@story MARLA CANTRELL
@images MARK MUNDORFF
Artist Rae Russell lives on a little piece of paradise in Fayetteville. On sweltering afternoons, she takes a break and swims in the creek that flows behind her house. In the mornings, she heads to her studio, the one her husband gave her as an anniversary present, where she paints portraits of people and dogs, and works on projects that involve found pieces like steer skulls and bits of tree branches.
But lately her life has revolved around a sky-blue fiberglass sculpture Rae calls Mr. Pig. Rae’s spent hours lying on her back, acrylic paints beside her, painting Mr. Pig’s underbelly, her dogs romping close by, so that the whole procedure looked like something from a sitcom.
The project has been a joy for Rae, who knows that the exposure she’s getting from working on one of twenty-five pigs for the Ozark Literacy Council’s PIGShibition fundraiser, is widespread. Today, she’s doing her final work on Mr. Pig, who will go to his permanent home at the Clinton House in a few days. There’s no telling how many people will see him there, and from seeing him, they’ll discover who Rae is.
Wendy Poole, director of the Ozark Literacy Council, says promoting the artist community was one of the things they wanted to accomplish. The non-profit teamed up with the Fayetteville Advertising and Promotions Commission to get things moving. When 151 artists turned in submissions for the project, they knew they were on the right track. Narrowing the field to twenty-five was hard, but necessary.
And now that the pigs are showing up around town – the Arvest pig was the first to show up downtown – momentum is building. The money that’s being raised will help fund the school where 300 show up to learn at the hands of 60 volunteers.
“Literacy is dismal in Arkansas,” Wendy says. “One out of five adults is reading below a fifth grade level. That’s including immigrants and native speakers.”
The Ozark Literacy Council is intent on improving that number, working with everyone from those needing a G.E.D. to those who come here from other countries, including many whose spouses are attending the University of Arkansas.
And to provide the services, the group needs money. Enter the pigs. Sponsors who pay the full $6,000 will get to keep their one-of-a-kind swine. Those paying $3,000 will have to turn them back in, in March of 2013, where they’ll be auctioned off. It may sound like a lot of money, but there is a lot of expense in the project. The artists will be paid an honorary $500. And then there are costs for materials and design work to produce twenty-five fiberglass pigs that stand almost six feet tall.
Rae, who’s Mr. Pig is sponsored by the A&P, loved working on the project. She points to some of the landmarks she painted: Drake Field Air Museum, Mt. Sequoyah, Ella’s Restaurant at Carnall Hall on the U of A campus, KUAF, George’s Majestic Lounge on Dickson. The buildings are nestled in the branches of a tree that start out at Mr. Pig’s back legs, where the trunk rises across his hind side.
“I saw all these bumps and curves and I thought that would make great tree trunk branches, and then I decided to nestle the buildings inside the branches,” Rae says. “I kept adding more buildings and ideas. I wanted to show the bounty of Fayetteville. We have all these beautiful buildings, and they’re all used. I wanted to represent why we come together – for art, for sports, for learning. The hardest part was drawing straight lines on the curved surfaces.”
Mr. Pig, who’s 5’7” and weighs 75 pounds (without his steel base), looks impressive, but he’s not finished yet. When he leaves Rae’s house, before he’s taken to the Clinton House, he’ll stop by a body shop where he’ll be given a clear finish that will protect him from the elements.
Rae likes the idea of stopping by to see him, to watch how the tourists react, when they come to see where Bill and Hillary lived once upon a time.
She feels fortunate to be one of those chosen for the project. And she knows she’s lucky to make a living as an artist. “The only reason I have the opportunity to create is because of my loving husband, amazing kids, and parents, sisters and friends who rally around me,” she says.
The path she’s on started when she was a student at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith, where she served as a model for the art students. Soon just modeling wasn’t enough, so she started taking classes as well.
Her mother encouraged her, letting her paint murals on the walls inside the family’s home. “When she put the house on the market, a man who came through to look at the house tried to open a french door I’d painted, so I think I must have done okay.”
Ten years ago Rae moved to Fayetteville. She made connections with other artists, and she started to sell more and more work. The Great Recession of 2008 hit her hard, since art wasn’t something people had to buy. But slowly things picked up. Crystal Bridges, the Walton-sponsored art museum in Bentonville, is helping grow the art market in the area, she believes, and when projects like PIGShibition come around, everybody wins.
Art and literacy are great partners, Rae thinks. Both improve the world. Both leave the world with a richer legacy. Working with a pig during the dog days of summer was just icing on the cake. Yes, Rae says, life is very, very good.To see more of Rae’s work, visit raerussell.com. For more on the Ozark Literacy Council, visit ozarkliteracy.org.