Nantucket Baskets, Purses and Traditional and Modern Nantucket Lightship Basket Designs by Jymm.

"B's Inspiration - Jymm Russell"
by Gretchen Ganas

Photograph of Jymm.Jymm Russell is a man of contrast. Ruggedly handsome, in a Hemingway sort of way, his features connote having been in a lot of places and seen much life. There's an earnest and intense; yet conversely, innocent and boyish quality about him, too. His twinkling eyes that are direct and intelligent belie the fact that he's totally blind.

In spite of blindness, Russell has become a master caner. He recently caned two antique chairs for a local volunteer of the Boca Raton Historical Society, who later donated the chairs to the society. Local business owner Gerald Meyer, of HP furniture in Boca, has used Russell's services for years. According to Meyer, "In 20 years of business, I've never met anyone like Jymm. The quality of his work is incredible by any standard. I've never considered another person to do my caning."

Russell's weaving skills were acquired after losing his sight in 1978. "When I met my second wife, Kevin, I was doing nothing." he says. Kevin demanded he become productive. "I knew blind people could learn caning, but I was unable to find someone locally to teach me," he recalls. Eventually, he found a sighted instructor and soon, Russell says without boasting, he was better than the teacher.

Shortly after that, a friend gave Jymm an antique egg basket. "I remember thinking, if I could make a basket like that, I'd be satisfied," he remembers. Totally by touch, Russell created an exact duplicate. "Florida, however, isn't a great market for selling egg baskets," he says laughing, but as he learned to make Shaker, Amish, Appalachian and Nantucket baskets, his market expanded. Today his work is found in most states.

Known as one of the United States' leading basket artisans, Russell's work is sold on individual and special order basis in shops in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and locally. His specialty, Nantucket baskets, are sold on the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts, where he is considered tops in his trade. He also makes wine baskets and other items directly to order.

Jymm's Nantucket baskets are woven just as they were by sailors in the 1800s. He explains that they made baskets to keep themselves busy during long stints at sea, using portions of broken masts heads as molds for their baskets. Using only traditional materials, Russell's bases are made from New England hardwoods and hand rubbed to a glossy finish by his wife. The ribs of the baskets are made of Kentucky white oak and the escutcheon pins come from Connecticut. Russell's business cards read, "The skill of the basket maker comes from the grace of God."

Russell weaves two strands at a time, a skill called "chase weaving." His fingers fly so fast it's hard to believe he's sightless. His fingers count the ribs and can tell immediately if he's made a mistake.

Russell's work has been displayed in museums and shows including the Delray Affair and South Florida Fair, The Philadelphia Art Museum, Wills Eye Hospital and the Freedom Festival at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. He was featured on WCAU-TV in a documentary about his art and blindness and has exhibited for the National Exhibits of Blind Artists, where he serves on the board of directors for the institute.

What's his advice for other blind people? "Find something productive to do, even if it's just wiping off a table or making beds." He admits, with a laugh, he isn't the greatest bed maker himself. Russell also suggests getting a guide dog and says, "A dog allows you to experience a real sense of freedom." Russell has owned several seeing-eye dogs over the years. His current dog, Marks-Tey Share The Moment, is a 5-year-old Doberman. Guide dogs can't be purchased, according to Russell, who is the East Coast Representative for Pilot Dogs, Inc. The dogs are donated, undergo special training (paid for by Pilot Dogs Inc.) and then returned for training with their new owners.

Russell is a WWII and Korean War veteran and lifetime member of the VFW. He's been everything from a truck driver to chief instructor of two Karate schools, where he taught Mu Duk Kwan Karate in which he holds a black belt.

As for future goals, Russell has none. "They've all been achieved." he claims. "I'm content living with my wife and creating things. I like what I do and am grateful that my work graces peoples homes and tables."

This man of contrast, whose life is full, whose skills are enjoyed by many is an inspiration not just to the blind, but to all. The lesson he passes on is that one can accomplish anything in life as long as they have desire, determination and, like Jymm, a sense of humor.

Copyright © 2001-2009 Jymm Russell. All rights reserved.
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