In 1947, high school student Dave Russo won the Stephen David Epstein Memorial Scholarship. As the award’s first recipient, he was free to study art anywhere in the world for one year. He chose to spend it in Paris with Pablo Picasso.
“When the Foundation contacted Picasso, he said no, he would never have a student,” Russo recalls. As it happened, Russo’s neighbor in the North Beach district of San Francisco, Benny Bufano, was a renowned sculptor who happened to know the artist personally and offered to intercede. After a letter, and it was made clear to Picasso that he’d receive $2,000 per month for hosting the young scholar, a decision was made—Russo was going to Paris.
The year in Paris profoundly influenced Russo’s life as an artist. Under Picasso, he learned printing, welding, drawing and to never sign a work until it was sold. Picasso often sent him to the Louvre. “He’d have me copy paintings and then he’d critique them, which he really enjoyed,” Russo says. “I hated it with a passion—he would be critiquing me and as soon as the word ‘Picasso’ went out, there were 200 or 300 people listening to him tear me apart. I was learning under a microscope.”
For one lesson, Picasso hired a model. As a young Catholic boy, Russo was not prepared for the model to be nude, heavily pregnant and very hairy. “I looked at the model and moved my easel to the back of her,” he laughs. “Picasso said ‘no, no, no, you must do the model from the front.’” After a tug-of-war with the easel, Russo won out. However, the artist wasn’t done with him. “He said, ‘now you must look at the model from the front, feel the model.’ He took my hand and put it on the top part of her chest. I got weak in the knees, turned 52 shades of red and felt like I was going to pass out. He enjoyed every second of it. He called me the hot shot from California—the American who knows nothing. I tried to remind him that we did go over and beat the Germans, but he didn’t want to talk about that. He’d rather talk about me going blue and red in the face.”
Picasso also enrolled him in a drawing course. “It was taught by a Professor Gutman,” Russo says. “He gave us a little rock, only three or four inches. We put it on a piece of white paper and had to draw it in pencil. He would turn it a quarter of an inch and we had to draw it again until we’d drawn every side. Then we’d do it in charcoal, in pastels, in pen and ink. Then we painted the rock in oil, then in watercolors.”
After a year abroad, Russo returned to America, earning several degrees, traveling the world to paint and working as an art instructor and coach before retiring in 1985. Eventually, he and his wife moved to South Lake Tahoe, where the scenery is dotted with huge granite boulders. It was four decades later, but his practice in Paris was about to pay off.
“Everyone asks ‘how did you do that rock?’” Russo says. “I say, ‘Well, when I was a student, I did rocks for almost an entire six months. I can do rocks blindfolded.’”
Russo notes that there are “faces” in Tahoe’s rocks, caused by cracks and movements in the granite. He points out his oil painting The Last Remnants of Winter, which features Emerald Bay and melting snow on the rocks. “My grandkids hate that painting,” he says. “They look at the rock on the left and the snow looks like Caspar the Ghost. But they have greater imaginations than I do.”
An artist for more than seven decades, Russo’s work has evolved over the years. When he was younger, his works were more abstract, which is what first attracted him to Picasso and particularly to the cubist style. Other artists, such as Henri Matisse and Georges Braque, also influenced his work. “Matisse was a very good friend of Picasso’s,” Russo says. “We’d go over there for dinner and everyone would bring their latest works and I got to be the fly on the wall, which is a nice way of saying that I was to be seen and not heard. Picasso made it quite clear that I was a student and my opinions were not relevant.”
Today, Russo refers to himself as a “realistic expressionist.” He says, “My work looks very realistic, but when you get up close, it’s just brush stroke over brush stroke and creates the illusion of detail.”
His work has been exhibited and won awards around California. However, the art world has changed. “There was a time, not very long ago, when an artist could paint something, a landscape say, and if a tree was in the way, you could take the tree out or you could paint a different sky,” says Russo. “Now, the computer can do it all—move the tree, change the sky, change the colors. Computer art is what’s left.”
On top of that, galleries want a larger and larger cut of the profits and require lots of self promotion, which his wife used to handle, but ended with her sudden death from a brain aneurysm. As for Russo, a few years after a heart attack required open-heart surgery and several bypasses, he had to move from his beautiful home overlooking The Lake to one that did not require 85 steps to reach. He has rheumatism in his hands and arthritis, which he says “is the price of lasting this long.”
Yet, this lifelong student will never stop painting. Russo continues as an instructor, leading the Tahoe Art League’s plein air group on Sundays through the summer and teaching a watercolor course at Lake Tahoe Community College. He’s often outside with his watercolors, exploring subjects ranging from old barns to Tahoe granite to iris gardens in Placerville. “These are the golden years of my life,” Russo says. Sounds about right for the hot shot from California.