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Artist Russell Sharon Connects with His Rural Roots
By Leif Enger
September 29, 1998
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Russell Sharon is the rarest kind of artist - the kind who makes a living at it. Sharon's paintings and sculptures have been shown widely in the U.S. and Europe, and his handmade furniture was featured in the movie Slaves of New York. But while Sharon is well-known in international art circles, he's only recently gained appreciation in his home town, and not just for his art, either. The weekend of October 3, Sharon hosted an exhibition of his work at his farm near Randall, in central Minnesota.

WHEN THE ASPEN TREE IN RUSSELL SHARON'S YARD snapped in a windstorm last spring, he removed everything but four feet of stump. Now, under Sharon's electric saw, the stump becomes a slender figure standing upright, hands turned out as if to bless. When someone mentions chain-saw art, this probably doesn't pop to mind.

Russell: I've had people stop by and say, "Ever think about doing an Indian Chief? Ever think about doing a bear?" That sort of thing. And I said, "No, I never thought of it."
Standing around Sharon's farm are other limber-looking tree people, a forty-foot freestone wall, and a conical rockpile, like a shrine or stupa. Growing up on the nearby farm where his parents still live, Sharon did the usual fieldwork and yard chores; walking through his strange and compelling sculpture garden it's clear that, in a way, he's still doing them.
Russell: I always admired the work of the farmer. Like putting in the fenceposts, I always thought that was so beautiful. Or the rockpiles, I always thought they were beautiful. The hay bales - when they pile the hay - it's like a beautiful sculpture.
Sharon describes his childhood as a joyful, intimate world guarded by parents and spiced with a nearly-permanent houseful of cousins, all of whom expected to become farmers or farmers' wives. In his teens, those expectations became oppressive. Sharon discovered he didn't want to be a farmer. In fact, he wanted to be Andy Warhol.
Russell: I rejected everything. I really wanted to get away. I became a communist and an atheist and anything that was against my parents and the community. And I'd send away for all this subversive literature, and it would come in the mail, and my parents would freak out. They were horrified.
At 18, Sharon went to Bemidji for college, was dissatisfied with the school's unrebellious nature, and bolted to Mexico City. He studied Aztec ruins, lived precariously, and after three years moved to New York where he made paintings and sculptures and sold them cheaply to whomever would buy. One buyer was a gallery owner named Hal Bromm.
Bromm: His work was joyful and colorful and rich and happy, all at once.
Hal Bromm has been selling Sharon's work since the early '80s, mounting several solo exhibits during that time. He says while Sharon's reputation has consistently grown in art circles, reputation in this case is almost beside the point. Whether carvings of crocodiles, impressionist fieldscapes, or tree people like these in the yard, Bromm says the work sells itself - and quickly.
Artie Eckblad: We really don't know much about his reputation away from Randall. I mean I've seen his reviews, and his little invitations he'd send out, but I've never been to an art show of his, ever.
Artie Eckblad is one of Sharon's childhood houseful. Asked whether her cousin Russ seemed gifted or unusual, she says not at all - they were like clones of each other, these kids. They all picked rock, all went to church, all played a faintly insubordinate game called "hubcaps."
Eckblad: You would get a hubcap, you would tie a string onto it, or twine, and then you'd go out at night and put it on the road and hide in the weeds, and then when someone came to collect it you'd pull it off the road. The other thing we did was we made a dummy called Albert, and laid him on the road at night, and then, of course, when the car stopped you pulled him off the road too. People got very angry about that and came and talked to our parents, and that was the end of Albert.
Eckblad says her cousin's early defection from the family was painful. But he never lost touch entirely. He sent word from his showings abroad, and summers he returned to Randall to paint and sculpt. His family welcomed him back. But he was still regarded locally as kind of an oddball - the guy who piled up rocks in his yard, who set colorful banners afloat in his field with no apparent reason, the guy who didn't work a regular job. Then this summer, a developer proposed building a massive hog feedlot a quarter-mile away. Sharon learned he was good at politics - and that he liked his neighbors.
Sharon: They know about me from my hoglot fight, so I am famous here as a hog warrior. This was something I'd not have chosen to do, but having done it, I am grateful it happened because now I really know my neighbors. I respect them because I know them, and I think they respect me. We have a whole new level of understanding.
Sharon's hoping to see his neighbors at the first exhibition he's held at the farm. Taking a break from the tree figure out front, he's now horsing around with some big rocks, choosing which to stack into columns. Each column is held upright by a trio of posts. This is a new idea of his - he's still trying to name it.
Russell: So stony, they look like Puritans, don't they? Unmoving - they stand up very straight and peacefully. You think Puritan is a good idea?
Artist Russell Sharon. His exhibition will run the first two weekends of October at his farm just outside Randall. His work is also showing at the White Oak Gallery in Edina through October 15th.