“He was a born teacher,” says gallery owner Laura Russo ’75, speaking fondly of her uncle, the late Portland painter Mike Russo. An instructor for 27 years in art history, painting, and drawing at PNCA (then known as the Museum Art School), Mike passed away in August of last year, at the age of 95. He leaves behind a remarkable legacy of artistic integrity and civic engagement — as a cofounder of the Portland Center for the Visual Arts and Oregon Artists Equity; as the first artist to serve on the Metropolitan Arts Commission; as a driving force behind the 1% for Public Art program.

Throughout his life, Mike was a catalyst — inspiring, criticizing, challenging, and prodding students and colleagues, friends and family alike. “As a critical eye, Mike changed or shaped everyone he came into contact with,” says Bruce Guenther, chief curator of the Portland Art Museum. Even Mike’s paintings were somewhat iconoclastic in an era dominated by Abstract Expressionism, his canvases peopled with simple, graphic figures frolicking or reclining on beaches, playing with props such as hats and canes.

Portland was Mike’s adopted home. Born Michele Russo in Waterbury, Connecticut, in 1909, he was the son of Italian immigrants. His interest in art was sparked while he was still very young. Stranded in Italy for the duration of World War I along with his mother and two sisters, Mike was sent to study with a local priest and artisan named Giulio Perillo. “He represents a great many ideals that I think were very important in shaping my attitudes,” Mike said. “From that point I became very much involved and interested in art.”

Mike graduated from Yale University in 1934 with a BFA in painting. In 1947, he was hired by then-director Bill Givler to teach art history at the College. He and his wife, painter Sally Haley, and their first son, Michael, moved across the country, settling in east Portland.

At the time, the College was tucked inside the Portland Art Museum, where the school’s small size fostered a tight-knit dynamic between faculty and students. Painter Harry Widman began teaching at the school in 1960. He remembers the open dialogue and stimulating discussions that took place both in and out of the classroom. “The interaction between faculty and students was the interaction between young potential artists and older artists,” he says. In this open-minded, respectful atmosphere, Mike thrived. “Mike was a center among us,” Harry says. “He was a great public speaker and a great lecturer.”

Sally Lawrence, PNCA president from 1981 to 2003 and a longtime friend of Mike’s, remembers auditing his art history courses when she worked in the Junior League Guide Program at PAM. “He used to tease me about taking such extensive notes,” she says, “but he was an important source for studies of the collections and visiting exhibitions.”

Mike “lived what he preached,” Sally continues. “He was always present at any discussion about art, any controversy about … art in the public arena.” Mike’s activism was second nature by the time he moved to Portland in 1947; in fact, his desire to leave Connecticut had arisen in part because the FBI wouldn’t leave him be. “I never had a job that the FBI didn’t try to get me fired from,” Mike said. His commitment to radical politics, to labor and the working class, had caught and held the government’s attention.

Some might argue that art is one of the least “working class” endeavors one can pursue. Mike felt otherwise “I decided I would be a working man,” Mike says in a 1985 video profile, A Painter’s Vision: Artist Michele Russo. “To me, the working man is, in a sense, the very center of life.” After his retirement from the College in 1974, Mike walked to his studio in Southwest Portland every day. In the film, he explains, “I don ’t go to my studio when the impulse moves me — I go to my studio every day.”

Painter and printmaker Lennie Pitkin, PNCA faculty member and Dean of Continuing Education, first met Mike as a student at the College. “Mike always tried to develop a social, economic, and political context to the work.” Lennie points to Mike’s support of Arlene Schnitzer’s fledgling Fountain Gallery as an example of the way he urged his students to “take action in a socially responsible way.”

Arlene credits Mike with leading her to art. She writes, “I walked into his art history class and I was hooked.” A student when she opened the Fountain Gallery (Mike suggested the name, based on the gallery’s proximity to Skidmore Fountain), Arlene turned to Mike for advice from the outset. “He helped me with appropriate gallery/artist ethics, based on National Artists Equity standards. I used their forms and adhered to those standards all the 25 years that I had the gallery… Mike was always there to help me, advise us, and keep our spirits up.”

Mike was always an advocate for the arts, working diligently so that artists might be taken more seriously by a society that tends to value money over meaning. “This society has a tendency to regard art and the artist with scorn because art … doesn ’t lend itself to the commodity system,” Mike said in a 1966 interview published in the Oregonian. “In an age of mass production, the artist is an individualist, not a businessman. In many ways he is estranged, he is an outsider.”

In 1973, Mike helped found the Portland Center for the Visual Arts with fellow artists Jay Backstrand and Mel Katz. Driven by the desire to bring cutting-edge contemporary art to Portland, the three artists created a space that had an enormous influence on the local art scene. Lennie Pitkin remembers this as “a marvelous period in Portland.” It “helped establish the legitimacy of art and new galleries in Portland, as well as connecting Portland to the rest of the art world,” he says.

Mike Russo lived his life with great dignity. When asked to describe his former teacher, sculptor Chris Gander says, without hesitation, “venerable.” Disciplined and demanding yet constantly curious and kind, Mike had an undeniable impact on each student he taught, on PNCA itself, and on the larger Portland art community. “It wasn ’t that we studied under him,” says Stephen Leflar, a student of Mike’s in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “We apprenticed at life with him.”

1. Unless noted, all quotations from Mike Russo are taken from a 1983 interview conducted by Jane Van Cleve. The interview is part of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, and can be found here in its entirety. Excerpted from http://www.pnca.edu/exposure/news/15/michele-russo