A 100th Birthday Celebration for Beloved Santa Barbara Artist Florence Russell

Finding — and Fêting — FiFi

Waiting for the Bus by Florence Russell
Credit: Courtesy

How do you celebrate a centenarian? A Where’s Waldo?–style art journey through her watercolor paintings is the communitywide celebration dreamed up to honor the 100th birthday of longtime arts educator, watercolorist, and world traveler Florence “FiFi” Russell. 

The month-long tribute runs through July 31 and scatters FiFi’s original watercolor paintings at 10 galleries and venues around town, including Corridan Gallery, 10 West Gallery, Gallery 113, Goleta Valley Art Association/Goleta Library, La Cumbre Center for Creative Arts/Fine Line and Illuminations Galleries, Larry Iwerks Studio Gallery, Santa Barbara Art Association/Faulkner Gallery, Santa Barbara Public Library, Santa Barbara Fine Art Gallery, and Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art,  in addition to the CLAY Studio, where one of FiFi’s 1942 ceramic sculptures is on display. 

“I would only come out of retirement for my dear former landlady who once saved me by renting me her lovely home in S.B. for a short time for the going price of a S.B. garage,” said Rita Ferri, a longtime curator and arts advocate, who co-organized the exhibition with Larry Iwerks. 

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“I’m celebrating her spunky, creative, adventurous spirit,” said Ferri. “She often talks about Betty White and [referring to White’s death right before her 100th birthday] says, ‘17 days; can you imagine? She almost made it!’ Well, FiFi wants to make it and looks forward to each calendar page being turned over.”

Russell’s en plein air paintings reflect images of her travels to more than 25 countries: sketching along the Seine in Paris, public markets in Mexico, the Mont Sainte-Victoire in Provence, and the valley of temples in Myanmar. From bustling Greek harbors to bucolic barnyard scenes, she captured daily scenes repeated around the world with a fresh sense of color and an eye for composition. 

She said her goal has always been “to make painting sing,” said Ferri.

Russell first moved to Santa Barbara as a child; her father was a physician and psychiatrist for Stanley McCormick at Riven Rock. She pioneered bringing arts education to Southern California museums and schools, where she worked in the early ’50s. She retired in 1998 and returned to Santa Barbara to continue a life of volunteerism, travel, and art. Her work has been exhibited in galleries and outdoor festivals throughout Southern California.

Russell’s birthday celebration reception will be held on Sunday, July 24 (FiFi’s actual birthday) from 2-4 p.m. at the Larry Iwerks Studio Gallery (958 Weldon Rd.) Call (805) 965-5486.

Harbor Boats by Florence Russell

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