– Story by Sean McIntyre Photography by Don Denton
Russell Papp can recall the thrill of receiving a new roll of masking tape for his fourth birthday. Whereas most kids would likely stare at their parents disbelievingly—awaiting the punchline to what must certainly be a cruel joke—Russell got to work, transforming discarded pieces of cardboard, egg cartons and other household leftovers into elaborate sculptures drawn from his imagination.
Russell’s mastery of masking tape would be his gateway to bigger, more elaborate projects to come.
“It starts with masking tape, then the hot glue gun comes around and, from there, there’s the nail gun and table saws and MIG welders, and it just evolves,” he says. “My imagination grew as my toolbox and my skill set expanded. The eclectic nature of my work evolved out of my interest in materials and how things are made.”
These days, the Oak Bay landscape designer and sculptor’s work is highly sought after among corporate clients and private citizens who yearn for a distinctively creative flair that’s fused with inspiration from southern Vancouver Island’s iconic landscape.
“I often look to nature and the ocean for sculptural inspiration,” he says during an interview in the backyard of his Bowker Avenue home earlier this spring.
Amidst the manicured hedges, colourful palette of plants and blossom-laden tree branches resplendent with birdsong, it becomes clear that Russell’s work with the landscape is in itself a form of sculpture, one that is alive and continually changing over the course of the day, seasons and years. When done right, the results appease aesthetically and produce numerous health and social benefits.
“When I look at a landscape project, I always consider the existing trees. They are usually the first thing to go in favour of easy solutions, clearing the path of least resistance, when in fact the trees are the most important thing. A good landscape is designed around the trees,” he says. “Many people never conceptualize what is happening under the ground and the harmony that is created within the whole ecosystem. It’s so important to work with what you’ve got to create an environment, and that means taking time to listen and taking time to be a part of it.”
Russell studied visual art at Camosun College and Ecological Landscape Design at Royal Roads. He also attended Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto and gained early experience with GRLA Landscape Architects in Nova Scotia. Russell paid for his tuition by working with the father-and-son duo of Bill and Timothy Ball. The Ball family helped to establish many residential gardens in the Uplands and Oak Bay, working alongside landscape architect John Olmsted. Some of their notable properties include famed architect Francis Rattenbury’s homes and the original gardens at Riffington Manor. One of the most inspiring spaces during Russell’s formative years was the garden of sculptor Elza Mayhew.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was cultivating a whole new skill set and appreciation of plants, trees and rocks as an art form in themselves.”
Following graduation, Russell set out to work in the film and stage industry, creating elaborate props and sets. It was that same passion to create ideas with masking tape and scrap material that he’d been doing since he was four years old, but on a whole new scale. Amid the set work, however, Russell found himself continually returning to landscaping. One day, based on the advice of his boss Timothy, he bought a 1993 Suzuki Carry mini truck and launched his own business.
“It was four-wheel drive so I could drive right into the property, across the lawn and up the hill with great big trees on the back,” Russell recalls. “We would back up to the hole we had dug, and drop the tree straight in there.”
Working for himself gave him a newfound flexibility to take on diverse creative projects that included landscape design, sculpture and commercial art installations. Russell has since been able to focus on the varied aspects of art and creativity that he loves.
If you’ve walked along Oak Bay Drive anytime during the past year, you may already be familiar with Russell’s creative output. “Between Us” is a sculpture that sits near the Penny Farthing between Hampshire Road and Monterey Avenue. Russell created the piece last year as part of Oak Bay’s annual ArtsAlive program, which gives artists an opportunity to showcase their work, while offering residents increased exposure to public art. Russell says the program is a refreshing opportunity for artists to inspire one another and the public at large.
“Art in the landscape is so important; it can spark a sense of wonder, sparking the imagination, or give pause to contemplation,” he says. “I would love to see sculpture parks integrated into the natural environment around Oak Bay and Victoria. Like many cities of the world, outdoor walking areas through nature with sculpture as anchor points only enhance the atmosphere and the outdoor experience.”
If the music festival and beer garden circuit is your scene, then there’s an equally good chance you’ve experienced Russell’s work as carnivalesque backdrops to elaborate stage settings and displays. One of his most notable and memorable pieces, he says, is a 40-foot-long, refrigerated semi-truck trailer he transformed into a 32-tap beer garden dubbed the gypsy wagon. Russell recalls the reaction from Phillips Brewery owner Matt Phillips when he showed him a sketch of the project, which involved loading the trailer with kegs then adorning its sides with crane-mounted removable panels. He was met with head-scratching and disbelief, and then promptly given a green light to move ahead with what grew to become a huge crowd pleaser and a signature fixture at local events.
Be they in the public sphere of a festival or the private world of a client’s backyard, Russell’s colourfully textured creations are very much a balance between the modern, built urban landscape and the organic backdrop of sea, mountains and forest. His style is from this place and this moment, yet is also steeped in centuries-old principles. It’s a kind of elegant intensity that invites the viewer to explore, celebrate and imagine.
“It’s art nouveau meets art deco meets a Turkish puzzle ring filled with intricacy and layers,” he says.
Russell’s favourite aspect of his work, however, is helping clients incorporate their living spaces with the natural landscape. To this end, he has begun to leave his own mark on the region’s “yardscapes.” One of his proudest accomplishments is a landscape garden at a Beach Drive property that was completed in 2011. These days he’s busy working on projects in the Cook Street Village area as well as on Ardmore Drive in North Saanich.
“Whether it’s a single sculpture or an artful environment in the landscape, the process involves clear communication,” he says. “It’s a great way to get to know someone, hearing all of their ideas, and finding a way to being their dreams to life. It might not be so clear to them, but I can take what they are saying and translate it into something they may not have considered possible.”
Check Russell’s website here.