Monday, March 30, 2015

Molly's Turn: Remembering Sally Haley and Michele Russo

Sally Haley
Michele Russo

Here are some remembrances of my times with Sally Haley and Mike Russo.

Sally Haley, artist extrodinare, fantastic chef, wonderful homemaker, the list is so extensive, she was the surrogate grandmother in my life.

Michel Russo, firery artist, devout communist, argumentative, friendly and loving - surrogate grandfather to me.
In the dining room 
Virginia (my mother) by Sally Haley
My mother, Virginia Irvin (Noehren, Hagopian) moved to the Portland area with her husband Dr.Walter Noehren and their two children, Chrisite (Fernandez) and Jamie sometime in the late 1940’s. (Virginia’s husband was chosen as one of the first handful of doctors to create the newly forming Kaiser Medical Center.) While she was there she met a group of cutting edge artists of the time, whom quickly included her into their inner circle. The patriarch and matriarch of this group were Michele Russo and Sally Haley. Sally and Mike were about 10 years older than my mother, and for my mother, they became her family. Although my mother’s relationship with her first husband disintegrated, ended with divorce and her move to - first Seattle to work for the Seattle Times, and then to San Francisco for the S.F. Examiner, her connection and love for Sally and Mike never wavered. 

Self portrait of young Sally Haley
I came onto the scene in San Francisco when my mother met Robert Hagopian, married, and had me in 1957. I am not sure when we started the treks to Portland but I know we went ever year or ever other year for a (usually) summertime visit.

Sally & Mike's younger son Gian Russo
cira present

Sally & Mike's oldest son Mike Russo
 cira 1957

I looked forward to these visits, it was an adventure to go visit them in Portland. Mike and Sally had two children, Michele Jr. (or as I knew him, "Little Mike") and Gian. (Little) Mike was about 14 or 15 years older than Gian. I don’t have many memories of "Little Mike", I know over the years he married two different women named Candie, which always confused me! I also know that he is a fine musician, he studied with Mississippi Fred McDowell and many others, and recorded an album with Arhoolie Records (which is absolutely great). He has also been a professional sign painter, making wonderful signs that Sally hung around the house. I didn’t see Mike much, as he was an adult by the time my memories were formed. Gian I saw often and considered an older cousin. (This is how I saw him although I know he did not see me that way- probably saw me as a little girl who looked up to him.) Gian is a wonderful musician as well, he and his girlfriend of the time Nancy made beautiful music together. They played at my wedding in 1980. When I stopped by to see Sally and Mike in the mid 1990’s Sally had a huge painting up in the kitchen, which she proudly stated as a painting done by Gian in his college years. I had no idea he painted!

In the 1960’s Mike and Sally lived in the suburbs of Portland.  I remember walking into a huge foyer, which was once the double car garage -  they had opened it up and made an incredible windowed living space looking out into the garden that flowed to the left where the living room/kitchen area was. What I loved most about this house was the garden. It was lushly planted and had paths that rambled through and around, with hidden nooks here and there. I remember Gian taking me around and playing with me here. When they moved to Northwest Portland I was sad, they left that beautiful garden behind.

Sally Haley
The home they moved to was a grand and huge two story, plus huge attic, Victorian house in a beautiful neighborhood. Mike changed the entrance path so that instead of walking straight up the stairs to this beautiful victorian door you had to walk around a flower garden and come in from the left and up the stairs to the door, it made you look more closely at your surroundings. Mike created a very enchanting entrance for their home. It was a very beautiful home with plenty of space for Sally to show all her beautiful antiques and art she would bring back from the trips to Italy or other parts of Europe. She told me she picked things up at the flea markets over there and brought them home, but now there were so many people doing it you could not find the same treasures. 

Sally was an incredible cook. She always made her own bread and wonderful meals in this tiny dark kitchen at the back of the house. It was so cramped, with one window tucked in a far left corner and a washing porch and small bathroom across the back, a wall with counter running from the entry door by the servant’s stairway towards the sink. You had to walk around this wall to go downstairs to the dark and scary basement.  Mike actually had to make the decision to redo the kitchen in the late 70’s or early 80’s. It is now a wonderful large room with a huge plate glass window and eating nook that looks out over the gardens and towards the river. A beautiful place to cook. The picture you see below is of Sally and family in the new kitchen.

Sally Haley, Laura Russo, Mike's sister, Michele Russo
in new kitchen
For many years Sally had her sister Mary living with her. I really loved Mary. She was a warm and loving person to me, whereas I was a little intimidated by Sally. Sally always seemed to be looking at me as if she were saying “do you really want to be doing that?” I will admit that I was a handful growing up, a bit demanding.  And Sally did not put up with that. Sally was also very warm and loving to me, and completely loved my mother, as did Mike.

Sally was a master painter, I was in awe of her work and it influences me to this day. She worked with Tempera, I remember one visit when she very excitedly talked about acrylic paint, she was saying how she loved it. I once asked Sally why she copied the master Renaissance painters and she said "Whom better to learn from than the masters?" I have never forgotten this very sage piece of advice. Sally's studio was in a little tiny bedroom at the head of the stairs across from their bedroom. She used another small bedroom for her storage space which left one spare bedroom (except when family like Mary lived with her).

This painting lived at the head of the stairs
Mike was a great character.  Bigger than life for a not so large man.  The dinner conversations around the table were always heated and animated. Lots of wine and good food consumed with Sally bringing out the many dishes while Mike held sway. Often the discussion was around Communism, which Mike believed in, or art, which he was passionate about.  His animated manner around the dinner table alarmed and awed me, but when Mike talked with me he was gentle, warm and caring.

I believe this picture was taken in Mike's attic studio
Mike had a studio in the attic of his house which at times he shared with his son Gian who was a passionate model maker. This is where we would often stay when we visited. Mike also had a huge studio down at the bottom of the hill in a huge warehouse type building. He had this space for many years and would walk to it. Visiting this space was awe inspiring. There were racks and racks and racks of paintings, an old decrepit couch and Mike's easel. A huge space filled with a lifetime of work.

Mike in his downtown studio
One of my cherished memories of Mike was when he took my mother and I (I think I was about 14) to his cabin in Altoona. It was a snowy Christmas and when we got there we went for a walk on the beach along the river. The next thing I know I got a snowball to the back of my head! This was amazing, nothing like this had ever happened to me before. I had the first and greatest snowball fight in my life with Mike.

A very strange coincidence -Larry's son, Sam (about 7 at the time), went on a visit with his mom, Marguerite Millard, to visit his uncle’s girlfriend, Miya. Sam looked around in surprise and asked her why she had Molly’s artwork on the wall. Turns out Mia is the daughter of Laura Russo, Mike’s niece and gallery owner. She had a lot of his work up on her walls, which Sam recognized! Small world!!

On my last visit to Mike and Sally I was able to bring Larry and my children, Ryland and Haley (can you guess who she's named after?), to meet them. I was very glad my family had this opportunity to see these wonderful people in their home, whom had met so much to me over the years. Mike had made a studio in the little garage which he was very pleased to show off.

The Laura Russo Gallery in Portland (which is where many of these examples of work are from) shows Mike and Sally's work, they had a joint retrospect this last January. Here are examples of their art and several articles I was able to find on the internet, enjoy!

Sally Haley:

I have always painted.

What I paint is taken from the life I live.
I am affected by the environment that surrounds me.
And over time, as my environments have changed, my paintings have changed.
What I paint has to stand on its own.
I don't choose to run up against it by describing it.
I am very attached to each painting.
I am not prethoughtful but paint out of need.

Michele Russo:

Michele Russo at work

A Talk about artists Michele Russo & Sally Haley at Laura Russo Gallery  January 17, 2015

Growing up with Uncle Mike and Aunt Sally, a talk about the artists with great nephew Dylan Russo Lawrence: at Laura Russo Gallery, 805 NW 21st Ave., Portland, OR 
Michele Russo made significant contributions to the Northwest throughout his life.  After graduating from Yale in 1934 and marrying fellow artist Sally Haley, he arrived in Portland in 1947.  He taught at the Pacific Northwest College of Art for over 25 years and became an active advocate for the arts during the politically charged 1950s.  He was a founder of the Portland Center for the Visual Arts and was the first artist appointed to the Metropolitan Arts Commission in the 1970s.  Throughout his career, Michele Russo’s work has been in major exhibitions nationally and is in many public and private collections.

A well-respected and avidly followed painter in Oregon, Sally Haley created paintings that evoke a powerful presence.  In oil, acrylic, and egg tempera, Haley rendered familiar objects such as baskets, drapery, flowers, eggs, fruit, and vegetables, in minimal environments.  This exhibition is the first one-person show of her work at the Laura Russo Gallery since 1997.

Michele Russo

“He was a born teacher,” says gallery owner Laura Russo ’75, speaking fondly of her uncle, the late Portland painter Mike Russo. An instructor for 27 years in art history, painting, and drawing at PNCA (then known as the Museum Art School), Mike passed away in August of last year, at the age of 95. He leaves behind a remarkable legacy of artistic integrity and civic engagement — as a cofounder of the Portland Center for the Visual Arts and Oregon Artists Equity; as the first artist to serve on the Metropolitan Arts Commission; as a driving force behind the 1% for Public Art program.

Throughout his life, Mike was a catalyst — inspiring, criticizing, challenging, and prodding students and colleagues, friends and family alike. “As a critical eye, Mike changed or shaped everyone he came into contact with,” says Bruce Guenther, chief curator of the Portland Art Museum. Even Mike’s paintings were somewhat iconoclastic in an era dominated by Abstract Expressionism, his canvases peopled with simple, graphic figures frolicking or reclining on beaches, playing with props such as hats and canes.

Portland was Mike’s adopted home. Born Michele Russo in Waterbury, Connecticut, in 1909, he was the son of Italian immigrants. His interest in art was sparked while he was still very young. Stranded in Italy for the duration of World War I along with his mother and two sisters, Mike was sent to study with a local priest and artisan named Giulio Perillo. “He represents a great many ideals that I think were very important in shaping my attitudes,” Mike said. “From that point I became very much involved and interested in art.”

Mike graduated from Yale University in 1934 with a BFA in painting. In 1947, he was hired by then-director Bill Givler to teach art history at the College. He and his wife, painter Sally Haley, and their first son, Michael, moved across the country, settling in east Portland.

At the time, the College was tucked inside the Portland Art Museum, where the school’s small size fostered a tight-knit dynamic between faculty and students. Painter Harry Widman began teaching at the school in 1960. He remembers the open dialogue and stimulating discussions that took place both in and out of the classroom. “The interaction between faculty and students was the interaction between young potential artists and older artists,” he says. In this open-minded, respectful atmosphere, Mike thrived. “Mike was a center among us,” Harry says. “He was a great public speaker and a great lecturer.”

Sally Lawrence, PNCA president from 1981 to 2003 and a longtime friend of Mike’s, remembers auditing his art history courses when she worked in the Junior League Guide Program at PAM. “He used to tease me about taking such extensive notes,” she says, “but he was an important source for studies of the collections and visiting exhibitions.”

Mike “lived what he preached,” Sally continues. “He was always present at any discussion about art, any controversy about … art in the public arena.” Mike’s activism was second nature by the time he moved to Portland in 1947; in fact, his desire to leave Connecticut had arisen in part because the FBI wouldn’t leave him be. “I never had a job that the FBI didn’t try to get me fired from,” Mike said. His commitment to radical politics, to labor and the working class, had caught and held the government’s attention.

Some might argue that art is one of the least “working class” endeavors one can pursue. Mike felt otherwise “I decided I would be a working man,” Mike says in a 1985 video profile, A Painter’s Vision: Artist Michele Russo. “To me, the working man is, in a sense, the very center of life.” After his retirement from the College in 1974, Mike walked to his studio in Southwest Portland every day. In the film, he explains, “I don ’t go to my studio when the impulse moves me — I go to my studio every day.”

Painter and printmaker Lennie Pitkin, PNCA faculty member and Dean of Continuing Education, first met Mike as a student at the College. “Mike always tried to develop a social, economic, and political context to the work.” Lennie points to Mike’s support of Arlene Schnitzer’s fledgling Fountain Gallery as an example of the way he urged his students to “take action in a socially responsible way.”

Arlene credits Mike with leading her to art. She writes, “I walked into his art history class and I was hooked.” A student when she opened the Fountain Gallery (Mike suggested the name, based on the gallery’s proximity to Skidmore Fountain), Arlene turned to Mike for advice from the outset. “He helped me with appropriate gallery/artist ethics, based on National Artists Equity standards. I used their forms and adhered to those standards all the 25 years that I had the gallery… Mike was always there to help me, advise us, and keep our spirits up.”

Mike was always an advocate for the arts, working diligently so that artists might be taken more seriously by a society that tends to value money over meaning. “This society has a tendency to regard art and the artist with scorn because art … doesn ’t lend itself to the commodity system,” Mike said in a 1966 interview published in the Oregonian. “In an age of mass production, the artist is an individualist, not a businessman. In many ways he is estranged, he is an outsider.”
In 1973, Mike helped found the Portland Center for the Visual Arts with fellow artists Jay Backstrand and Mel Katz. Driven by the desire to bring cutting-edge contemporary art to Portland, the three artists created a space that had an enormous influence on the local art scene. Lennie Pitkin remembers this as “a marvelous period in Portland.” It “helped establish the legitimacy of art and new galleries in Portland, as well as connecting Portland to the rest of the art world,” he says.
Mike Russo lived his life with great dignity. When asked to describe his former teacher, sculptor Chris Gander says, without hesitation, “venerable.” Disciplined and demanding yet constantly curious and kind, Mike had an undeniable impact on each student he taught, on PNCA itself, and on the larger Portland art community. “It wasn ’t that we studied under him,” says Stephen Leflar, a student of Mike’s in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “We apprenticed at life with him.”

1. Unless noted, all quotations from Mike Russo are taken from a 1983 interview conducted by Jane Van Cleve. The interview is part of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, and can be found here in its entirety. Excerpted from

Sally Haley, famous Northwest painter, dies in Portland at 99
The Oregonian September 02, 2007

Sally Haley, one of the Northwest's most gifted painters and part of the instrumental midcentury generation of artists who helped settle the local art world, died Saturday. She was 99.
According to her niece, Laura Russo, Haley died of natural causes at an assisted living facility in Portland. Haley's two sons, Gian and Michael, were present.
"She just simply passed away," says Russo, a prominent dealer who represented Haley for the last two decades of the artist's career.
A native of Bridgeport, Conn., Haley attended Yale University and moved to Portland in 1947 with her husband, the late artist Michele Russo. Haley and Russo were a fiery, passionate couple, within a dedicated subculture of artists during Portland's mid-20th century. That group helped create a small but dynamic art scene. Like Haley and Russo, those artists, including Carl and Hilda Morris, Louis Bunce and William Givler, came from or often traveled to the East Coast, putting a vivid stamp on the intellectual climate of a seemingly provincial art scene geographically cut off from the art world's major centers.
Critically acclaimed for her still life paintings and portraits, Haley had numerous solo and group exhibits in a career that spanned much of the 20th century
-- D.K. Row

Sally was one of the muralists involved in painting post office murals as part of the Federal Art Project.  She painted Mail-The Connecting Link in McConnelsville, Ohio in 1938

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