Russo, Michele (1909-2004)
Michele Russo was born in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1909. He grew up in the Italian American section of the city and later in life stated that he stood out as being different because he was interested in art and literature. Several tutors throughout his youth encouraged him to continue his interest in both. When he was five, he went to Italy with his mother and three younger sisters. With the outbreak of World War I, Italy detained them until after the Armistice was signed ending the conflict in 1918. Ten years old on his return to Waterbury, Russo had learned to speak and live like an Italian and to absorb new cultural influences. He could not attend a public school because he was an immigrant, but a priest named Giulo Perillo became his tutor. He attended a very “progressive” public school and took art classes. In 1930 he entered the Yale Fine Arts School and considered himself different, since most of the students were from wealthy families. He would later say that the school demanded conformity and that he spent time in the library looking at books on art. During the Great Depression Russo, who had developed a social consciousness for the under-dog in Waterbury, became active in radical politics that were anti-war and anti-Fascist. He graduated in 1934 and the next year wed another artist, Sally Haley. In 1936 the couple moved to Colorado Springs. Russo had obtained a fellowship to the Colorado Springs Art Center, and there he took classes taught by Boardman Robinson and George Biddle. When the Russos returned to New Haven, he began working for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) and the WPA’s Federal Arts Project (FAP). He painted murals at the Nathan Hale High School in Hamden under the PWAP and, with Basillio Yurchenko, another social activist he had met at Yale, he painted the daring Columbus mural at the Christopher Columbus School in New Haven. During World War II he worked in a factory producing instruments for planes and at a chemical lab doing experiments. In 1947 Michele and Sally moved to Portland, Oregon. He taught at the Portland Museum Art School, now called The Pacific Northwest College of Art, until 1974. He was prominent in Oregon for bringing abstract art to the region. Russo died in 2004.
Sources: WPA Photograph of the Columbus mural, AskART, Social Security Death Index, “Oral History Interview with Michele Russo,” 1983 August 29, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution atwww.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/russ83.htm.
Works of Art Listed in CT Archives’ database from Michele Russo: