Don Russell wasn’t sure whether to call himself a visual artist.
“I just weld junk together,” he explained last week. “It’s visual and it’s art, so maybe I’m a visual artist.”
He’s never worked in what he called “the art world.” In 2013, Russell bought three old houses on 22nd Avenue near Adams Street from his mother and stepfather and began filling the front and side yards with large, 3-D artwork.
“Most of it is in two of the yards,” he said, “because at the third house they park their cars in the yard. Once I have more sculptures, I’ll have to put them someplace else.”
His sculptures are a hobby, said Russell, who’s 62 and moved here from Montana in the late ’60s. “I started welding old iron together, making sculptures as a form of self-help therapy after my sons Devan and Ramsey died. I wanted to do something creative in remembrance of them.”
He doesn’t like to talk about the details of his sons’ deaths. He signed each piece “DR Live,” which he said is short for “Devan and Ramsey Live through art.”
“They died a long time ago,” Russell said of his boys. “One of them in 1995, the other in 1996. It was tough times, but, yeah, you get through it. Right?”
Russell, who said he only uses recycled materials in building his sculptures, liked to joke that he had an iron deficiency.
“I use a lot of metal,” he said. “Every piece had a previous life as something else. Some of those old plows, the people who pulled those are dead and gone, but the tough iron lives on.”
His sculpture called Pot Head was inspired by pro-marijuana Proposition 207; Plow Bird is made from old farm equipment, its wings two cross-cut saw blades. There’s an American flag built from patinaed sheet metal, and Fire Hydrant, which depicts a hydrant peeing on a dog. Alieon is an extraterrestrial, its legs made from automotive headers, its feet from soil excavator teeth.
“He eats cans and recycles them by crapping out forks,” Russell explained.
The sculptures have multilayered meaning. “The one I call The Prick is a quintuple entendre,” he said. “He’s a cactus driving a 1928 Buick, so he looks like a mean guy. He’s tall like a prick, and if you touch him, you get pricked. He’s made by a prick, and I’ll let you guess the fifth one.”
He thinks his tenants like his sculptures. “They seem to, or they pretend to,” he said with a laugh. “Having sculptures in your yard is a condition of living there. But we treat them right with good rent and good service.”
Occasionally, a sculpture is vandalized. Screaming Eagle, a giant bird, got knocked over last year by a driver fleeing the police. Politics is Such Crap, which depicts a man sitting on a toilet reading the newspaper, had been abused by passersby.
Russell hopes one day his outdoor exhibit will be part of Phoenix’s art and culture scene. “I was hoping it could be a drive-by art park kind of thing,” he said. “Maybe part of that First Friday art tour thing.”
He thinks of his art garden as a kind of community project. He offers low-cost housing to lower-income people, and art to uplift what he called “a rough neighborhood.”
People often stopped by one of the houses to express appreciation, Russell said. “Maybe they’re stoned when they say those nice things. I don’t know. My mother says it’s a bunch of junk that I need to haul to the dump, but that’s okay. She’s coming around.”