Gabrielle Russomagno is an artist, photographer, and founder and designer of Ilsa Loves Rick, a jewelry line with a simple, elegant, and organic aesthetic that we are in love with.
In this interview, Gabrielle tells us about learning to take complete responsibility for her own well-being, seeing movement as an opportunity for meditation, her favorite breathing exercise that helps lift stress, and her take on finding inspiration when it seems absent, as well as eating her nutrients in food form rather than as supplements, a common pantry ingredient that she uses to give shine to her hair, exercise, beauty, sustenance, and so much more.
— Is routine important to you or do you like things to be more open and free?
I am happiest and most productive when I follow a routine, but often find inspiration in the times when my days are more open and free, or when I am traveling.
— What do your mornings look like? If they differ from day to day, describe your ideal morning.
Whether I am at our home in Bucks County PA, in Brooklyn, or traveling, my days always start the same way…. I treasure quiet and gentle mornings, so I am always the first person awake. I make a cup of hot water and lemon or tea (green or black, depending on my mood), and spend a bit of time walking in the garden, puttering a bit in the kitchen (I love to cook), or just staring out the window observing the weather and watching daybreak. I am an early riser! Then, I take a look at my calendar, make a bit of breakfast, and get to emails and put together a plan for the day. I like to be as efficient as possible whether I am going to be making jewelry, filling orders, designing new prototypes, or working in my art studio on a couple of projects I have in the works.
— Do you have any bedtime rituals that help you sleep well?
I like to end the day as gently as I begin because there is often a lot of chaos in the in between hours, lots of juggling of different facets of my work/creative life. So, I make a large cup of herb tea, and read for a bit which helps me fall right asleep. When I am feeling particularly wired, I listen to a yoga nidra session which puts me to sleep in five minutes. There is one that I love on the site Do Yoga With Me that works like a charm every time.
— Do you have any kind of mindfulness practice?
I practice vinyasa yoga nearly every day and arrange my schedule to be able to take at least three classes a week. It has really helped to keep me calm, focused and hopeful. I tried to start a meditation practice over the years, but its sort of hard for me to sit still, so I like to get in a walking meditation when I can. When I take long walks, I do not listen to music so that I can be aware of all of the surrounding sounds which feels a bit like a moving mediation practice.
— Describe your typical or ideal meal for each of these:
Breakfast – smashed avocado with ancho chili, Maldon smoked salt, and lemon zest on whole grain gluten-free bread. And a bowl of berries. Literally I eat this 6 out of 7 days.
Lunch – steamed greens, whole grain gluten free pilaf made with with chopped nuts and and seeds and some kind of dried fruit, roasted squash of some kind.
Snack – seed crackers with a bit of hummus or babaganoush, I love a crisp apple with my home made nut butters
Dinner – A hearty soup is sometimes all I eat because I generally have a very light evening meal. Also, I have roasted vegetables with some yummy sauce – brussel sprouts with beets and cauliflower, along with quinoa and a root veggie mash. In the warmer months, I usually make a big salad with whatever I can find that is local, organic, and in season.
— Do you partake in caffeine and in what form? If not, what is your drink of choice in the morning?
I am a tea drinker, green or black with the occasional oat or nut milk latte thrown in.
— Do you have a sweet tooth and do you take any measures to keep it in check?
For nearly six years I have been eating a sugar free diet with the exception of a couple of squares of dark chocolate (88%) each day, fresh and dried fruits. But I love the ritual of an afternoon tea with a treat and a bit of the same after dinner, so I look for dessert recipes that use dates to sweeten. My daughter Claudia is a brilliant baker, so over the years she has perfected a number of vegan, gluten free, low glycemic recipes for me. And of course, if it is a special day and a gorgeous traditional dessert shows up on the table, I will have a few bites…..
— Are there any particular supplements, herbs, or tinctures/tonics that you take regularly and find to be helpful with your energy level and general wellness?
I probably should be taking supplements, but I take none. I try to eat all of my nutrients. I try to eat and sleep well, and exercise every day which helps keep my system in balance. I do think my vegan diet is responsible for all of the energy I have, and I have lots of it.
— Do you exercise and do you have a particular exercise routine that you repeat weekly?
I exercise every day, long walks (4-5 miles) or cross training (45 hard minutes) and yoga. I actually really love hard physical labor so when I am working on a big sculptural installation or tending to my gardens, the more the better.
— Do you find exercise to be pleasurable, torturous or perhaps a little of both? How do you put yourself in the right mindset in order to keep up with it?
I love it…moving helps me think, be creative, figure things out, put my worries in perspective. Its a gift and a balm for a chaotic mind.
— What is your idea of beauty – external, internal or both?
Well, I think probably both, but I think if you do the work for internal beauty, then the exterior just comes along. We all know women (and men) who are so attractive and compelling, not because their features reflect standards of beauty (that changes all of the time too), or that they have spent a lot of time manufacturing the conceit of beauty, but because they know who they are and radiate contentedness, peace and generosity.
— What is your skincare approach – face and body?
Simple, simple, simple…clean eating and lots of water. I only use Cetaphil bar soap on my face and body, Yonka Elastine Nuit and Jour (a plant based french line of skin care) as my face creams, and Weleda or Dr. Haushka body lotion.
— Are there any foods, herbs or supplements you find to be helpful to your skin/hair/general glow?
I think a half an avocado a day and a no sugar diet does so much to support healthy skin.
— Do you have any beauty tips/tricks you’ve found to be especially useful throughout the years?
When I feel a bit sluggish (after travel or a big holiday weekend of eating and drinking Vodka Soda) it shows on my face, dry skin and puffy eyes, so I routinely do a day long cleanse – lemon water with a pinch of cayenne, pressed juice and steamed kale and veggies – which rebalances me in no time. Sometimes, a bit of apple cider vinegar in warm water helps. When my hair is feeling a bit dull, I give it a good rinse in distilled white vinegar, a half cup in a gallon of water and my hair is instantly shiny!
— Do you practice any consistent routines in order to avoid stress?
When I feel the cortisol mounting I do a simple breathing exercise. I inhale to a count of 4 and exhale to a count of 8. I do this for 5 minutes and I calm right down. And when there is a lot going on, I usually strike my favorite restorative yoga inversion pose called legs up the wall. Literally, you elevate your legs up a wall and breath slowly for about 10 minutes…it always works!
— If stress cannot be avoided, what are your ways of dealing with it?
I am very good at just rolling up my sleeves and powering through life. Once on the other side of things, then I begin to repair. I guess the longer you live, the more practice you have at extremely hard and taxing aspects of life and work. I am in my early 50’s now, and feel a sort of grounded calm that only comes with wisdom you gain through living (in my case raising my daughter, doing the heavy lifting of making my marriage work for 25 years, taking risks, dealing with medical crises, seeing your ambitions through to the end whether they are successes or failures). My younger self struggled much more with stress, internalizing things, taking things personally, etc.
— What measures do you take when you sense a cold/general feeling of being under the weather coming on?
I try to slow down and sleep more, hydrate, eat a diet that is more nutrient dense. I almost never take medications.
— Do you strive to maintain a healthy work/life balance or do those things overlap for you? What is your approach?
A work life balance is the holy grail, isn’t it. I think most of us strive for it, but its hard to find balance at certain times of your life. For example, when you are just starting out in your career, you have to avail yourself of all opportunities for growth, this might mean less of a balance at that time. The trick would be to know when you can get off the hamster wheel and slow down. I think most of us just get used to a certain pace of life and never really ask whether its necessary and what we want, what is lacking, how can we create opportunities that allow for that balance. Finding balance requires an explicit effort requiring a life audit – what am I doing, what do I want to do, and how can I create a pathway for change. For women it’s an especially difficult prospect because there are so many competing interests that pull us in different directions. Work, family, children….they can be all consuming in an of themselves, and most women will deal with all three at once for many years of their lives, so knowing where your limits are, what small things you can do to find joy and stillness, really help in creating balance.
— Describe the actions you take or mindset you try to tap into in order to stay on track with your self-care practice and being nice to yourself?
I would say the greatest motivation for a self care practice comes primarily from two places. The first is how good I feel when I am practicing self care, and how instantly terribly I feel when I do not. It’s that simple. And it allows me to be incredibly disciplined. The second, is that I realized a long time ago that my health, happiness and success relies solely on me. It’s not that my friends and family aren’t supporting and loving, its just at the end of the day you have to own how you feel and your successes and failures. I never believed in this myth that someone would step in to save me, to make me happy, or content, I had to do that for myself. It is my core operating philosophy. I am fiercely independent because of it. And if I were being honest, its not always a good thing. I could ask for help more that I do.
— What do you consider to be the single most important change you’ve made to your routine or lifestyle in terms of wellness?
Practicing yoga and my commitment to being a vegan.
— How do you deal with periods characterized by a lack of inspiration or procrastination?
This is going to sound strange, but sometimes, I just hole up and wait. As a younger artist, I would be in a panic if I were uninspired, generally afraid that I ran out of steam or good ideas. The other upside of having lived a creative life for the last 35 years is that time teaches you that inspiration always returns. In the meanwhile, I spend a lot of time reading, watching film, going to museums, people watching in cities, on my travels, and in the country. And I keep making things whether that is a good meal, a piece of jewelry, a sketch for an installation, a collage, even writing…. I see all of the ways we think and create as sketches of ideas, ones that with lead to some a-ha moment, when you are ready to know and act on it. Sometimes the biggest barrier to inspiration is thinking that every idea is good or worthy of action. I think you have to spend time letting lots of ideas come to the fore without preciousness, the best ones recur and have stickiness. I have spent a lot of my life teaching people to be better artists, so their processes have also helped to remind me that inspiration will return, but you have to let it hit you like a thunder bolt or soak in like a light spring rain, you have to be open to the ways inspiration arrives and to see it when it does. Over thinking a lack of inspiration or worrying about it really suffocates its pathways.
Ah, procrastination is a different thing entirely. And I think we all fight inertia. I know that when I begin binge watching nordic noir dramas, its the sure sign that I am avoiding something. Sometimes you just need a break from working so you give yourself that, sometimes, you don’t know how to proceed, or next steps are sort of terrifying and you are just hope it will all go away. That is when I remind myself to be brave, and return to the notion that no one is coming to save me, so I better get on with it myself.
— A book/movie/class that influenced your view of self-nourishment or self-care.
I might be dating myself, but Dr. Andrew Weil’s 1983 reissued classic, Health and Healing.
— What was your path to becoming vegan?
I had been a vegetarian since I was 18 years old, but my shift to vegan came in the summer of 2012 after a scary medical diagnosis.
— How did you transition from being a portrait photographer to becoming a jewelry designer? Do you find that those two practices are interwoven for you as far as your creative process, or do you view them as separate things?
I very much find the two practices interwoven. In fact, all of my creative work relates to each other whether its jewelry design, photography, or the sculpture and immersive art collaborations I build with my partners in TangenT. Regardless of the medium or the product, I have a consistent aesthetic that informs all of it – a simple and elegant modernist sensibility with attention to detail and craft. I am still a practicing fine art and commercial photographer, and portraiture is still my genre of choice, but I have always loved making things with my hands, so there is a nice balance in my creative work. Sometimes I want to be at my studio at the bench, hammering away, sometimes, I want to be in the world telling stories and capturing moments. I am always eager to learn new processes and skills and to explore materials.
In the mid ’00s, I found myself unable to find jewelry that suited my aesthetic, constantly designing pieces and handing them off to someone to fabricate. Then one day I thought, how hard can this be? I found someone to train me, and began making pieces that I wanted to wear. Before long, women began to notice what I was wearing, and were buying pieces right off of me as I was out and about. Within a few months I realized there was a market for my work. I designed my first collection in the summer of 2011 and by the spring of 2012, Erica Tanov and By George were on board as my first retailers. Since all of this was new to me, I was figuring it out as I went along. And since I operate outside of the norms of retail manufacturing and business, I suppose I still am. I am committed to making beautiful things that women love and want to wear every day for a long long time – sort of a jewelry uniform. I am loathe to following trends or participating in disposable fashion, so I am more aligned with the slow design movement.
I think my longstanding work in photography had a lot to do with my interest in artisan jewelry. The meditative process of developing a silver negative is not unlike working molten gold at a bench. Both allow for the hand of the artist to be seen in the materials but the end product is not wholly about the artist. In the case of a photograph, at least the narrative portraits I am known for, they are about the subject and what I have recognized as particularly beautiful and resonant in them. The same is true for each piece of jewelry I make where I am interested in making production pieces that are all one of a kind, they are an object that shows the marks I have made and the patina that I love to feel on my own jewelry.
— You are passionate about sourcing metals that are not harmful to the environment or the communities they come from for Ilsa Loves Rick Jewelry. Could you tell us a bit more about this practice?
Since I have been committed to living gently on the planet for my entire adult life, I wanted Ilsa Loves Rick to be an extension of that philosophy. The metals business can be a very dirty and polluting space which is why I worked hard to find sources that keep a green shop, support the environment, and have progressive work place standards for their employees. Because of this I only purchase metals from one US manufacturers with an historic commitment to supporting these ideals. This means that my raw product costs are higher and I operate on smaller profit margins so that I can still provide an affordable product to my customers.
Fun and Inspiration
— What is something you are particularly excited about at the moment?
I am building a small studio in my garden that should be complete in a month or so! Once it’s complete I am beginning the process of digitizing every negative (and there are many many thousands) and slides of every art work for an archive. I am hoping its a spring board to my next project, a sort of bridge over my decades of practice.
— What do you do to unwind or treat yourself?
That’s easy, deep tissue massage, some chocolate, and a vodka soda with fresh lime juice.
— A book/song/movie/piece of art to feed the soul:
Book – Any book of poetry by Sharon Olds
Song/Album – Anything by Lucinda Williams
Movie – Paris, Texas
Piece of Art – Young Boy, Gondeville, Charente France, 1951 by Paul Strand (the image that made me want to be a photographer)
— Is there anyone you would like to hear from next in this interview series?