Lisa Russo, unmasked

An intimate look at the classically inspired contemporary painter.

Lisa Russo with her works [Supplied]

Home » Arts & Entertainment
Posted February 23, 2023 | By Julie Garisto 

An intriguing meld of historical eloquence and present-day inspiration distinguishes Lisa Russo’s oil paintings from other realists of today. 

The Summerfield-based artist earned her second master’s degree, a Master of Fine Arts in portraiture, in December 2021, after devoting a two-decade-plus career to refining her oil-painting expertise. Those 10,000 hours (and then some) included deep classical study, Renaissance/ Baroque master training, extensive European travel, a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of South Florida, and commissioned replications and restorations of old, often famous, paintings. Russo also holds a master’s in education. 

And then there’s the invention she patented, an idea that came to her while she was painting a heavenly male figure. 

“I’m a traditional painter, but I was trying to break up the format while working on a 6-foot angel,” she explained, describing “Ascension.” 

Russo and her husband, John, discussed how to present the outsized winged hero. 

“We were just thinking about how to present him, and then we realized the sections could be multi-dimensional. Or they could be two-dimensional, flat on the wall. You can pull them from the wall where they protrude out, or they’ll actually go into the pyramid, three-dimensional form, too.” 

“Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow”

Whether 2D or 3D, Russo’s original works delve into the recesses of her imagination, traveling back in time and sometimes slinking forward to the present, drawing on inspiration from her everyday life and the lives of her loved ones, sprinkling in judiciously placed details that spice up a rich narrative subtext. 

Influenced by European masters, it comes as no surprise that the Italian Carnivale—the masquerade-themed Mardi Gras celebration made famous in Venice and celebrated around the world—would inspire her new retrospective, “Unmasked: the Revealing Works of Lisa Russo,” premiering Friday, March 3, at the Brick City Center for the Arts. The opening reception from 5 to 7 p.m. coincides with downtown Ocala’s First Friday Artwalk. 

A masquerade party the following evening, on Saturday, March 4, will celebrate Russo’s works and features food, libations, dance and music, all at the Brick from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $35. 

This isn’t Russo’s first solo show or masquerade dance. 

Multi dimensional canvas – US Patent

“I’ve had probably around four series, one being the masquerade, and that was 20 years ago when I traveled to Europe,” Russo recalled. “I was inspired by all the beautiful work and the Venetian masque. So, I put it in one of the paintings and it was very successful, so I started doing a theme around it. That theme ended up having me look for masquerade balls throughout Florida.” 

Those parties included local nonprofit fundraisers and galas, such as the Transition Life Center’s annual masquerade party. They also inspired some of the more recent works in the retrospective. 

Speaking of Italian inspirations, Russo was commissioned to paint the artwork for restaurants Milano Italian Grille and Napolinos. 

These days, Russo teaches art at Lake Weir Middle School, a school she once attended. She taught art there for a short time earlier in her career and returned recently after a long absence. 

On her return, she learned about the remodeling of the school’s gym, which necessitated painting over a mural of an eagle, a project led by Russo’s onetime art teacher, which she refurbished when she worked there the first time. 

“I was devastated,” she said. 

Russo perked up, however, when offered the opportunity to paint new eagles. The project enlists her students and is currently in progress. 

“We’re going to paint two eagles on the side of the doors on the bottom,” she said. “I already lined it out for my students, and they’re going to complete it under my tutelage.” 

The bodybuilder and mother of two teenagers—Victoria and John—has experienced joys and some heartaches and doesn’t shrink in the face of challenges. Her daughter’s health scare just after her birth inspired a painting that still hangs in a Gainesville pediatric ward. Victoria, thankfully, recovered after two weeks of an agonizing ordeal. 

“When I decided to do the painting, everyone asked why I wanted to paint during such a difficult time, but I just felt compelled to paint it,” Russo said in an artist statement on her website. “As I began painting, I would feel my eyes well up with tears, but as it progressed it became very cathartic. I realized that although this was a very personal piece it could have a much higher purpose by giving others hope when it seems like there is none to be found.” 

“A Mother’s Love”

Based on a photo taken of Russo and newborn Victoria, the painting, “A Mother’s Love,” hangs in UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville. 

A sibling spat between Victoria and John inspired “Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow,” a painting that takes inspiration from Romeo & Juliet. 

“We were eating at Dunderbaks in Tampa around five years ago after the Renaissance Festival,” Russo reminisced. “My son hit my daughter in the head. She, of course, was gonna ham it up, and my son’s good friend James held her and consoled her.” 

That friend (and the model of the Bard-inspired painting), James Lattin, will be playing guitar at the March 4 masquerade event. The band Limestone will perform and Victoria’s friend, Rosalie Abdul, will dazzle the crowd with Eastern-inspired dances. She and her sisters are featured in one of the works, and another friend, Sky Lu, of the Great Wall Chinese restaurant family, which is catering the event, modeled for another of the works in the show. 

Russo added with a hint of mischief: “I’m gonna have a fortune teller, too.” 

For more information about “Unmasked” and the masquerade party at the MCA Brick City Center for the Arts, visit Note: This exhibit is suitable for mature audiences, as there is some nudity depicted in different artistic forms. All pieces are for sale, with a percentage of all sales to benefit the Marion Cultural Alliance. 

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