Retired ECC fine arts professor continues to create art

The first in an occasional series on retired ECC faculty

Cole Christensen, Staff Writer

If you are from the Kane County area, chances are you’ve seen sculptures created by Howard Russo.

From 1988 to 2018, Russo was a professor at Elgin Community College and taught classes in jewelry, ceramics, sculpture, and glass fusing. He was the lead negotiator of the teacher’s union–ECC Faculty Association (ECCFA)– and has maintained a professional sculpting career that continues to grow.  

“When I was in school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Russo said.

Russo’s love for 3D media did not begin until he enrolled at Northern Illinois University, when he took sculpture and jewelry classes out of curiosity. His main concern was being able to make enough money after college.

“What am I gonna do for a living making sculpture? What kind of hospitable life can I have making sculpture?” Russo said. “I [asked] my students this in class: How many people have sculptures? Maybe one person would raise their hand. And then I go, ‘How many people own jewelry?’ They’d all raise their hand.”

That is what led Russo to pursue jewelry. When he wasn’t working on academics, he worked part-time at a jewelry store, making $35 an hour.

“I was living high on the hog,” Russo said.

While Russo was prepared to become a full-time jewelry artist after college, his jewelry professor warned him about the lack of financial stability.

“My professor said, ‘You don’t want to do this as a living. You don’t want to [be] an artist’. I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’, and he goes, ‘Well, it’s just so hard. You could have a good year, you might have a bad year. You should teach.’”

Russo did not wait long to pursue teaching.

“I called [an administrator from ECC] and said, ‘Do you need a jewelry teacher?’, and the guy goes, ‘She quit today.’”

Russo worked his way up to a full-time position. His teaching career led to bonds with students such as former ECC student Matt Brej, who graduated in 2015 and took almost all of Russo’s classes.

“[Russo] really pushed me when I didn’t really have a lot of push, but at the same time, he was very much there [as] a mentor [and] helped me along with each step of the journey to go on to different things,” Brej said.

As an art teacher himself, Brej continues to keep in contact with Russo.

“He’s somebody I will always look to if I ever need a letter of recommendation or if I need some advice about what to expect when it comes to teaching,” Brej said. “He has such a wealth of knowledge and he has so much experience. Why not contact the mentor who you spent so much time with at school?”

When Russo wasn’t educating students at ECC, he was working on sculptures, starting from where he left off in college.

“I was always making art, but I just got really into making larger pieces,” Russo said. “Nothing’s big enough. Every tool I’ve ever gotten was too small.”

Russo’s largest artwork to date is a 14-foot rocket ship. Rocket ships are a common subject in his work. He was inspired by the nuclear arms treaty in the 80’s and the nuclear rockets that were deactivated because of it.

“What do you do with all these rockets? You make art out of it,” Russo said.

Russo’s sculptures are mostly made from recycled materials. He receives them from friends and contacts that have materials they don’t want that could be of use to him. One of these people is a former neighbor, Jeff Christensen, who owned a wiremill.

“[After my business closed down], there was stuff at the end we took out of auction lots so he [could] have [any gears, motors, or tools] he needed,” Christensen said.

Russo benefitted from Christensen’s favor by gaining parts that will be used to build a kiln for future projects. Years before though, Russo and Christensen worked together to build a furnace to heat treat stainless steel antenna whips.

“I give things away to people,” Russo said. “Like, if you need something and I have it, it’s yours. I didn’t pay anything for it? It’s yours. And then people give me things.”

After Christensen moved into a new home, Russo gifted him with a ceramic rocket ship to put in the backyard. As for Russo’s home, it’s filled with paintings and sculptures from artists he’s friends with, including ECC professors.

Russo takes trash from his friends and gives them back as treasure, and spent years teaching students. But one of his biggest legacies at ECC was his union work.

Russo’s passion for union work was sparked when he served on the grievance committee, a committee that helps mediate labor disputes between faculty and administration. 

“[With other committees], nothing ever got done,” Russo said. “[However], I went to [my first] grievance committee meeting, and they resolved the issue [I had with my boss] in 20 minutes.”

Russo immediately joined the teacher’s union when he saw what they could accomplish. After years of working with ECCFA, Luis Martinez, Anatomy/Biology Professor and former ECCFA president, appointed Russo to the position of lead negotiator and co-chair of the grievance committee.

“He always wanted to make sure that things were done right by anybody, whether it’s us, the faculty, or the administration,” Martinez said. “When you have to do a contract negotiation, and you have people like Howard with you, that [gives] you a lot of confidence.”

Russo relished the negotiator role.

“I found that when I was in the room [as a leader], my voice mattered, and I really liked that, to be able to do good,” Russo said.

Russo reflects proudly on his years serving on the grievance committee.

“I really enjoyed doing the research when an employee would come with an issue, and I’d figure out what the law was,” Russo said. “It’s all black and white. We have a contract, and it says what we can do and what we can’t do, and there’s no room for interpretation, and I saw that the administration always tried to interpret things differently. If we filed a grievance, we didn’t lose. That was a hard thing for [the administrators] to deal with. They’d always question it. But, we’d already played this thing through before we even brought it to you. We already know we’re gonna win.”

Russo and Martinez are proud of their success rate on grievance filings. They said they never lost a single case they brought to the administration.

“[Russo] knew how to handle those grievances, how to win them, and how to have the skills to move [his chess] pieces, [and] if you are playing chess with Howard Russo, [he’s] always prepared,” Martinez said.

Retirement was not an easy decision for Russo.

“I like the classroom,” Russo said.  “I had a lot of fun in the classroom. But it’s the having to deal with all the paperwork and all the meetings and stuff. I felt that I needed to be there to do this. If I didn’t manage what I was managing in the union, it wouldn’t get done. It’s self-inflicted, I think, cause it went on without me, but I just felt the only way I could get out of the union is if I retire.”

Russo now spends his extra time sculpting and hanging out with friends and family. He is also taking a printmaking class at ECC and makes stickers and T-shirts with rocket ships and UFO’s on them.

In Russo’s experience, he recommends that “you’ve got to live your life all along, otherwise it’s not gonna change. You get really caught up in [how] much money you spend. When it’s time to go [live your life], you can’t spend money.”

Russo’s teaching career may be over, but he has one last piece of advice for ECC students.

“School is all about exploring, and explore as much as you can,” Russo said.  “If you’re into something, you don’t know what you wanna do, you go for it, but otherwise, explore an experience.”