Russell Day was a brilliant artist and jewelry maker with a flair for bold design. He was a mentor and friend to superstar glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. Yet perhaps his greatest talent was teaching.
Today’s Everett Community College students see his name in the Parks Student Union building. In 2008, an art display space there was renamed the Russell Day Gallery in honor of the man who came to Everett Junior College in 1949. Day created a vibrant art program, establishing the college’s first gallery in the 1950s. An inspiration to students, he retired from EvCC in 1976.
Russell Day died Monday at the astonishing age of 106. He lived at the Panorama retirement community in Lacey.
“He was very much a teacher first,” said Everett’s Lloyd Weller, now retired after 45 years as an EvCC photography instructor. “He was dedicated to the best atmosphere one could imagine in the classroom. He had a way of being very honest with students.”
Students and EvCC visitors can see Day’s work in two of his pieces on campus. The Russell Day Gallery has a striking necklace crafted by Day in 1963. It’s a likeness of a woman made of sterling silver, moonstone and garnets.
Inside Whitehorse Hall, to the right of the main entrance, Day’s untitled sculpture of concrete and multicolored Blenko glass catches light from a window. Created in 1955, it was donated to the college by Day in 2015. Once restored — the 238-pound piece had been on Day’s deck — it was installed in Whitehorse. Then 103, Day was there for the 2016 dedication, an event attended by about 75 people — including Chihuly, the Seattle artist whose work is known the world over.
For years there were two Days on campus. Marjorie Day, Russell’s wife, was an EvCC English instructor. She was 95 when she died April 2, 2016. The couple had no children.
“Russell Day was an extraordinary artist and mentor, and a great friend,” said Chihuly, who studied not at EvCC but at the University of Washington. “He knew more about glass than anyone in the Pacific Northwest and taught me more about the medium than anyone.
“When I blew my first glass bubble, Russell was the person I called to come see it,” Chihuly said by email Thursday.
John Olson, EvCC’s vice president of college advancement, didn’t know Day while he taught in Everett. It was Weller, Olson said, who helped re-establish Day’s longstanding connection with the college.
The college awards an annual scholarship named for Russell and Marjorie Day. “I’d bring pieces of art from the scholarship winners to show him,” said Olson, who visited Day in Lacey through the years.
Day was at the Schack on May 26, 2016, to greet Close, his best-known former student, at a reception during the “Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration” exhibition. Chihuly also was there.
In a Herald article about that invitation-only event, Close said it was Marjorie Day who encouraged him to go to junior college despite his academic struggles at Everett High School. “At the college he became an aggressively good student,” Day told The Herald that evening, and added “Chuck spent a lot of time at our house. He helped us out and became a close friend.”
Day was from Eastern Washington, Olson said. According to Marjorie Day’s obituary, published in The Olympian, she met Russell while skiing at Mount Spokane. She was then a Washington State University student. Their romance grew while he worked as a summer ranger at Mount Rainier. They married on Christmas Day 1943.
Russell Day taught art at Snohomish High School before coming to the college. “He was highly recruited by other schools, the UW and UCLA,” Olson said.
The Days travelled the world during sabbaticals and retirement. Weller said they spent a year in Africa, after which Marjorie taught a class in African literature. They explored the United States and Mexico in a motor home, and sailed to Alaska.
Their View Ridge neighborhood home, a glassy structure with koi ponds, was “a designer’s dream,” Olson said.
“It was like walking into an artwork,” agreed Weller, who retired in 2014. “Part of the reason I stayed at the college so long, they were so welcoming. They loved teaching and loved students.”
“Their home was filled with treasures from all of their fabulous journeys,” said Carie Collver, the Schack Art Center’s gallery director. “He brought a wonderful sense of drama to his work,” she said, noting Day’s “strict discipline on design.”
“I am so happy that Russell lived long enough to see the Schack completed — even having his 100th birthday here,” Collver said. “He said it was a dream come true for him.”
She remembers Day coming back from some exotic locale and using pieces he found there to make beautiful jewelry for his wife. On Thursday, she was wearing a bracelet the Days brought her from India.
“I never had the privilege to have taken a class from him,” Collver said. His former students have told her “he was a rigid grader — but that he was always right.”
Chihuly can attest to Day’s high standards.
“When I was applying to University of Wisconsin at Madison to study glassblowing, he didn’t think my portfolio piece was any good, so he pushed me to do better,” Chihuly said. Eventually, the instructor who wasn’t even Chihuly’s art teacher had him redo the work five times.
“He helped hundreds of other students in this way,” Chihuly said. “Russell lived a long and happy life, and was blessed to travel the world with his wonderful wife and partner, Marjorie. He was an important person in my life and in my career. He will be missed.”