Banking on Art

Larry Saxton | 12/9/2009, 11:26 p.m.

For 20 years Russell Simmons worked in the banking industry and retired with the coveted title of Senior Vice President for Community Development at Riggs National Bank, but during that time, he also indulged his passion for painting.

€Nobody knew but my family,€ said Simmons, 66, a self-taught artist and native Washingtonian. Simmons, a graduate of Anacostia High School in Southeast, earned both his Bachelor of Arts degree (1966) and a Master€s degree (1968) in economics from Howard University. In addition to his work in the private sector, Simmons worked in both the Federal and District governments. Simmons is married and has two children. He retired from Riggs in 2004. However, several years prior to his departure from the bank, he befriended Lavinia Wohlfarth, the owner of Wohlfarth Galleries in Northeast, who gave him his first show in 2002. Since then Simmons has been exhibiting throughout the Washington metropolitan area. The artist recently talked to the Washington Informer about his work.

WI: What inspired you to paint?

I always liked the Washington Color School artists. In the 1960s, when I started, I admired the work of artists like Sam Gilliam, Gene Davis and Morris Louis. Their work sparked my imagination. I loved the colors and the freedom that they enjoyed.

WI: What has been your biggest adjustment transitioning from banking into a career in art?

The demand on my time. While I was with the bank I was in community development and community affairs. That meant, I was attending events sometimes three of four times a week. It was very demanding. When I retired, I started a business in real estate development, and that kept me pretty busy, and during these economic times it can be very stressful. This year, I decided to spend more of my time doing the things that I like to do. And, I€ve been doing just that -- I€ve started to refocus on my painting.

WI: Now that you are spending more time painting, do you feel a sense of excitement when you approach your artwork?

Not really. I€ve been painting for 30 years. I€m just doing more of it now, but I never really stopped. I have always painted for my pleasure in my basement. It€s a passion that I wanted to explore, and now, for the first time, I am able to devote the kind of time that I really like to put into it.

WI: You work on large and small canvases. Do you find working small allows you the same freedom as working large?

Nothing beats working on a large canvas, but lately I€ve been working small. I€ve been experimenting using mixed media and with the absorption of color on paper. It€s all new ground for me. Now, that€s exciting.

WI: Have you ever considered attending art school?

I keep saying that I should take some art lessons, but then I think, if I take lessons they will probably tell me what I should and shouldn€t do. Right now, I have no boundaries, I try everything, and I do everything. Some of it works and some of it doesn€t. I have no boundaries and I love it. This is the only place where you can think of an idea and execute it. [In your studio] nobody can say, no, you can€t do that because there are rules. If you can get it into your studio and assemble it, you can do it. It€s freedom and you can manage yourself.

WI: As an artist, where would you like to see yourself in the coming years?

I would like to be recognized as an artist and sell more of my work. I would also like to have a following of patrons and most importantly, leave a legacy for my children.