Frank J. Russell

Frank J. Russell ( )

Frank J. Russell, the former owner of a carpet company who was a longtime Salvation Army volunteer and an accomplished portrait artist, died of pneumonia Aug. 28 at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson. He was 79.

"He was a very gifted artist, and there is nothing phony about him," said Mel Leipzig, a Trenton, N.J., artist and a longtime friend. "He was an extremely genuine person, and as an artist there is great sincerity in his work."

He was born Frank Joseph Russello in Brooklyn, N.Y., but later changed his name to Frank Joseph Russell, family members said.

Mr. Russell was raised in Brooklyn, where he graduated in 1952 from Brooklyn High School. He attended Cooper Union before transferring to Columbia University, where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1956 in fine arts.

He began his career in the commercial carpet industry in the 1950s in New York City. In 1992, he established Alpha Carpets in Baltimore. After moving to Martinsburg, W.Va., in 1996, he operated the business there until closing it and retiring in 1997.

In 2001, he and his wife, the former Betty Geladaris, whom he had married in 1985, returned to Baltimore.

Painting was Mr. Russell's lifelong passion and in retirement he became an accomplished portraitist.

He had studied with such noted American artists as Reginald Marsh, Louise Bouche and Edwin Dickinson.

"He really was a painter with a very strong humanist strength, and he brought that to his work. He painted the downtrodden, for whom he had very strong feelings, and you can see that humanity in his work," said Mr. Leipzig, who went to Cooper Union with Mr. Russell. He said that after many years, they reconnected in 2000.

The subjects for many of Mr. Russell's paintings grew out of his voluntarism, which began in 1985 with the Salvation Army's Feedmore Van that feeds the homeless.

"Frank was just one of those 'under the radar guys.' He was quiet, modest and unpretentious. His trademark courtesy was just a small part of his consideration and compassion for others," said Sharon Harwood, a close friend and a neighbor of the Russells at Harper House in Cross Keys.

"For over 20 years, Frank and his wife, Betty, worked the Salvation Army's Feedmore Van organizing, preparing, distributing food at various locations in Baltimore City where hungry people, both adults and children, would gather to greet the van," said Ms. Harwood.

"The food van was his beat, and he and Betty were synonymous with it. He just loved it," said Peggy Vick, director of social services and volunteer coordinator for the Salvation Army in Baltimore. "He was enticed by the whole thing of providing food for the homeless, and he recruited others to help."

She added: "He had such a heart for the homeless and his dedication to them was just unbelievable. He also generated food and money for the van. Frank was just a saint and a miracle worker."

She said that Mr. Russell's routine was to depart aboard the food van at 6 p.m. with driver Luther James, and they made their rounds until returning between 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Mr. Russell was also involved with the Salvation Army's Feed My Sheep program and the startup of Healthcare for the Homeless, whose boardroom in the 700 block of the Fallsway he decorated with a series of 16 paintings.

"Through his portraits, Frank put faces on the homeless and made us all look at the real people who are too often marginalized and made invisible by an absence of compassion," said Ms. Harwood. "His portraits reveal the courage, the humor, the anger, the pride of people who persevered under the most adverse of circumstances."

Mr. Russell also volunteered at Christopher Place, an outreach program for men at Our Daily Bread, where he helped serve the evening meal and drew sketches of the men.

He widely exhibited his artwork at such venues as City Hall's Office of Homeless Services, the Public Justice Center and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's Baltimore office and in the lobby of the Hubert H. Humphrey Building in Washington, headquarters of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"The portraits remind people how important it is to not let others become and remain faceless," said Ms. Harwood.

In addition to providing private instruction, Mr. Russell taught basic and life drawing at Notre Dame of Maryland University, the Renaissance Institute, the Women's Housing Coalition on Reservoir Hill, and the Boarman Arts Center in Martinsburg, W.Va.

He had been the Maryland representative to the National Portrait Society in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

He was a communicant of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St., where a memorial service will be held at 11:30 a.m. Saturday.

In addition to his wife of 29 years, he is survived by a son, Stephen Russell of Takoma Park; a daughter, Suzanne Russell Levey of Voorhees, N.J.; a stepson, Charles Duke of Baltimore; a stepdaughter, Christine Duke Schutzman of Baltimore; and a grandson. An earlier marriage ended in divorce.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com