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Wednesday, January 2, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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College honors former art chair with exhibit

Times Snohomish County Bureau

"Russell Day: Catalyst"

When: Monday through March 21.

Where: Northlight Gallery in the Parks Student Union Building, Everett Community College, 2000 Tower St.

Gallery hours: 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays; 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays.

Information: 425-388-9445 or www.everettcc.edu.

Campus and community reception: 3-6 p.m. Jan. 24.

Imagine you're an art student with this assignment: Take a 1-foot-square sheet of paper and produce a sculpture as big as you can from that one sheet of paper.

One student purportedly came up with an 8-foot-tall sculpture.

"I was a fiend when it came to expecting an awful lot of work from students," said Russell Day in a 2004 "Living Treasures" video about his life done by the Northwest Designer Craftsmen, which he helped found in 1954.

Day also founded and chaired the Everett Community College art department from 1948-1976.

Day, who got his master's in fine arts from the University of Washington in 1956, demanded commitment and dedication.

Sculptor Dona Anderson remembers her heart beating faster when she would submit work for grading. Photorealist painter Chuck Close, who sent a 9-foot tapestry from his studio in New York City, jokes he's still haunted by one of the assignments.

"Larry Stair said it was the hardest D he ever got," quipped Sandra Lepper, a studio art instructor who also is director of the campus Northlight Gallery.

Day and 25 of his students are honored in a three-month show called "Russell Day: Catalyst," opening Monday at the Northlight Gallery.

Jewelry, paintings, drawings, architecture, collage, sculpture, ceramics — all are part of the show. Day, now 95, has given Lepper a necklace he designed, a highly engineered sterling-silver piece with a framed androgenous figure decorated with moonstone and garnets and held by a cord captured in sterling toggles.

Day's home in Lacey, Thurston County, is dotted with many of his students' work, and Dale Chihuly, whom Day helped with his portfolio, would visit Day there from time to time "and give him a big bear hug," said his wife, Marjorie. "Russell would disappear into his arms."

The Days also were given permission by Chihuly to take any nesting-glass-bowl set they could get through their door.

In a recent phone interview, Day said he believed in putting students through all kinds of art experiences for them to problem-solve, working from two-dimensional to three-dimensional work.

"We started out with just taking color pieces out of magazines, and tearing or cutting them up and creating a design that way," he said. "They had to do a dozen or so 4-inch squares. They started with materials that were readily available and didn't cost anything, and eventually they got into more expensive and more developed problems."

For example, creating a three-dimensional design that used reflected light and color while concealing the source of the color.

"It bugged them, but they did some very great things from it," said Day.

Marjorie, whom he married Christmas night in 1943 in Spokane, taught English at the college — composition, research, writing as well as Greek plays, and in summers "Russell and I went to all the places we taught about," she said. Destinations have included South America and the Himalayas, even two trips climbing Mount Rainier. This year, they went to the west coast of Vancouver Island.

When they lived in Everett, the Days' View Ridge home reflected their aesthetics. Peacocks walked around, there were fish in the pools, and one wall, 30 feet long by 8 feet high, had a stained-glass door.

"I personally think that every person should have a class of art," said Day. "If they understood art, and aesthetics in particular, our countryside wouldn't be so ugly. Wherever man builds, he seems to leave a lot of trash around."

The Days still keep their ties to Everett, and "I have been so impressed with what I see happening in Everett now;" he said. "There is so much interest in the arts, and they're really carrying the ball and doing something."

Lepper says Day's influence has continued over the generations:

"He founded the Northwest Artists Craftsmen's Guild, and then really showed internationally," said Lepper. "But he was in such demand as a teacher that every summer he taught at UCLA. They were trying to steal him away for years to teach at UCLA, and he wanted to stay here."

Even today, in Whitehorse Hall, the new arts and sciences building at Everett Community College, Day's influence is felt. The three programs of the art department — studio arts, photography and visual communications — remain rooted in his foundations for those arts.

"Russell's tradition was a really strong foundation, combined with projects that were so difficult that they really taxed people's creativity," said Lepper.

"Russell, number one, taught that design was in everything," Lepper said. "Which you can certainly see. [In the show], we have painters, we have ceramicists, we have car designers, we have graphic designers, we have an inventor."

Day believed his teaching was of equal importance to his own work, Lepper said.

"He was always encouraging, but real critical at the same time," she said. "Chuck Close could leave here and get experimental and find his own way because he already knew what he needed to know."

Lepper said curating the exhibit (with a grant from the Everett Community College Foundation and the Cooper Foundation) has "reconfirmed with me the idea of how important a solid art education is. You can't replace that with making stuff. You can't replace that with creativity. Because without that structure, your creativity is kind of meaningless."

Diane Wright: 425-745-7815 or dwright@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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