Russell Childers was a self-taught wood carver who spent 39 years living at the Oregon Fairview Home in Salem. Fairview was a state home for the developmentally disabled that opened in 1908 as the “State Institution for Feeble-Minded.” Its named changed several times over the years and was known as Fairview Hospital and Training Center from 1966 until its closure in 2000. The exact reasons for Childers’ placement at Fairview at the age of ten remain unclear, but research has shown a variety of possibilities, including: epilepsy, autism, mental deficiency, and general “fits.” Childers also had a hearing impairment and did not speak. It was thought that he was deaf and mute. His placement at Fairview in 1926 was court-ordered and he was removed from his family’s care against their wishes.
While at Fairview in the early 1940s, Childers saw an article about wood carving in “Life Magazine” and was inspired to begin carving. His first carvings were of bears (one from 1947 is included in the exhibition), and he later moved on to other subjects. After his release in 1965, he was fitted with hearing aids and began to communicate verbally. As his work evolved, Childers explored autobiographical themes, returning to several of these over the course of his lifetime. He was released from Fairview in 1965 to live in Lebanon, Oregon and work at the Willamette Valley Rehabilitation Center – a social services non-profit (still in operation) that provides vocational services to adults with disabilities – until his death in 1998.
The subject matter of Childers’ carvings includes memories of his childhood home in Wasco County, Oregon and at Fairview Hospital, his family and friends, historical figures, and animals. The most powerful work is autobiographical, with depictions of a child alone on the ground, a child holding hands with his mother, and a child on a bench with his mother and sibling. Childers also made several busts, including one of John F. Kennedy and another of Pauline Lindell, founder of the Willamette Valley Rehabilitation Center. It was Lindell who recognized his talents and capacity, and was ultimately responsible for his release from Fairview.
Childers’ emotionally charged wood carvings were a catalyst for his release from Fairview, and once at Willamette Valley Rehabilitation Center (where there was a small shop selling clients’ creations), his works were recognized by artists, curators, and collectors in the region. This recognition resulted in a traveling exhibition organized by the University of Oregon Museum of Art in 1977, and later inclusion in several group exhibitions on the West coast and gallery representation in Portland during the late 1980s and early 90s.