By Victoria Petersen
You may recognize Duke Russell’s paintings if you’ve ever eaten at Spenard Roadhouse or perused Dos Manos. His work reflects the neighborhood of Spenard and beyond.
“Even though we get the reputation of having prostitutes and nightclubs, Spenard divorce and all that, I want to correct that attitude and find beauty in things we pass by everyday,” Russell said. “It’s kind of a shit show, but it’s our shit show.”
In 1969 Russell’s father got a job on the slope. Left to his own devices, young Duke would venture from their apartment above Darwin’s Theory and explore downtown Anchorage. When it was time for his father to leave Alaska for his home in Texas, Duke decided to plant his roots in Anchorage.
“When I was 19 I decided that this was where I wanted to be and that this was my home. I felt like I did have opportunity, even though it took a long time to get the whole art thing up,” Russell said.
Russell started a family in Spenard and sought to give his children the stability he missed out on as a child.
“I have a couple kids and they have lived in the same house all their lives, they have lifelong friends. That’s something I wanted to give my kids,” Russell said. “My dad moved around skipping rent and I was sick and tired of it. He did the best he could I guess, with what he had to work with. I admire him for having the courage to come up here in the first place. My life would have been very different.”
Duke graduated from West High in 1977 and worked at the Bike Shop in Spenard while building his art career.
In the 90s Russell helped film production teams make high-budget commercials. This gave Russell a unique skill set he wouldn’t have had otherwise.
“By doing that work I was able to slowly build tools and expertise that’s gotten me where I am today,” Russell said.
Russell, who has lived in Spenard for over 20 years, was first inspired by the neighborhood after taking his children to the library at the museum to look at Ward Wells photography of old Anchorage. Wells photographed local businesses of mid-1900s Anchorage.
“All of this is recorded and was a great window into this big question that I had after working at the bike shop. I noticed this real attitude with Spenard kind of a ‘Brooklyn good-morning-to-you’, very colorful, very honest, very down to earth folks,” Russell said. “Anchorage was a federally designed city. Literally, here’s the packet, you know? With charters, all kinds of rules… Spenard had none of that. They liked it that way and that’s what caters to this really interesting microcosm,” Russell said.
Russell notes that Spenard’s many local and niche businesses give the neighborhood its flair and uniqueness
“Within a 500 yard distance you have a gigantic comic book store, a spinning class, third world gifts… all these unique businesses that don’t really exist anywhere else in this concentration.” Russell said.
Photographers, writers and other artist types have been flocking to Duke’s neighborhood in the past few years.
“In my neighborhood you could call it a gentrification of artists and poets and writers that have moved in. Not strictly because I’m there, but we’re all there and there’s even more of us,” Russell said.
Russell has experienced very little crime in the two decades he’s lived in the neighborhood and is trying to trample Spenard’s seedy image through art and community.
“A guy tried to steal a bike out of my bike barn last fall. It was kind of the first time anything like that has happened. It’s rare, Russell said. “Although when I hear the news and the shots at night, you wonder. It is a little bit of a chameleon sort of thing where it sort of turns into this darker place in the dark. I am sort of concerned about that, but I think it’s happening everywhere.”
Whether it’s giving a warm place to stay to those who are stuck in the cold or a place to use the restroom, Russell hopes to build a better community and neighborhood by helping those who need it most.
“I’ve befriended a lot of those folks and have helped them when it’s really cold out, but you know, I’m not in a position to turn my studio into a warm-up center. I have and I have enjoyed the company,” Russell said.
Russell’s idea to build a warm-up center would give homeless individuals a place to clean up, use the restroom and shower.
“I’m working on some things to try and turn around some things in my own way. I’ve been working on an idea like a makeover center,” Russell said. “I do think people deserve minimal amenities and if we can’t find them housing at least get them a place to shower or go to the bathroom, so it’s not on the front door step of my studio.”
With many friends and connections in the community, Russell is in the know of neighborhood happenings.
“I’ve got dirt on pretty much everyone. If my son broke a bottle in a parking lot I would be hearing about it in thirty minutes,” Russell said. “I’m a very private person, but I can be very social. I know a lot of people.”
Beyond painting and graphic art, Russell has helped open Humpy’s and design Flattop Bar and Williwaw Social. Russell also enjoys different creative outlets like music and cooking.
“I love music, I love writing music, playing. I don’t take it super seriously, but I practice at it. I love cooking. I just feel like you really need to know how to do these things. What a great survival tool, to know how to cook, to know how to cook for other people,” Russell said.
Currently Russell is working on a graphic novel as well as turning his and his wife’s tandem bicycle into a mobile chef’s trailer.
“My wife and I have a tandem [bike] and I’m thinking about turning it into a chefs trailer… you can go places where cars can’t go and have a feast for 20 people,” Russell said.
Catch Russell’s work at Spenard Roadhouse, Dos Manos, his website or other places around the neighborhood.