that characterized the primordial essence of the Voodoo creation stories. Some say Marie kept the snake in a box at the foot of her bed.
Paige Russell’s Eloi Scarves are liberations of their own kind; portable artworks that allow the Austin, Texas artist’s visions to enter a fourth, wearable dimension. Worn around a collar or as a crown, the Le Grande Zombi Scarf was made from cut construction paper, and then transposed onto silk, a celebratory homage to the cultural richness of New Orleans Voodoo and the city itself.
We were lucky enough to catch a minute with Paige to talk about her life and work in Austin, what she’s listening to and how to find inspiration in everyday moments.
Hi Paige. I’ve been thinking about your scarves. I can only imagine what it feels like to make a thing and then have it suddenly exist folded up around someone’s neck. It’s such an intimate place. Suddenly your art is just out in the world, so close to someone. They probably get their perfume on it and the crumbs from their croissant. It’s so different than hanging something in a gallery where it’s just ogled from a distance. What does that feel like?
I think it’s awesome. I love that idea. I’ve always been a person that just wants to surround myself with beautiful objects. That’s just very important to me, to look at pretty things. For someone to choose to bring an object into their life that I made, it’s so cool. You’re right. A scarf is such a classic, utilitarian item. It’s used in so many different ways. It’s an intimate thing, and the fact that people would want to use something everyday with my work on it feels really special.
How does music influence your work? I read somewhere that a lot of your scarves are based on songs.
I listen to a lot of music in my studio, and I’ve always loved music and finding new music. I go on these kicks where I just listen to things over and over and over again, and it somehow informs my work. I don’t realize it until afterwards. And then I think, "Well I have to name it after that song. " Like, the Miles Davis scarf, I just think it looks like jazz. Yeah, I couldn’t deny it. Most of them I just can’t deny it so I’m like, "Okay. Yeah. That one was given to me by that person or song." These are the things I’ve been listening to lately.
Talk a little bit about your process and the Le Grande Zombi scarf you made for Ace New Orleans.
With all of my scarves, I begin by making a construction paper cutout piece on wood panel. I layer and layer and layer then photograph the finished product and trace each shape in Illustrator. My thoughts of New Orleans revolve mostly around celebration (drinking, dancing, parades…) and the eyes and figures were born out of this. The background needed to feel crazy and festive, confetti-ish without looking gaudy.
Something wasn’t sticking with the parade thing so I got on a more narrative trajectory. I needed it to feel like New Orleans without getting esoteric. I did some research on Voodoo culture in New Orleans and the symbols used. I went through a few different comps and found the story of "Li Grand Zombi", the sacred serpent of Nola voodoo culture:
Li Grande Zombi is the major serpent spirit of worship among New Orleans Voodooists. In New Orleans Voodoo, snakes are not seen as symbols of evil as in the story of Adam and Eve. Snakes are considered to be the holders of intuitive knowledge – knowing that which cannot be spoken. Women often dance with serpents to represent the spiritual balance between the genders. Voodoo rituals in New Orleans almost always include a snake dance to celebrate the link to this sacred and ancient knowledge.
Do you feel like you go into a lucid state when you’re working?
Yeah, for sure. I think a lot of the reason why I started doing the cut outs is because it’s super melodic. You can’t do it unless you’re zoned out because it’s just a repetitive motion. I’m working on something right now that’s a four foot by five feet and I’m covering it in these tiny one centimeter dots. I’ve been cutting these for three weeks. It’s driving me nuts but it’s also the most meditative thing that I could do. I think it really eases my anxiety. I have crazy anxiety. Doing this it just so good for me. Like meditation.
Do you do other types of meditation too?
I try but I can never keep up with it. It’s funny how the things that are really good for you like exercising and meditating you just put off. Then the things that are bad for you are so easy. You’re like "Yeah! Let’s get drunk!" One makes you feel really good and the other makes … They both make you feel really good actually.
Where does the inspiration for the scarves come from? Do you start out with an idea? Are you making a story up? Or do you feel more like you just start cutting and see what happens?
It’s more, I just start cutting and see what happens. I think that a lot of them are inspired by what’s around.
Sometimes music, too. It’s kind of just something that’s permeating my head and my space so [the work] just comes out of that. If I’m going through something in my life, it just comes out in that lucid kind of state that we were talking about.
If I go to a museum and see someone’s work and it’s really inspiring to me and then that’s in my head it’s definitely inspired by that. For the Ace New Orleans scarf specifically, it was William Hawkins, the outsider artist. I love his work. I had him in mind the entire time.
How do you get to that lucid place? Do you have a ritual that gets you there? Or is it just a matter of sitting down and being disciplined in the space?
It’s like 75% procrastination and excuses. Then, when I can finally sit down and just zone out, I can get somewhere. I feel like all art or all creation, creating anything, is mostly thought and anxiety and just putting it off. Then you just have to get it out. You just jump off that ledge. It takes a while but once I’m there I just force myself to sit down and start. Then that’s when good things can actually happen. I always compare it to throwing up. You feel awful and you’re like, "I just want to vomit. I just want to get it over with." It’s all this build up. Then you do it and it’s like, "Ah. Where was I?" You know? It’s all better.That’s what my creative process it like at least. It’s like torture.
Yeah, Carl Sagan always said this thing: "In the Universe, nothing is the rule. Something is the exception." Whole solar systems are created only when something is out of balance in the universe. It’s like art, right? If there is an anxiety or tension there’s a catharsis that comes when a physical thing is made to balance it. I don’t know, kind of a stoney thought. Does making art feel spiritual at all to you?
Yeah. When I make something that I’m very proud of, there’s this fleeting feeling of inner success with a piece that is very spiritual. I set up the piece right in front of my bed so I can wake up and look at it and be proud of myself and then it’s immediately back to the anxiety of having to start over and continue on. It’s very spiritual.
What is your life like in Austin?
I love Austin. The weather’s great. It doesn’t get too cold. I’m kind of a hermit but I have a dog that I’m obsessed with and we go to a bunch of places. We go to all the swimming holes and, you know how Austin is. There’s so many cool nature places throughout the city. It’s like dog heaven. I usually just go places in nature with my dog. Just make work, honestly. I’ve only been here for almost two years, a year and a half. I’m still kind of adjusting to it all. I’ve moved three times in that year and half.
Have you had your dog since she was a puppy?
Yeah. She was actually born on my kitchen floor. It was the worst situation. I was in Savannah and living with my boyfriend at the time and four other guys and three cats and a pregnant dog. And the dog had ten puppies. Then we had to keep them for the eight weeks. It was a shit show. But she was the only girl and I needed her.
Dogs are very powerful. I feel like they’ve evolved psychologically with humans in an emotionally intelligent way. Scientists should be studying this.
Yes! They communicate so well without talking. Dogs are humans.
Dogs are humans. Do you think there are different strengths in different colors? What colors can you not get enough of?
I get really attached to specific pieces of paper. Which is really weird. I have this one that’s a poppy reddish orange and I use it, I think, in every single thing I make. I can’t stop. I tried to. But I love it too much. There are some colors that I can’t really get into. Purple. I don’t know why. I think my mom had something to do with it.
What other people’s art do you like?
Lately I’ve been really into Rousseau. Lee Krasner, I’ve been looking at a lot of her work lately. She was Jackson Pollock’s wife.Who else? This guy that went to SCAD, Tim Wirth. His work is so insane. I have one of his paintings. I’m trying to collect more but I’m broke. His work is really inspiring.
What other things inspire you?
I don’t know. Music, I think. Other people’s art. Philosophy. The way other people’s minds work. Psychology is really inspiring to me. I think just pushing that whole surrealist view of what is as opposed to what we know. Flipping that on its head. Which is kind of a psychedelic view too. I’m really into surrealism.
I think when [surrealism] started it was the idea of putting two things together that would not go together in conventional art or ideas or poetry. Putting unlike things together in word play and color play. It appeals to me because I don’t think that everything is as it seems. There’s so much more.
Yeah. Sometimes you can put two things together that have never been next to each other before and somehow that’s more reflective of a true thing.
Exactly. In art nothing needs to be real. It doesn’t need to be serious or based in reality at all. It just needs to make people feel something.