Elaine Russell is a Kamileroi painter and illustrator, born in Tingha, Northern NSW, in 1941. Russell spent a period of her childhood at La Perouse, Sydney before her family moved to Murrin Bridge Mission, which is on the Lachlan River near the town of Lake Cargelligo in central New South Wales. Since the early 1980s Russell has been based in Sydney, and she began painting in 1993 after completing a certificate of visual arts at the Eora Centre in Chippendale. In that year Russell’s work was first exhibited at Boomalli Aboriginal Arts Cooperative in Sydney, as part of the show 'Sayin’ Something’, and the artist has subsequently been involved in many Boomalli exhibitions. In 1994 Russell submitted work to the 11th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Award and was awarded the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory Award.
Russell paints in a naïve style, employing a boldly coloured palette and birds-eye perspective. Her landscapes and mission scenes are well-ordered, with trees and other objects evenly distributed and often presented in two-dimensions on a deeply tilted picture plane. Her paintings capture both the happiness and the pathos of Russell’s childhood memories of life on Murrin Bridge Mission. Their narratives revolve around the sustaining life of the bush and the river: bush tucker, washing, swimming, yabbying and fish trapping, the church, school and the constant surveillance that underpinned the policy of the Aboriginal Welfare Board that controlled the mission until 1969. The latter is the subject of the painting inspecting our houses (2004) which was among a collection of Russell’s work included in the inaugural National Indigenous Art Triennial 'Culture Warriors’ at the National Gallery of Australia (2007). Russell’s memories that informed this work are quoted in the catalogue:
“The manager’s wife was a nursing sister and once a week she would inspect the houses on the mission to make sure that our homes were clean and tidy, which they were. She wanted to know how mum’s floors were so white, seeing they had no electricity to use an electric floor scrubber. That’s when Mum showed her a piece of sandstone, by which she was very surprised!”
Of the painting Growing Up Murrin Bridge Station: Teaching 'bout bush tucker (2000), which was exhibited in the 2002 exhibition 'Native Title Business: Contemporary Indigenous Art’, Russell states:
“This picture shows my mum and dad taking us into the bush to show us just where to look for witchetty grubs, wild berries, yams and other bush tucker. With seven kids to feed the rations that the Government gave each Aboriginal family on the Mission didn’t last long enough, so we had to live off the land. We all survived. Those were very fond memories.” (Native Title Business catalogue).
As these stories indicate, Russell’s pride in the resilience and resourcefulness of her family and community on the mission informs all of her art-making, including her work as a writer and illustrator of children’s books. In 2001 Russell published the alphabet book A is for Aunty , which became the 2001 Children’s Book Council of Australia Eve Pownall Information Book Honour Book, and was shortlisted for the 2001 Children’s Book Council of Australia Picture Book Award. The shack that Dad Built, which is about the house her Dad constructed in La Perouse, was published in 2004 by Little Hare Books.
Along with those mentioned above, Russell has participated in numerous group exhibitions around Australia, including the Amnesty International exhibition 'Faces of Hope’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1994) and 'By the river’, held at the Exhibition Hall, Sydney Opera House, during the 1994 Message Sticks Festival. Her work was also included in the US touring exhibition ’16 songs: Issues of personal assessment and Indigenous renewal’ curated by the Saint Louis Art Museum in Missouri. The artist was a finalist in the 2005 and 2006 Parliament of New South Wales Indigenous Art Prize, and she was also the recipient of the 3rd Indigenous Heritage Art Award, awarded by the Australian Heritage Commission in 2000. In 2007 she was commissioned, along with Ken Done, to paint an Australian 'United Buddy Bear’ as part of a travelling UNICEF project and exhibition which consisted of two-metre high painted bears representing all the members of the United Nations. The exhibition was on display at Circular Quay, Sydney in early 2007. Russell’s Buddy Bear was acquired (the proceeds going to UNICEF) by the Henkel Australia Company, Melbourne. Russell’s work is in a number of national collections, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Australia and the Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory.