Jim Russell sits in the middle of the The Janice Griffiths Gallery with his rotund service pug, Mr. Beau, resting on his lap. The dim lights and cool interior of the gallery offer both some relief from the heat of the day as Russell recounts his tale of his life journey from military discipline to artistic expression.
Jim Russell plants the fruit seed and watches it grow. For months, he keeps away the bugs and pests. He makes sure it gets plenty of sunshine and rotates the soil to keep it rich. He observes the vegetable beginning to take shape, heavy bottomed and pear-like, no two alike.
He waits as it dries, the shell hardening underneath the outer skin. Then it’s ready for him to begin.
Jim Russell grows art.
Russell graduated high school at 17, turning down his father’s offer to send him to college. Russell did not think he could handle the rigors of college life, so he joined the Marine Corps.
From there, he was sent to Vietnam.
Russell served eight years as an enlisted man before going through Warrant Officer training. He was later commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant and worked his way up to the rank of Major. He served three tours in Vietnam during his time in the Marine Corps running logistics.
“My first tour was at I Marine Amphibious Force Headquarters at Da Nang where we constructed a facility to house an IBM System 360 computer to run primarily supply and personnel accounting,” said Russell.
Later, as a Captain, he was assigned aboard the USS Long Beach, guided-missile cruiser, nuclear powered 9, as the Commanding Officer of the Marine Detachment on a two year tour in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of Hanoi, North Vietnam. The Marines aboard the ship manned the guns and provided security for the nuclear weapons in the three nuclear capable systems.
When his tour concluded, it was time for him to come home.
“By that time a majority of the US citizens were opposed to the Vietnam War and they did not welcome our returning G.I.s,” said Russell. “When I departed the ship I came to Camp Pendleton and served four years at the I-MAF Force Automated Services Center, until a motor cycle accident severed my spinal cord and forced my retirement.”
Retiring with disability, Russell pursued a master's in business administration before setting down his roots in a macadamia orchid south of Fallbrook, Calif.
There he was introduced to gourds.
“My wife taught fifth grade and one year she brought home a package of gourd seeds as part of a project for her class,” said Russell. “I went to farmer’s markets selling them and had a big stack of gourds. People said ‘what do you do with those things’ and that got me started.”
A gourd is a large, hard-shelled fruit from the same family as pumpkins and squash. Historically they’ve been used create everything from utensils to toys to musical instruments. Russell uses them to create art.
By the time Russell is finished with a gourd it can be hard to believe it was once plucked from the ground. One of his pieces for the Saluting Our Wounded Warriors and Veterans Show at the Fallbrook Art Center is a spider web of intricate design. Lines dart across its surface, burned into the shell with skill and precision.
“Most of my stuff is geometric design,” said Russell who can spend up to 200 hours working on a single piece. “The disciple I learned in the Marine Corps helps me to push through to finish.”
Russell’s gourd art uses a variety of techniques including wood burning, carving and painting.
Russell’s art also extends beyond what he grows on his farm, despite his lack of formal training in art. His works vary in medium, from stained glass to wood working, and subject, making everything from pots and pans to jewelry.
“Years ago Fallbrook was pretty much defined by antiques,” said Russell. “But most of those dealers moved so several of us sat around and cogitated on what we wanted Fallbrook to be about.”
Russell and his group then started a non-profit to revitalize the city of Fallbrook. Part of their work involved the creation of the Fallbrook Art Center where his art is displayed.
“It used to be a gun store for years and our non-profit bought it to turn into an art institute,” said Russell. “We’re trying to define Fallbrook with art. We have a lot of professional artists in town, a lot of art galleries. Art should be an important part of any community.”
Russell has not forgotten his military past, now working art into his involvement with veteran affairs.
“Veterans can benefit from creating art,” said Russell. “It gives you a sense of accomplishment that folks are willing to buy something that you labored over.”
The Saluting Our Wounded Warriors and Veterans Show acts as an illustration of this marriage of military service and art.
“This is a great show the director came up with,” said Russell. “We have two things here, art by the military and veterans and art about the military and veterans.”
The Saluting Our Wounded Warriors and Veterans Show features pieces by adults, elementary students from schools aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, military memorabilia on loan and books by local veterans. The show is free to the public and open daily through August 30th.
“It’s worth coming down and taking a look,” said Russell.