His studio is outfitted with canvas, drying racks and cases for block inks. There are brayer rollers, gloves, cleaning equipment, tape and more. And it is located in the back of his car.
Russell Muits is a painter and relief printer of cityscapes like no other. He paints manhole covers and transfers the wet paint image to canvas so he can capture the designs onto prints. He’s painted covers throughout the United States and Europe. During the last two COVID-19 years, he has stayed in Evanston and now has a wonderful collection of Evanston cover prints. These prints are his way of preserving overlooked urban images and honoring the designers of the past. Making art from a manhole cover was unique, as far as Muits knew, but others have followed this innovative art concept.
He seeks out older, often historic, neighborhoods since they often have exceptionally designed, patterned covers. Some of the cover designs were originally created by carving in wood.
Once in an area that looks promising, he parks his car and takes an exploratory walk looking for manhole covers in the streets. When he finds an intriguing one, he first talks to the neighboring businesses and gets their OK to create a relief print of the cover. It is usually a sewer cover, but can be any metal cover used by a city or utility (e.g., water or gas access, drainage, tree grate, etc.)
Once, in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, Muits found what turned out to be a coal hole cover with open circles that used to be filled with glass. They were called “sidewalk lights” and once shed light on a buried coal storage vault below.
His covers have generated a new conversation within the neighborhoods. Local residents are proud of “their” art and piece of history. When someone sees him prepping and painting a cover, they often stop and say something like, “I’ve lived here 30 years and I never noticed that before.”
He has also received emails months or years later with pictures of found covers with recommendations for him to paint. The Evanston community, including police officers, city officials and business owners, has been very helpful during Muits’ COVID-19 “home residency,” he says.
After finding a cover he wants to paint and communicating with any local businesses nearby, he starts his creative process by first cleaning the cover. Weather can be a challenge. If it is too hot, the ink will dry too fast. If it is too wet, the ink will smear. Car and foot traffic can also be a challenge, so he often brings an orange cone to set near the scene.
After the cover is clean, Muits rolls on ink in multiple colors. Carefully he then lays a canvas facedown across the cover and presses it down with his hands to transfer the image. Then he lays the canvas in the back of his “car studio” on a drying rack. Because of space constraints in his car, it’s rare for him to take more than one image on a trip. Sometimes he will take the canvas to another location and add more images from other covers.
After pressing an image, Muits is a good citizen and either cleans off the ink from the cover or overpaints it with a street color. However, if you look closely, you will find at least three covers that are still painted in Evanston. One is between the downtown Whole Foods and the Evanston Women’s Club. Another is near Blick Art on Maple Avenue and a third is close to the Greenleaf Street train trestle near Chicago Avenue.
Once the image has dried, he lays it out at home, and might touch up or augment areas on the image. When his art work is finished, he rolls it up and stores it at his or his parents’ home. Many rolls are stored. He is adding stories to the manhole cover images about the neighborhood or his experience while creating the art. Muits’ memory is not just of the cover, but of the neighborhood and the neighbors.
In addition to selling the originals, he has also been asked for commissions. One image became wedding invitation art and others are memories of a home. Muits also teaches school workshops in relief printing.
If you would like to learn more about Russell Muits’ art, images are displayed in several galleries in Chicago. You can also visit his website, www.stormprintcity.com to see or buy originals and prints, as well as his site on Evanston Made.