Sometimes the vision comes from God, sometimes from the muses, sometimes from a troubled mind. Regardless, the message is the same: Turn the discards of this world into things of beauty.
Bishop Russell uses scrap wood.
John E. Miller Russell was born 70 years ago in Anniston. He grew up on Union Hill, with 11 brothers and sisters. "We slopped hogs, we raised peanuts and potatoes, we grew up in a shack," says Russell. "It wasn't a house, it was a shack."
Today, he's turning an old fire station in West Anniston into a church, and he's taken on the title of "Bishop."
Bishop Russell has been an admirer of Martin Luther King Jr. since the first time he heard him on the radio and thought that's what the voice of God must sound like.
Now, he's an admirer of President Barack Obama.
He has carved a sculpture of Obama, which he plans to box up and ship to the president.
There's no mistaking that it's Obama: those ears, those rolled-up sleeves. His legs are long, full of energy and purpose. His right arm points ahead, straight and strong and true.
"When he walked across the White House lawn, he took big steps. I thought he walked tall," says Russell. "That's why I gave him long legs."
Russell carved the words "HOPE & CHANGE" into the base of the sculpture, and wrote a statement about his work:
"The sculpture of the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, was carved out of wood, chiseled and molded into a statue by hand, with lots of energy and hard work. Every stroke of the knife expressed the admiration and great respect that I hold for President Obama. May God protect him and his family as he works to protect this great nation."
Russell has always had a way with wood. His hands show evidence of years of work.
Growing up, he would take old vegetable crates and turn them into birdhouses to sell. He's traveled around, doing contracting work on houses. He restored antique furniture to sell in his building, which he used as a flea market before he turned it into a church.
He learned to carve wood in the VA hospital in Long Beach, Calif. He was in the Marines, serving in Vietnam, when he was shot in the right hand.
He spent months recovering in the hospital. "I was looking for a hobby. We had to go to the hobby shop every day. One day, I saw a man doing wood sculpture. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. That became my therapy."
He doesn't remember the man's name, but he remembers that he was like a giant, well over 6 feet tall. "I sat there and watched him, just like he'd hypnotized me. I said, 'God, if I could do that, I'd be the happiest man in the world.'"
If he hadn't started carving wood, Russell says his hand would still be paralyzed. "I found a talent I hadn't used before. You can always find a way to make things work for you. You don't have to sit around and feel sorry for yourself."
Russell uses a utility knife to carve wood. He doesn't smooth out the marks left by the knife. "I want my labor to be seen. I don't want it to look easy, because it's not easy," he says.
"Sometimes the wood seems like it's come to life. You get a piece of regular old wood, square, and all of a sudden you can see that person in the wood."
Sometimes the people in the wood are women, with the same long legs and arms as the Obama sculpture. Some of the women hold arrows or spears. One holds a lamp. One wears a gold cross around her neck, and gold bracelets on her arms. One has an arrow through her heart; "she is broken-hearted."
One sculpture he calls The Strong Man. He has lots of muscles, and sharp ears for keen hearing.
Another, a short, squat one, he calls The Millionaire. "He doesn't have the kind of body he wants," explains Russell. That's why there are teardrops in his eyes.
Another is a tribute to a fellow veteran in the VA hospital, who had lost both his legs. "That man didn't take time for no wheelchair, or people feeling sorry for him," says Russell.
The wood is stained in rich shades of brown, dark to light.
The sculptures, they take hold of him. When he's working, he sometimes only sleeps a couple of hours a night. He forgets to eat.
As he worked on the sculpture of Obama, he slept with it at the foot of his bed. "When I'd go to sleep, I'd see it in my sleep."
Letting go of his works, he says, can feel "like a mother letting go of a child." It hurts to give them up. "I wonder if they're OK.
"You take this wood and give it life. You make it part of you, just like God made us part of him."
It's hard to separate the artist from the preacher. "My job is not the sculpture — that's out of pleasure," says Russell. "My job is to build this temple here."
The church — Christian Outreach Nondenominational Ministries — is in an old fire station on West 15th Street. The cornerstone reads, "AFD #4, erected 1935."
He has decorated the church, not with wood, but with concrete statues that he has embellished. A concrete Jesus stands atop a 10-foot-tall pedestal. Moses stands atop a mountain. In the corner is an angel fountain, which he hopes will one day flow with colored water.
The church building has a long way to go. It's got pews, but they're stacked in a corner, along with storage boxes and odds and ends. The building needs a new roof, carpet and air conditioning. Russell runs a car wash across the street, to raise money for repairs.
"I want to give people a place they can come and worship. No sermons, just sit and listen to tapes and music, read the scripture on the walls," he says.
"I'm going to make a sanctuary, like God asked me too. If I've only got one nail, I'll use the one nail."
Behind the car wash is a big white cross that Russell made from scrap wood, rising over a vacant lot he calls "The Holy Land."
Until the church is ready, Russell preaches on the corner, at his house, wherever people will listen. He preaches against teenage pregnancy, laziness, gang violence, hopelessness.
"Everything I do," he says, "is a vision."