Laval art teacher George E. Russell donates life's work to charity

George Russell has been a giving an annual donation to the Arthritis Society for years. And now, he's donating more than 400 works of art he painted through the years — art that Montreal experts describe as "exceptionally accomplished."

82-year-old teacher gave more than 400 pieces to Arthritis Society for auction

Russell is pictured with his hexagonal canvas, Folding Sea Space, 1976. Some of his work is displayed at the World Trade Centre through April 15. (Jeanette Kelly/CBC)

Retired Laval art teacher George Russell is thrilled that some of his work will soon find a home and generate money for a cause he cares about.

Russell, 82, is a long-time donor to the Arthritis Society. Inspired to support by his sister-in-law Betty, who suffers from arthritis, he has made yearly donations to the charity.

But earlier this year, the former Chomedy Polyvalent High School teacher got a phone call from Elizabeth Kennell, the society's director of development. She wanted to know if he would donate a painting to a fundraiser.

Russell was in the middle of doing a watercolour at the time and told her, "I have to finish a corner here, if you can wait."

Russell eventually invited her over to see his art and she agreed.

"To be honest a little worried about what I might expect," Kennell said. 

"I had worked at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the McCord. I must admit I groaned a bit and thought, 'What have I got myself into?' But it was a pleasant, pleasant surprise when I got there. It was like going into a museum studio, so beautifully organized so evident then that this was something extremely special."

After seeing her reaction, Russell offered his whole collection of art to for the fundraiser.

This is one of more than 400 paintings up for sale on Thursday. Proceeds from the sale go to The Arthritis Society.

It was a surprising offer because he had never promoted his art commercially in the past.

"I loved teaching, but besides teaching I was very involved in curriculum and promoting art in the schools so I stole time from my family and other work to do my painting," Russell said.

"I wasn't very good at putting it on the market and making my name known. I was occupied with other things."

Kennell said she was taken aback by the former art teacher's generosity. 

"Please, take all of it 100 per cent is not an offer you get very often," she said.

"He's a real gentleman too. You don't come across people like that very often.  It's not about him. He wants to do something wonderful and I think that's what comes through."

He's a real gentleman too. You don't come across people like that very often.- Arthritis Society's Elizabeth Kennell on artist George Russell 

Looking for a second opinion, Kennell contacted Yolande Racine, the former curator of contemporary art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

After looking at the work, she confirmed that Russell is an "accomplished artist [who] has created a composition code oscillating between the expression of reality and illusion, between the figurative and the abstract."

Kennell also called on another Montreal gallery owner, Alan Klinkoff, to look at the works.

Pointing to the juxtaposition of colour and design, Klinkoff called Russell, "a highly accomplished artistic talent."

Alan Klinkhoff says Russell's Window with Orange Drapes is an original take on the gradations theme worked on by artists like Guido Molinari. Klinkhoff says he's never seen the window concept before.

Klinkoff took on the challenge of pricing the works to sell at this Thursday's fundraiser for the Arthritis Society at the Jesuit Hall and Conference Centre.

Russell says he's very moved by all the attention he's received.

"I always appreciate sharing my work with other people. I do it for myself, I suppose, but when other people see something in it and when other people say, 'I'd like to live with it,' that thrills me."

Part of the agreement for the sale was to make a website of George Russell's art. You can check it out for yourself here. You can also see Russell's work in person at the ART in ARThritis Exhibit of Russell's work running until April 14 at Montreal's World Trade Centre.

About the Author

Jeanette Kelly

Jeanette Kelly works as the arts reporter at CBC Montreal. She's also the host of Cinq à Six, Quebec's Saturday afternoon culture show on CBC Radio One.

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