Elaine Russell was born at Tingha, New South Wales, and spent her early years at La Perouse in Sydney. Her family then moved to the Murrin Bridge Mission, on the Lachlan River, near Lake Cargellico, New South Wales.
Russell developed an early interest in art, and particularly loved drawing. When she was around 12 years old she entered the local art competition and won the first prize of a trip to the Philippines. Her mother refused to allow Russell to go, fearing that it was part of the government assimilation policy to have her daughter removed from the family. Russell can remember children ‘disappearing’ from the Murrin Bridge Mission, never to be seen again. Elaine Russell didn’t begin her formal artistic career until 1993, at the age of 52, when she enrolled in the Certificate of Visual Arts course Eora Centre TAFE (Technical and Further Education) in Redfern, Sydney. That year, Russell also became a member of Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative, and participated in several group exhibitions. One of these was Narratives in 1994, with the late Kerry Giles, Peta Lonsdale and Dr Pantitji Mary McLean, which highlighted common concerns within the diversity of practice and experience of contemporary Aboriginal women artists.
Russell’s illustrative paintings of mission life, such as attending school and routine inspection days, are animated in her bold and colourful style. Working from an abundance of rich memories and experiences, in common with artists such as HJ Wedge, Ian Abdulla and Robert Campbell Jnr, Russell depicts the human reality of the suppressive conditions on the mission. She has stated that she ‘ … just paint[s] about her childhood, rations, bush food, how we lived.’
In 2000 ABC Books published Russell’s A is for Aunty, an alphabetical account of mission life for children. It encourages literacy and an awareness of Aboriginal history in the younger generation, Russell’s target audience. She communicates the injustices of the colonial era and the segregation of Indigenous people on missions in a non-confronting way. Elaine Russell portrays many social issues that might otherwise be avoided, or even whitewashed, acting as a catalyst for crossing cultural barriers.
Jonathan Jones in 'Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia’, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2014