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October 13, 2014

UMS Artists in “Residence”: Meet Robert James Russell

By Gabrielle Carels

UMS launched a new Artists in “Residence” program during the 2014-2015 season. Five residents from across disciplines will take residence at our performances throughout our season. We’ll profile each resident here on UMS Lobby.

Gabrielle Carels (UMS): Tell us a little about yourself and your background in the Arts.

Robert James RussellRobert James Russell: I was born and raised in Michigan (Grand Rapids), moved all over the place for a while (Los Angeles; California; Incheon, South Korea; Oxford, England), and settled in Ann Arbor nearly five years ago. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was younger—although, back then, it was writing for National Geographic—and I’ve spent the majority of my life traveling and reading and writing, trying to hone my voice. I’ve been publishing my work steadily for about five years or so, and my first novel, Sea of Trees, was released in 2012. I also co-founded and run the literary journal and small press Midwestern Gothic. Our aim is to showcase Midwestern writers and poets and highlight the unique stories that come from this place and that are often overlooked.

GC: Can you tell us a little about your creative process? Where can we find you working on your art?

RJR: I do my best work in public, actually: coffee shops, UMMA, the library…I like to be around people. Since my writing often deals with the intersection of people and places, I find being around people, immersed in them, their interactions, incredibly inspiring. My creative process is pretty simple: When I have an idea for a story, short or long, I can’t stop thinking about it and have to get it out. I’m also all for immersive inspiration…so if I’m writing about the woods, I’ll take trips to the woods, go hiking, take photos, and really get the sense of it. I’m currently working on a novel set on an island in Lake Superior, and went camping this summer on South Manitou Island, completely cut off from the world for a few days, in order to take it all in. It was fantastic.

GC: What inspires your art? Can you tell us about something you came across lately that we should check out too?

RJR: I’m reading John McPhee’s The Control of Nature (for the first time) and find it absolutely fascinating, the idea of man versus nature. The new novel I’m working on is very much a man versus nature type of situation, so reading about real-life incidents of nature reclaiming what was once its own, and how we humans try to control and prevent it, is breathtakingly inspiring.

GC: Are you engaged with the local arts community? Tell us about groups or events that we should know about.

RJR: I am—my journal, Midwestern Gothic, is based in Ann Arbor. We publish writers and poets from all over the Midwest, but we are lucky to also get to know many fantastic local ones, too. I actively put on readings throughout Ann Arbor (typically we have those at Literati Bookstore), as a way for people to meet our contributors and to get to experience Midwest literature and poetry first-hand. It is so important to me to embrace the local art scene, and, fortunately, Ann Arbor’s is fantastic. Similarly, my mission in life is to help showcase the immense talents of Midwestern artists, and to give them vehicles to showcase their work (whether that be live readings, having their pieces published, etc.).

GC: Which performances are you most excited about this season and why?

RJR: eighth blackbird: I’m a fan of organized chaos, and this group seems to thrive on that—playing music from memory, genre-bending performances. For me, seeing all the pieces come together as whole, to see the big picture painted one stroke at a time, is wonderfully invigorating, and it directly relates to the new novel I’m working on—I can’t wait to be inspired by it.

Yuja Wang, piano and Leonidas Kavakos, violin: I’ve always found great beauty in the violin and piano played together, side by side, and I have heard amazing things about these two.

Compagnie Marie Chouinard: Much of my writing is fixated with the idea of space—how we interact within a given space and how spaces interact with us—and dance, people interacting with one another, is a great way for me to explore this idea. Plus, I’ve heard that this company is explosively creative and wonderful.

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis: I’ve often felt that my writing style is influenced by Jazz structure—the improvisation, the fluidity and the conversational-linguistic feel—so I can’t wait to see this master musician at work.

GC: Anything else you’d like to say?

RJR: I am beyond thrilled and honored to be a resident in the first year of the UMS program. The arts are so important to me, and it’s incredible that I’ll be able to help spread the word and to show the community how UMS is affecting my life and my writing—all while supporting the local arts scene.

Interested in more? Watch for more artist profiles on UMS Lobby throughout this week.


Gabrielle joins UMS as a student in the Ross Master of Management Program. Prior to Ross, she earned her BA in Digital Environments Studies here at U of M through the Individual Major Program (IMP). Gabrielle's early background in the arts include piano, bassoon, and flute performance. More recently, she is pursuing her interests in photography and visual design. Gabrielle encourages students to sample a variety of UMS performances; they might discover something really memorable and inspiring! With an academic focus on the complexities of the digital sector and deep-rooted passion for the arts, she is excited to work as a digital media intern within the marketing department.