Russell’s story

RUSSELL: “the one big tragedy of my childhood .. the tragedy of my life .. was being dyslexic.”

I see that I have identified with Russell’s valuing of intellectual excellence at the expense of sensory awareness and realize the cost in pain to both of us.

Another Back-Door Entrance: Russel’s Story

Russell’s house was the only one on Monhegan not muted to grey by wind and sea-salt. Bright pink, it stands against rock, an exclamation, visible in all weather. Laundry flapped above on a drying rack anchored in a small patch of grass in the rocks. Chairs and a table waited under a folded sun-umbrella. One day, after a not-too-tiring or -sweaty hike, I noticed a sign beside the door: “Felice House, 2:00–4:30 Weekdays Only,” and decided to stop by.

Bells on the screen door jangled as I stepped down into the small, bright kitchen crammed with a neatly arranged clutter of crockery and utensils — for Russell’s home, “too much is not enough.” Around the end of a counter, past a beaded curtain on the left, I stepped up over a high doorsill into the studio where he sat stitching at a large table by the window. Behind him, layered skeins of wool hung in rainbow colours, ranging from deep purple to pale red. In the corner, music plays. In front and to his right on walls and tables, Mexican jewellery and cloth from winter sojourns, now for sale.

He gave me a quick look, eyes bright blue and huge through the thick glasses required by encroaching glaucoma, his hair a white tonsure above a narrow and ascetic face accented with a short, grey bristle of moustache. He continued to work, using a magnifying glass for one eye, a bright light over the canvas.

His fingers worked rhythmically in a random stitch he invented on the island and calls Libra Point, “because it’s foolproof, anyone can do it. When I went to classes I couldn’t remember what they taught me, it’s impossible for me to follow a set pattern. So I had to invent a way to do it and made up my own stitch. You can’t tell from the front that it’s different from the usual way, but you can from the back, because it’s a mess. If you pull it apart, you find that it’s based on a whole structure of error: that it looks okay is some kind of mystery, and a form of compensation.”

I came to know him through watching him stitch. He explained that he could teach Libra Point to “ultra-handicapped people” because the stitch “is random, spontaneous, and yet risk-taking — it’s different.”  Just like he was.

Brief summary

Russell’s life was courageous, iconoclastic, creative, professionally successful…and joyless, coloured with the greyness of his disappointment. His is a cautionary tale of how accepting the common beliefs about what constitutes self-worth and success can be a recipe for life-long unhappiness. It is also a thrilling and heartening example of the triumph of the creative spirit.

He was dyslexic at a time when that diagnosis was unknown: labeled retarded, stupid or lazy. The women in his family, and later in the art world, recognized his creative talents and the way he did think, believed in him and mentored him, Their support was the foundation for his persistence in overcoming the very real roadblocks to his career, and opened up opportunities for him – but in world he believed to be inferior.

He yearned to belong in a world where people “thought in the usual way”, not like him. Men who had respected careers in what were then male dominated professions such as business, education and medicine. Men who were mentored by successful people, like his father – who made fun of him instead, denying him the recognition and respect he knew, from his own personal and professional experience, that he had earned—For example, while experts rejected them at the time his teaching methods later became a model for children’s therapy.

Not until his work appeared in group or one-man shows and began to sell could he legitimate it as worthwhile, as worth his own and other people’s effort. Though not “real thinking”, nor the kind of profession and place he wanted in the masculine world, art as a money-maker could enter the world of “real work.” We were talking one day about the Puritan notion that money legitimizes human endeavour, and I said, “Now you’ve joined the clan.”

What do you mean?”

“Well, my father’s firm.”

He gave a short bark of a laugh and looked at me slyly, “My grandfather would be upright in his grave with outrage to hear you say that. My father would just be disgusted. Another back door entrance, eh?” He laughed again.


Like mine, Russell’s parents were descended from Scotch Covenanters who had emigrated in the 17th century because their faith was too extreme to fit with the Jacobean compromises of the time. Russell and I used the same words to describe our heritage, echoing each other:

“Dreadful Scotch Presbyterian, with all the WASP consciousness and conscience.”

“The Puritan work ethic,” I replied. “To produce is the only way to … ”

“Yes, we have to, until our dying day.”

“You still feel that way?” I asked.

“Of course, don’t you?”

”Well, I fight it — I try to find things to be task-oriented about that are enjoyable for me.”

“No point in fighting it,” Russell said. “What’s the matter with pessimism?”


Like most of the profiles in WE All Become Stories, Make Yours a Good One, Russell’s ends with a poem. These are the last 3 verses.


The pink house is still there, still Felice House:

now “Open 8:00-6:00, Everyday.” Bought years ago

by friends as he grew poor, the ground floor

is a store, selling wine, cheeses, high-end foods

and fresh produce to a discriminating clientele.


The rent goes towards a Foundation which brings

two young artists every year to live and work  

upstairs, under the eaves, where Russell and Edgar

slept. The row of yellow ducks still peer from

the bathtub’s rim when we view their summer’s work.


Giving to himself, he grew out of rock. Monhegan,

rock-hard Mother Earth freedom place, Mexico, place

of punching colours and designs to shiver in. Stitches

are short sharp cries of seagull (see-go) soaring

against limitless sky, forever pulled back to earth.


Fool proof.