In case you haven’t already guessed, I’ll tell you right up front: Frank Russell is my brother. He was born three years before me, and he’s the one, even more than my parents, who introduced me to the world. Throughout our childhood, he ran interference for me at home, where scoldings and whippings could come out of nowhere, and showed me the ropes out in the world, from wrestling with the neighbors’ kids to dodging the bullies at school. And ever since he and I moved on into separate but similar paths in life, because my brother helped set my comfort zone, my best buddies have always been a couple of years ahead of me, either mentally or chronologically.
As fate would have it, we’re both artists: I write and Frank paints. I took the craziness of our mutual childhood, kids raised by kids, and fashioned our family’s favorite stories–the good, the bad and the tragic–into a novel of loss and redemption. Frank has done much the same thing in his paintings. His canvases are large, abstract, broken worlds of color, with mysterious spheres emerging from chaotic clouds, orbs of serenity percolating up from the mess left after the world of innocence has come crashing down. He calls such pieces “ancient futures.”
But a funny thing has been happening to Frank lately. He’s gone 3-D. Still painting like a fiend–if I had written as many chapters as he has painted canvases, I’d be giving Stephen King a run for his money–he has begun to work with his hands to make new things out of old. It started with furniture. Frank finds old chairs or builds them himself and sprays them in cascading hues of phosphorescent orange, yellow and blue–or paints them in black-and-white zebra stripes. He breaks down wooden crates and pieces them together with air vents and old cabinet doors to make entertainment centers and pie safes painted forest green or deep purple.
And then there are the fish. Pulling an extra dimension out of the flat canvas with paints and a brush was not enough to satisfy Frank’s rage for re-creation. Not even refurbishing wooden objects could do the trick. Now he’s taking anything he can get his hands on, mostly found objects, mostly metal, and twisting and crushing them before bolting them together into remarkably lifelike, sometimes whimsical fish. In typical hyperbolic fashion, Frank told me the other day, “I have yet to meet an object I can’t make a fish out of, not even the giant peach water tank down I-85 in Gaffney.”
And now, unlike the fishermen of Galilee who dropped their nets to follow Jesus, Frank has hooked me into the fishmaking business. Whenever I go downtown to hang out at my favorite bar, I park beside a service station where the mechanics toss out all the busted parts they have pulled from the innards of automobiles that day. Some are easily recognizable–radiator fans, chunks of grilles, brake discs–but sometimes I find hunks of metal and rubber so alien-looking (“gizzards,” I call them), they must have come from cars as rare as the Edsel. So I throw these rusty, greasy parts into the back of my truck and take them to Frank. Sure enough, next time I visit him, the fan, the grille and the disc have been transmogrified into a shiny shark whose eye, a broken compass, protrudes from the side of his head, a folded cookie sheet, just in front of that weird gizzard.
For as long as I can remember, Frank has always had an artist’s vision, that slightly skewed way of looking at the world most poignantly exemplified in Picasso’s head of a bull, a found-object sculpture constructed simply but ingeniously from a bicycle seat stood on its front tip with a set of handlebars growing out of the top like horns.
A couple of weeks ago, my dad and stepmom came with Frank to visit me, and we were sitting around in the living room talking when all of a sudden, Frank glared into the kitchen. With a covetous look on his face (our grandmother would have said, “Boy, you got the devil in your eye!”) and trying a bit too hard to sound casual, Frank asked, “So hey, man, do you ever actually use that old colander?” Knowing his intentions, I snapped back, “As a matter of fact, I do.”
Frank’s silly side, for which no pun is left unturned, comes out in the names he gives his fish. One creature made from the kitchen utensils of a less wary acquaintance goes by the name of Far Grater. He has glued a child’s toy for eyes on a violin with metal fins–you guessed it, Yo Yo Mahi. And there is a metallic monstrosity called RoboCarp. For many creations, the name pretty much says it all: One is dubbed Trumpetfish, another HubCaptain and yet another, PhilosoPhish. Who says recycling can’t be fun?
The last time I drove over to Greensboro to see Frank, the entire back wall of his house had become a gangly, dangling school of underwater wigglers. Some of his fish hang as mobiles, but most are designed to be mounted on the wall like your granddad’s prize bass. The ones built from automotive parts would go well in the garage, the musical instruments above the piano, and why not hang a spoonfish in the kitchen?
Frank Russell’s scaly critters can be seen currently at Fishmonger’s Restaurant, cattycorner to Brightleaf Square on Main Street in Durham.