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Today we meet with artist and musician Nathaniel Russell. Nat's work plays with the divide between real and imagined, making posters and flyers for events that may or may not exist. His assignment asks you to make a fake flyer and share it with the world too.

1. Make a flyer that gives advice, shares something about your life, or promotes an imagined event
2. Put it out in to the world
3. Upload a printable copy using #theartassignment. Bonus points for uploading a photo of the flyer posted in the real world.
4. Fame and glory (Your work might be in a future episode)

Find out more about The Art Assignment and how to submit your response:
*PBS Digital Studios intro music*

Sarah Urist Green: Today we're meeting up with artist and musician Nathaniel Russell. He's originally from Indianapolis, spent a long time in the San Francisco Bay area and only recently moved back here.

Drawing is really at the core of everything that Nathaniel does. Making prints, posters, zines, paintings, murals and books among other things.

And his style is often deceptively simple. Pairing line drawing and text in a way that is often very funny but is also able to conjure other worlds and re-imagine our own.

He's made flyers for events that don't exist and sculptures of books never published. But he also makes posters for events that do exist and art for real album covers.

It's that back and forth between real and imagined that gives Nathaniel's work tremendous resonance. And you are just as likely to encounter Nathaniel's work out in the world, on a t-shirt or tacked to a telephone pole, as you are in a gallery.

And today he is going to give us an assignment that asks you to put your work out in the world too.

Nathaniel: Hi, I'm Nathaniel Russell and this is your art assignment.

[Art Assignment theme song plays]

I really do love commercial work there's a lot of things in my life that I've seen that has a commercial application, whether it's a record cover or a book cover or a box of popcorn or product design or something like that; that has effected me or stuck with me my entire life much more so than, you know, a Marc Chagall painting. 

Which I love Mark Chagall and I love a lot of classic wonderful modern art, you know, but I want to make all that stuff.

You know, I want to make a good painting. I want to make a box of popcorn. I want to write a book. I want to make a flyer.

You know, I feel like I want to do all of those things because I love all those things and I get something out of all those things.  

I try to make something every day. You know, get these little ideas out of the sketchbook, out of my head. Just to make it real and move on. 

You know, and one of these things I had a couple ideas of some fliers, you know, that I just thought would be funny to come across.

There was one I did it was a portrait of this poodle. You know, it was this fluffy French poodley-looking little fancy boy.

I sort of saw him as a leader of the resistance, in a way, of this dog vs. owner. I just thought it was really funny and I just wanted to make it.

So I went to make some every morning and then it sort of, it veered off into just, from a joke, into these more abstract ideas of how I feel about the earth and my connection to it and other people.

And how to communicate what other people are communicating these ideas in a way that is kind of more casual and it's not about, "I made this painting and I worked six months on it. Where you need to really appreciate it and give me five thousand dollars for this painting." 

It's like, "I just went and drew this and put a photo on it and now I'm going to go Xerox it and I'm going to put it up on this pole, or I'm going to e-mail it to you."

Your assignment is to make a flyer that gives advice, shares something about your everyday life or promotes an imagined event.

Go out into the world and put it up on a light pole, or a bulletin board or where ever you see flyers. Send us a printable copy and bonus points if you have photos of your flyer out in the real world.


John: So Sara, as you know, one of my favorite things is the fake protest sign.

Sarah: Oh, yes.

John: Like there's a bunch of angry placards. And there's one person holding up a sign that says, Obama Bring Back Arrested Development. Or What Do We Want? Time Travel. When Do We Want It? That's Irrelevant.

Sarah: I actually think that's a really good precedent, John. Because like there's an example of being surrounded by signs that want something from you. They want to sway your opinion. Or they want your vote. And then you insert this message that doesn't really want anything from you. That's kind of playing with that genre.

John: Yeah, it's like a gift instead of a solicitation. And in this image-drenched culture, most of the images that we see are asking something of us. And I really like this assignment because it's about like making a gift for people.

Sarah: Right. And what a wonderful metaphor for art in general.

John: Right?

Sarah: An image that isn't asking you for money except that are costs money sometimes. But let's say if you're in a museum-- except admission. Um. Maybe this isn't so good.

John: Oh, there's no way out of this capitalistic society.

Sarah: So aside from Obama Bring Back Arrested Development, there are some other precedents for this activity. Like Nat is very much influenced by wood cut artists like Antonio Frasconi, and Ben Shahn. But I think the Bay Area history, the history of the Mission School, is very much palpable in his work. And that's what I'd like to talk about today.

Nat remembers walking past a closed gallery in New York, and seeing through the glass a huge 20-foot mural that completely blew him away. It was by Margaret Kilgallen, who had painted the gallery floor-to-ceiling with her signature assemblage of storefront lettering and cartoon-like images of mostly women.

Kilgallen was based in San Francisco, and was inspired by the signage on the streets of the Mission District where she lived and was associated with a loose group of artists who came up in the '90s, referred to as the Mission School. She painted hundreds of murals around the city, mixing surplus paint from recycling centers, and bringing together the influence of folk art, graffiti, traditional mural painting, and underground comics.

Kilgallen's work was shown in galleries, but mostly lived out in the world. Nat was struck by the complex emotions and textures that came through in her flat shapes. He was influenced by Kilgallen's approach, but found his own visual and material language that also values the personal and handmade, celebrates the power of the line, and lives with us out in the world.

Nathaniel: I say fake flyer. But it's a real thing. I put it up and it's a flyer. It's real. But these things that I'm advertising or promoting or writing up, they're fake because you can't come to my garage. The garage sale isn't real. The fundraiser isn't real. It's about this the idea is way more important than the reality of it existing in a physical realm.

The number one thing for me about this is just getting people out of the digital un-real life, and back into the physical world. There's not a lot of just lurking going on anymore. There's not a lot of people just loitering anymore. People are like walking to somewhere, or going over here, or they're hanging out on the corner and checking their phone until the crosswalk changes, so they can keep going. If they're even walking. You know?

So I just made a batch of these flyers for this event in Seattle. And I did a couple. But I just put like, Analog Twitter. And I just wrote like, had breakfast this morning. It was OK. LOL. Whatever. And like a picture of a hot dog or something. You know? And just putting it up, because to me, that's what you're doing with Twitter and Instagram and everything. It's like, look at my dog, you know. Earth. You know?

But to actually go through the idea of, I'm gonna go to the coffee shop and print this out. That level of perspective that you're giving people on your life, like you're willingly, like, check it out. This is what I want the world to see. Anyone with a computer. It's funny to think about on a local level. And like, really isolated and see that perspective as wonder what ol' Linda over here had for lunch.

I think I'm gonna walk down to the light pole and see how that tuna casserole turned out. Hopefully it will get you to think about some ideas in different ways, and get you out of the house, and make you brave enough to try to put these ideas out in the world for other people to see. And just do it and move on, and see what happens.


Friends and I always talked about this band that we were gonna have. But we never-- two of them aren't even musicians. And we would just pretend that we had this band. And we'd tell people we had this band. It even got written up in the school paper as a high school band. And I remember I made t-shirts for a band one time. It was called Dolomite Jr.