Susan Russell was an acclaimed artist and longtime Snohomish High School art teacher. She was a wife, mother, mentor, and mighty influence on the local cultural scene. She wore all those hats, often along with her own unique headwear atop a shock of distinctive red hair.
Official accolades don’t begin to tell how Russell, who was honored in 1992 as Snohomish County’s first Artist of the Year, touched the lives of young artists.
“She was just such a force,” said Nancy Bell, education director of the Schack Art Center in Everett. “She helped me develop the programs we have today. She was a visionary.”
Susan Jane Russell, 71, died May 14 at the Portland, Oregon, home she shared with Falken Forshaw, her husband of 49 years. Since the 1980s, she had battled cancer several times.
The couple moved to Oregon five years ago after more than three decades in Everett. Their artsy cottage-like home in north Everett — they named it “Red Berry Corner” — was recognized in 2006 as one of the city’s Monte Cristo Award winners.
A schoolteacher for more than 20 years, Russell guided many students into arts careers. Some kept in touch through a Facebook page, “Students of Susan Russell.” At Snohomish High, she pioneered an AP Art program.
Carm Pierce, a 1992 Snohomish High graduate, said it was largely Russell’s mentoring that led to his acceptance at the Rhode Island School of Design. The founder and president of Everett-based Built Design, Inc., Pierce spent three years in Russell’s classes at Snohomish High, two of them in AP Studio Art.
“During much of my time at Snohomish High, Susan was battling cancer,” Pierce said. At times, she had a bed in an office next to the classroom. “After high school, she continued as a mentor, cheerleader and great friend in all aspects of life,” Pierce said. His experience with Russell wasn’t unique. “This is the story of countless students she mentored,” Pierce said.
“She had always been committed to art education. It’s what got her through school in Colfax,” Forshaw said. “A teacher brought the art out in her, and she went on helping kids who had talent.”
A child of Eastern Washington’s Palouse country, Russell was born June 14, 1945, and raised in Colfax. Her father served on the Colfax City Council for more than 30 years, Forshaw said. It was a place she never truly left. Her paintings inspired by that land were part of a Palouse art show presented in 2002 by the Arts Council of Snohomish County.
“Susan was a catalyst for arts development,” Schack Art Center Executive Director Judy Tuohy said in a statement about Russell. “She was a driving force in the founding of the Arts Council of Snohomish County in 1975, now known as the Schack Art Center.”
The Arts Council established its Artist of the Year award in 1992, the year Russell was the first recipient.
In 1995, Russell pushed to include local students in a Scholastic Art Awards program. It continues to give young local artists national recognition. The Schack Art Center also sponsors the annual Susan Jane Russell Art Scholarship.
The city of Everett honored Russell in 2003 with its Richard Wendt Award for Excellence, noting her extraordinary commitment to the arts community.
Russell served on the Everett Cultural Arts Commission from 1998 through 2005, according to Carol Thomas, the city’s cultural arts manager. She was involved in the restoration and placement of the Kenneth Callahan murals at Everett Station, the installation of Georgia Gerber and Kevin Pettelle bronze sculptures in downtown Everett, and many other art acquisitions and efforts.
Along with her husband, she is survived by their son, Avalon Kalin, daughter, Harper Kalin, and three grandchildren.
Forshaw will never forget the first time he saw his future wife at a boarding house near the University of Washington. “She was 6 feet tall, and had her red hair in a French bun. And she had this outfit on,” he said, recalling her eye-catching wardrobe.
“She was the best grandmother in the whole world,” said Harper Kalin, who lives in Portland. “She organized art parties, sleepovers at her house, museum field trips and horseback riding events.” Her mom’s “grandparent camp” was reminiscent of summer art camps Russell provided for Everett kids years ago.
“She never stopped being a teacher, especially to me,” Kalin said.
Russell’s art featured calligraphy, bright colors, and themes of cooking and places she loved.
Juliette Lagman, events coordinator at the Schack Art Center, knew Russell’s family while growing up. A 1996 Everett High School graduate, Lagman said Russell encouraged her to attend the Art Institute of Chicago and later visited her there. “Her work was beautiful,” said Lagman, describing Russell’s art as whimsical, colorful and hopeful.
Russell’s daughter recalled summer trips to Eastern Washington as a child. Her mother loaded her kids into an orange Volkswagen van.
“Everything was an adventure,” Kalin said. “Coming home, my mother would stop on the side of the road. She was obsessed with dried weeds — she saw them as art. She would stuff these weeds into the car. Nothing was ugly. She saw such beauty. Everything was important to her.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
A memorial gathering to honor artist Susan Russell is scheduled for 1 p.m. June 25 at the Schack Art Center, 2921 Hoyt Ave., Everett. All are welcome.