Painters Alicia Armstrong and Jeremy Russell bet on themselves in downtown’s crowded gallery scene

Oct 28, 2021

Alicia Armstrong and Jeremy Russell have known each other since their time in UNC-Asheville's art department. They opened their shared gallery earlier this year.
Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News

Alicia Armstrong can’t count how many times she has turned down Jeremy Russell.

“When he would come to me with the ideas, I would say ‘Dude, that is f***d up,” Armstrong said. “‘I don’t have time for that.’”

There was the time Russell wanted partners to go in on a bowling alley or perhaps an abandoned Kmart and turn it into an “art experience.” For years, he hit up friends to join him in buying a warehouse and renting studios to other artists.

“Jeremy comes in hot and I’m used to it because I’ve known him for a long time,” Armstrong said. “And he does get disgruntled that I am not as exuberant about his ideas.”

Russell nodded in agreement.

“Alicia’s not. My wife’s not. Nobody is,” he said.

But earlier this year, as Russell put it, he caught Armstrong on a “weird day” with the idea of moving both their studios and showrooms into a vacant gallery in the heart of downtown Asheville.

“Alicia was kinda depressed that day or just like one of those days in the studio where things aren’t all perfect and she was like ‘OK, let’s just do this,’” Russell recalled. “And I was like ‘Oh hell, this might actually happen.’”

Others in this region have opened galleries dedicated to their own painting and found success, most notably the late Jonas Gerard. But Russell and Armstrong Gallery is unique in several respects.

It’s in a high-rent, high-visibility district, just a block away from other top-flight galleries showing living contemporary artists. And while the other galleries showcase a variety of artists, Russell and Armstrong have placed a giant bet that their own work can draw the kind of sales to make this pay off month after month. They signed a two-year lease. 

“There are two choices here. There’s Jeremy Russell, there’s Alicia Armstrong,” Armstrong said. “For us to sell $45,000 in one month of work is probably not gonna happen in our studio spaces in the River (Arts) District.”

“Oh yeah, but it happens here,” Russell added.

“We are very prolific, both of us,” Armstrong said. “We paint a lot and we love painting big. And we were like ‘This is an experiment, we’ll try it and it’s gone really well,’ so here we are.”

Alicia Armstrong and Jeremy Russell
Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News

Armstrong was a couple years ahead of Russell in the late ‘90s at UNC-Asheville, where they circulated and partied in the same crowd of art students. Even then, Armstrong was determined to build a career as a painter. After a divorce, she said, her work evolved to fuse realistic subjects, surrealistic settings and metaphorical imagery. She sold well through galleries in Asheville, Atlanta, Charleston and her South Carolina hometown of Columbia.

Russell’s creativity often led to entrepreneurial ideas away from the canvas. He built a successful commercial mural business before Blue Spiral Gallery took on his paintings. Just as he began leaning into large, abstracted landscapes, an early stage Lymphoma forced him into chemotherapy. Then the pandemic happened. None of it derailed his idea for the gallery, only the timing.

“I would keep up with Alicia all the time and, from the sidelines, watch her develop her career and make it as an artist,” Russell said. “I didn’t know if my work would do what her work did. With Blue Spiral, they started selling my work really well. It gave me the confidence to say ‘I could do this too.’”

Before opening their doors in May, they invested more than $10,000 in lighting and to move and paint walls. The left half of the gallery shows Armstrong’s work, the right belongs to Russell. Their separate painting studios are in the back and open to the public. At the same time, both artists are continuing their relationships with other galleries. 

“Jeremy and I did have a lot of anxious talks in the beginning,” Armstrong said. “Jeremy was the ball of anxiety.”

“I freak out still sometimes,” he said.

“And he’d be like ‘How do you know? What if it doesn’t?’ And I would just be like, if we are gonna do this, it’s not really a choice to think ‘What if it fails?’” Armstrong said. “It’s kinda like we just had a baby, it’s here and we’re gonna take care of it and make it healthy.”

Nearly six months in, the artists said their faith in themselves has paid off, both in terms of making their rent and paying themselves. It’s also led Armstrong to believe her “younger brother,” as she tends to think of Russell, has finally grown up.

“I do think like having a third child, going through cancer and going through Covid, I do think he had lots of come-to-Jesus moments, like ‘What do I want to do with my life?’” Armstrong said.

“Dammit, I’m becoming realistic,” Russell said. “So stupid.”