Pebbles Russell I Public Art Curator | Sway Manager
"That’s become part of the ethos of the project....the idea of taking something that’s sort of an eye sore and a pain in the ass and turning it into a community focal point."
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in northern Virginia, about 15 minutes outside of Washington, DC.
How would you describe that place and its people?
It’s really beautiful. A lot of people who are from further south don’t think of Alexandria as the south at all, even though there are a lot of things about it that are, but there are a lot of things about it that aren’t. Obviously I don’t have a real strong twang of an accent, but it’s full of a lot of history, which is cool.
The people, all in all, like the people everywhere were fine…nice…pleasant. But the people I grew up around, I liked them to a certain extent, but I didn’t always feel simpatico with them. I kind of dressed different and was into different shit, and my brother was four and a half years older than me, and he was always friends with older kids. So at like my Episcopalian high school, there I am like 15, 16 wearing huge parachute pants from the Army Navy Surplus Store with like a binky tied to the pocket with a little crop sweatshirt, like, “What’s up? Doing the little rave thing. It’s a little late, but get into it." And people were like, “What the fuck are you doing? Is that a binky?” I didn’t even know what it was for necessarily in rave culture or why you would need that at the time, but I was kind of hungry for people who I felt could challenge or teach me things that I wanted to be taught, not that I needed to be taught.
So you were always kind of different?
I’ve always been a total, stupid fucking ham my whole like. At the dinner table, we interrupt each other all the time in my family, and I’d stand up at the head of it and tell jokes and sing songs. In preschool, my dad had told me some Aesop’s Fables and I was totally taken by them. So in my preschool on the playground, I was like “Everyone, gather around me,” and I told everyone the story and then directed them in a play of it. I did music theatre and was always singing. I took voice lessons for 15 years and rode horses. I was kind of that kid, ya know. My family is a mixed bag, but growing up we were encouraged to do what you want and be yourself.
What are your parents like?
My parents are a ridiculous yin-yang—not only in their careers but who they are as people. My dad is a pediatrician and sort of like a Victorian gentleman when it comes down to it. If Henry David Thoreau and Henry James had a baby somehow, it’d be my dad. He shops out of the J. Peterman Catalogue. And then my mom is an art historian. She’s the head of education at the National Gallery in DC. So I grew up in museums and around a lot of artists and creative, interested in aesthetics kind of people, which I ‘m sure has something to do with the way I turned out.
How did you end up in New York?
I always loved New York, and for my birthday as a young teenager, my mom used to bring me up here on the weekend. But we were chilling in Midtown, going to shows and restaurants. How I actually ended up coming here was I went to NYU. So that was like my lucky training wheels into New York City life, which was convenient ultimately.
When I got to college, we had a proper paper facebook that you got, and it had your picture and two interests. Most people were saying hobbies or what they wanted to major in. So theirs was like organic chemistry and wiffle ball, and mine was like shopping and popular culture! Popular culture is sort of the like crux of what I’m interested in, and the things that I feel I found myself doing as a job or involving myself in New York City in that way.
I wanted to go to school for musical theatre, and my mom said, “Do you want to be a waitress? You can't do that.” So, I started off doing journalism, which was a snoozefest. I love writing, but it was just such a dry kind of writing that it was killing me. And then I found out about this little crazy school at NYU called Gallatin. It’s the “choose your own adventure school.” You come up with your own concentration, and you could take classes at every separate school at NYU. My concentration was photography and then this shit that I made up—very typical “Gallatin” of me—called culture pushing. It’s an anthropological-style study of people’s tastes in contemporary popular culture within the past 60 years in New York City or just "City America-centric." So, ya know, fashion, music art, advertising.
One of my favorite classes was Thinking about Seeing. It was THE SHIT…just dissecting ads and how to look at stuff. And the professor said something when we were at the Guggenheim for a class trip that has resonated with me so much: “There is way too much stuff in this museum, and in life frankly, for you to stop and look at everything, unless you like it or unless you have a visceral negative reaction to it, and you want to understand that reaction. If it doesn’t speak to you, walk the fuck on." And it sounds so simple but it was just such a liberating idea to me. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be informed—that’s hugely important. But be informed to have an informed opinion. Just sort of go deeper into and explore the things that interest you visually. Sometimes it can be useful to look at something more critically that doesn’t do that to you and to understand why it doesn’t, but I wouldn’t advocate doing that frequently. You’re wasting your time kind of. It’s good to try new things, obviously. I'm not saying just stick with what you know.
Do you feel like New York is home?
In a certain way, sure. Next month I’ll have been here almost ten years. I think for a lot of people that really love New York City and feel it in their veins—people who come here, not who are from here—they don’t really have one home. People like that have multiple homes. I wouldn’t say mine are just New York and Alexandria. I would say I have one in Maine. I have one at the Jersey Shore where I grew up going as a kid and I feel comfortable there and there's something that's right about being there. You can even feel that way about somewhere you've been to one time. Or at least of me, that's true. But yeah, of course, I have a super huge fondness and day-to-day inundation with New York City.
Do you think New York lets you be your best self?
I think it can, but I think for a lot of people from time to time, it can be incredibly difficult and really suffocating. And people say it can be really lonely, and I wonder what that's like. Because ya know, first I had my college people and then I had a really amazing internship when I was 21, and 80% of the people I met are still some of my closest friends, and I've worked with them all many times. Most of those people are about 7-8 years older than me, so it was great because I could sort of look up to them and see what they're doing with their life and now I'm sort of the age they were when I was that age. And now I see what they're doing…And so it was very natural for me. I think for a lot of people that can be tough. But mostly, it is a place where you can flourish. I mean, now it's a little different with how expensive it is, which is frustrating. But if you can figure out the logistical and physical aspects of it, and you have that friend group and people to support you, it's a playground for your mind and your body.
So, what is it that you do?
Almost three years ago, I co-founded Centre-fuge Public Art Project with a guy called Jon Neville. For a long time we ran it together. I now do more a curatorial and artist outreach role there and Jon is the director of it. It’s just sort of blossomed from a belch of an idea that seemed to be totally need-based into something that’s included over 100 artists in locations in downtown Manhattan and we did a whole building in Little Havana for Art Basel last year.
And for the artists, to have something on the corner of 1st and 1st next to the F train…the number of people who see your work in a two month period is millions with businesses and neighbors and tourists and everyone. Now we are actually a fiscally-sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, which is a larger 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose purpose is to kind of umbrella-in smaller nonprofits. And we actually got our first grant this year from Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which is really exciting. The scope is just kind of expanding.
And before Centre-fuge started I was getting itchy to do something more than what I was doing, which, at the time, was working in nightlife. I’ve done that for 7 or so years now. But I wanted to do some art shit. And I knew all these artists, and I had a friend who had a gallery space in Williamsburg…and so I put on an art show. I got 5 of my friends together who were all guys. But I was like what do I call it? Their work is really different…the media is really different. And it was like “Shit, what’s the point of this besides me trying to do something for myself?” And I remember being on the phone with my mom and she said, “Well, why don’t you just call it multi-media?” And I was like “That’s the worst name I ever heard.” But in that same conversation, I remember saying, “Ya know, they’re just boys I know. They’re just people I know living in New York City who make art." So, I did 4 or 5 of those Boys I Know shows. And then Centre-fuge happened.
As for the nightlife thing…that I was by accident. I started doing the door at a lot of different places, then I started promoting some parties my friends were doing and hosting those. Then I started working the door at Sway, and then floor managing and dealing with budgets and booking, and a year and a half ago, I started running it. There’s been so many different places where I’ve worked and thrown parties. Nightlife is super fun and can be a really wonderful, experiential, people-to-people kind of thing. The thing I really love about nightlife that it also has in common with something like Centre-fuge is the people I get to meet. I’ve always been kind of hammy, and I’m always down to talk to people and introduce myself. Through doing both of these things, I’ve met an astronomical amount of people in New York City from every walk of life you could possibly imagine. And I think that has been the most enriching thing—that’s pumped me full of life—about living in New York City. They’re both things that force me to be out and about and around and going to different things.
Can you talk about the Centre-fuge project a bit more?
Yeah, so we’re on the 14th cycle of work on that particular location on 1st and 1st, which is the anchor of the whole thing. It’s the first and one that moves most regularly and that’s about every two months. It’s all submission based. People reach out to us with ideas and sketches and proposals of what they want to do, and Jon and me and our third curator, Josh Geyer, sit down and go through them and pick out what will work the best and next to what.
The project is dedicated to a dear friend of ours who passed away, Mike Hamm, who made work because he loved to make it and shared it with his friends. It brought everyone happiness and enjoyment, and that’s a huge part of why we are a submission-based project. Because no matter who you are, even if you’ve shown at every dope, cool gallery in the Lower East Side, or you’re a twenty-year famous graffiti writer or you’re an art school kid…you can be anything, as long as you have the idea and the skill to execute it. We definitely encourage you to be a part of it. It’s a big point of what we’re doing—to give voice to someone. It may not boost your career, but you can do it.
When did your love of public art begin?
You know, it’s funny, because when it started I didn’t even have a love of public art, specifically. I just liked art. I have a lot of friends who are artists, and I’m an at-home artist myself. Centre-fuge is just this box that was so fucking ugly. It takes up 3 or 4 parking spaces. It had been chilling on the block for six months. Nobody knew what it was. All my neighbors were pissed about it. And it was getting a lot of tags on it and stuff. It just looked horrible.
I was working at the BMW Guggenheim Lab at the time, which was on the block, and it coincided with the block party. My boss was like, “Hey Pebbles, you as a block resident and also an employee of the lab...why don’t you take a budget and make it a little pizzazzey or whatever?” So Jon and I worked together to book some bands and get a stage together, and in doing that I had to talk to the head of the 1st Street Block Association about logistics and stuff. And I remember walking with him down the block, and I was like, "By the way, what the hell is that?" And he was said, "Oh, it’s a pop-up office trailer for contractors who are working on Houston restoration that is sort of related to the 2nd avenue subway. It will be there 3 to 5 years." And I was like, “Huh…Is there no way that we could get some really cool artists together and put some artwork on it?” And he said, “The head of Community Board 3 had a similar idea. Why don’t you guys put a proposal together, bring it to a block association meeting, run it by the contractors, and we’ll see what’s what.” And so we got this bigass proposal together, and we’re super nervous. We went in and we were definitely the youngest people in there. But they were so into it and super excited, and they read through the thing and told us to send it to the contractor.
The people on the block and the Block Assocation, specifically, have been so great and such huge supporters of it and love what it is and engaging with it and having it on their block. And oh my god, the contractors…One of them who works there told me, “Before you guys put any work on there, we were getting so many complaints everyday from neighbors and businesses. The second you started putting work on it…Zero.” And that’s become part of the ethos of the project. The idea of taking something that’s sort of an eye sore and a pain in the ass and turning it into a community focal point. And it’s morphed a little bit. It used to be transitional spaces and things like construction sites, and now it’s like transitional spaces, areas and neighborhoods…just places that are influx.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
Is there a badass bitch of history you connect with?
There are just so many. During the making of the Lower East Side Heroines project by Lexi, I learned so much about those women. So many of them were so dope. People like Catherine Ferguson. Or Hell-Cat Maggie, she was a fucking bruiser.
My obsession with popular culture may force me to say something like Bonnie Raitt. She’s totally fucking awesome. Her first album—out of control. I saw her live at Bonaroo. And just how she was, the things she said, her demeanor...just the jokes she was cracking…I was thinking, "You ma’am, are the shit!" I tend to like and respect women who are sort of “mannish,” if ya know what I mean? She’s just cool as a cucumber. I totally love Gwen Stefani, Debbie Harry, Shirley Manson, chicks who are the front of an all-dude band. I’ve always respected that since I was a little girl. Debby Harry is like my spirit animal.
Oh, and Patti Smith. Have you guys read Just Kids? That book changed my life. The summer I read it, I had just broken up with my ex-boyfriend of three years. I was in a transitional place in my life. And that book, it was just such a magical friend. Sometimes I would take it out with me, knowing I probably wouldn’t have time to read it…but just to have it with me. Not even in a bag, but in my hand. Like, “Hey book, you’re here. Want a coffee?”
Oh God, and Diana Vreeland. She is my everything. She was Anna Wintour before Anna Wintour was Anna Wintour. She ran Vogue. You’ve gotta read her biography, D.V….just the idea that style is all you need.
This is a huge question…I can’t stop answering it. Do you know Nomi Ruiz? She’s a transwoman, and she’s the absolute shit. She is hot as shit. It’s out of control how good looking she is. She’s a transwoman, but it’s not her shtick. And I remember seeing her perform live at Tribeca Grand, and I was mesmerized. And she did this cover of one of the Hercules songs in this slow and languid way, and I was just like, “I want everything about you.”
Where do you see yourself in five years?
In five years, I see myself living in a bigger apartment. And hopefully not the prisoner of a smartphone.
What does authenticity mean to you?
To me, authenticity means no pretense and no apologies.
Do you have a morning ritual?
Well, first of all, my morning is like the afternoon, generally, which, my extended family loves to give me flack about…like I’m just some loafer or whatever. When it’s like "Yo, I go to sleep at like 5:30AM after 6 hours on my feet dealing with drunk people." So, if I wake up at 1PM, it’s not the end of the world. If I’m not going to the gym when I wake up, I look at instagram for a little while, take the dog outside, make some breakfast, and read the New Yorker. There's nothing that exciting. I bet you there there are other weird things that I do that I don’t even realize I do.