When the Nevada Arts Council calls you up and asks you to curate a traveling exhibition of NAC fellowship awardees, you accept. If you are JK Russ—globally recognized collage/installation artist and Southern Nevada arts maven—you also visit the artists, even if it’s at the beginning of a pandemic.

Her mission: “To look at how they work in their studio and what kind of materials they start off with.”

The studio visits led to a traveling exhibition that had a summer run in Herderson and is now on view at the Metro Gallery in Reno’s City Hall. The show’s title, Transformers, comes not from your favorite 1980s Saturday morning cartoon but from Russ’s observation of the artists’ processes. 

JK Russ visiting Dave Rowe in his studio. Photo courtesy of JK Russ

“Once they’ve come up with their concepts … they quite often completely transform mundane materials into interesting works,” she said. 

Sarah Lillegard’s 2018 piece “Bearing the Burden” is made of fiber, pantyhose, waxed thread, and rope. Photo courtesy Nevada Arts Council

Certainly a master painter like Gig Depio, an ecologically oriented fiber artist such as Sarah Lillegard, and an adroit sculptor such as Miguel Rodriguez possess little correlation save their facility with materials. Still, Russ stumbled upon another compelling commonality in her curatorial process. 

“Yowza” is a painting by Gig Depio. Photo: Gig Depio

“Particularly in Nevada, it was interesting seeing how innovative artists are here with creating working studio spaces,” she said. “I think that’s quite a challenge for artists here. There’s not this huge abundance of large, industrial spaces with affordable rents. So people here are great at utilizing whatever space they can find. Some of the artists in the exhibition, Justin Favela being one of them, were not working with a set studio space, so wherever he was creating his work, often with a team of people, that would be a moving studio—people working from garages, people working outdoors. I think we’ve learned here, artists in this state have really learned to make the most of available resources.”

“This was a very interesting project to work on,” Russ added. “In conversation with these seven artists, I learned a lot about unique features of this state which provide inspiration. Sarah Lillegard and Nick Larsen both spend a lot of time outdoors exploring the natural landscape, Dave Rowe and Pasha Rafat reference structures, and Justin Favela, Gig Depio and Miguel Rodriguez incorporate cultural histories.”

Miguel Rodriguez made this ceramic piece, “Steely Mike,” in 2020. Photo courtesy Nevada Arts Council

Russ and the NAC have provided us with a lens on some of the most innovative artists in the state—or connected to it. (Lillegard lives just outside of the state line in Doyle, California, and Larsen is a former Renoite now stationed in Columbus.)

Transformers: Reshaping Meaning and Form runs at the Metro Gallery in Reno City Hall through Oct. 30 with a reception from 5-7 pm on Oct. 6. 

The exhibition will be on view at Nevada State College in Henderson from Oct. 31- Dec. 23, at Summerlin Library in Las Vegas March 13-May 5, 2023, and in West Wendover May 15-July 7, 2023.

The Nevada Arts Council’s Artist Fellowship Program is a $5,000 award for individual artists, intended to recognize artistic excellence. In a given year, applications are open to either literary, performing, or visual artists. The current round is open to visual artists. Applications are due Nov. 4. Info here.

Posted by Brent Holmes

Brent Holmes is a wizened veteran of the Las Vegas arts and journalism scene, a lonesome cowboy riding the high desert who occasionally wanders in to communicate dispatches on the innumerable goings on in this thing called civilization. Beware his haggard stare and keen eye.