Click here to view a photo showcase of wedding painter Agnes Russo.
Just over 24 hours before Matt and Elise Stejskal said their vows Friday evening, a woman the couple had never met converted her downtown hotel room into a temporary art studio and set about executing a wedding day surprise.
Armed with photographs of the bride and groom, their parents and the bride's brother, as well as of the mezzanine at the Joslyn Art Museum where the reception was to be held, Agnes Csiszar Russo began painting a scene from the future.
Elise, in her white chiffon gown with delicate, sparkling straps, looked up at her tall groom as they shared their first dance, their parents and other guests happily watching from the edge of the dance floor.
The next day, Russo brought canvas, easel and paints to the Joslyn, where she again set up a makeshift studio — this time in a nook near the wedding cake. As guests filtered into the reception, she set about finishing the painting.
Russo photographed guests of honor and replicated the features captured on the small digital screen onto her canvas. She painted the huge floral centerpieces that graced the tables, the gilded chairs, the tiled fountain in the center of the room.
A crowd that formed around Russo as she worked pointed out guests they recognized (in some cases, themselves).
No one had seen anything quite like it before.
“We didn't even know stuff like this existed,” said the surprised groom shortly after his first look at the painting. In fact, it took a few moments to sink in that he was the groom dancing in the painting, that the bride was Elise and that the people watching, their friends and family.
Elise's mother, Kathryn Russell, also had never heard of live event painting, as it's come to be called — until she received a Christmas card emblazoned with a painting of a friend's daughter's wedding.
Russell studied the Christmas card. Even in the scaled-down, card-size reprint, she was struck by how lifelike it was.
“I could see my friend,” she said. “I could see her daughter.”
When Elise and Matt became engaged and chose an art museum as their reception site, Russell wanted them to have their own wedding painting.
She tracked down Russo, a California-based illustrator who has spent much of her career in the movie industry, designing storyboards and promotional posters. Russo entered the world of live event painting about six years ago, when an acquaintance asked if she'd paint at a corporate event. Russo, who has a knack for painting faces quickly, agreed, and guests enjoyed the novelty of an on-site painter.
That was all it took.
“I just fell into it,” Russo said. “Once you do one of these events, people start calling.”
Russo has continued to work her movie-industry job, but event painting has become so popular — especially on the coasts — that she paints most weekends. Russo estimated that 90 percent of her weekend jobs are weddings, though she also paints anniversaries, birthday parties, corporate events and the occasional bar mitzvah.
Russo's paintings are filled with warm, soft light, and the people she portrays are slightly idealized versions of their real-life counterparts — in Russo's paintings, guests often lose both a few years and a few pounds (though one bride that Russo slimmed down asked that her missing curves be reinstated).
Guests want to be in her paintings, she said. They ask her about the process, they watch her as she works. At one wedding, a little boy wanted to help so badly that she gave him his own brush and allowed him to paint a corner, which she later touched up.
“It's always a big hit,” she said. “That's what makes it fun.”
That's also how she advertises. As more people see her in action, more people call and book her or another live event painter.
It's still a small field — Russo guesses she's one of a dozen or so live event painters in the United States — but it's growing. In 2006, a wedding DJ named Miles Pelky founded liveeventartist.com, which showcases the work of event painters from across the country who paint in a variety of different styles. Last fall the New York Times ran a story about live event painters — including Russo — and their sudden popularity.
“It's just something different, and brides, particularly brides, are looking for something a little different at their wedding,” Pelky said.
Pelky's painters tend to charge between $2,000 and $3,500 per event. Russo's paintings also start at around $2,000, plus travel costs.
For that, brides and grooms receive a memento of their big day, and their guests enjoy the novelty of watching an artist paint at the reception.
And in the case of Matt and Elise Stejskal, a huge surprise.
Technically, the painting was a gift from Elise's brother, Joseph. But their mother was the driving force in making the painting happen.
After finding Russo, she began to plot how to get Russo the images of Matt and Elise without spoiling the surprise. She sneakily took a photo of the couple — who met on the first day of work at ConAgra Foods in Omaha — during a pre-wedding dance lesson. Russell covertly sent the photograph to Russo, who sketched the entire painting around that photo.
“I've gone to great lengths to keep this a secret,” Russell said.
Just before 10 p.m. on Friday, after nearly a day and a half of painting, Russo declared her painting of Matt and Elise Stejskal nearly finished.
She had captured the soft light of the reception hall, the details and folds of Elise's gown, the smiles of their friends and the mood of the evening.
When Russo left that night — she had an early flight out Saturday and another event to paint yet that weekend — Joseph Russell's gift to his sister and new brother-in-law was complete.
Russo said some of her artist friends scoff at wedding painting — an artist can't be as creative if they're told what to paint, they say.
But Russo enjoys the work. Weddings are celebrations, so she always has fun. She's visited beautiful places, met nice people and once saw Stevie Wonder perform at a reception. As she looks through the photographs she keeps of each of her paintings, she remembers each bride, each groom, each guest.
“I remember everyone who was in my paintings,” she said.
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