Russ Dotson transforms abandoned wood into ‘found beauty’ in Flint

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Jan Worth Nelson

Flint native Russ Dotson returned home in 2015 after 22 years of Navy service that included tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and finally Ethiopia.

Looking for something to do, he came across a YouTube series called “Strangely Satisfying Videos,” which have been described as “memorable and hypnotizing” action clips.for example) weaving, icing cakes, painting the perfect stop sign, peeling cellophane wrapping, and spinning a wooden spindle so the shavings curl and fall silently.

Something about a wood lathe caught his eye. “I can do that,” he said. He gathered an armful of discarded wood and bought a lathe for $100 on Craigslist.

He bought more wood, “wrecked most of it,” and then the cheap lathe, he recalls with a laugh. He bought a second cheap lathe, bought more wood, spent hours practicing his skills, and then wrecked most of the wood and then the lathe.

“The things I was making were terrible — ugly and tiny,” he says, but he found it relaxing and engrossing, so he carried on making them.

“It takes a lot of practice,” he said, but eventually “you find a rhythm.”

He eventually purchased a quality lathe and gradually honed his skills, turning out smooth, sensuous and beautiful wooden bowls, plates and vessels, an impressive collection of which is on display now through Jan. 4 at Flint Trading Company, 629 1/2 Saginaw St.

At the opening reception, Dotson holds vessels she made from salvaged wood from a local lumber yard. The vessels are made of mahogany, paddock and makore wood with smooth edges and a linseed oil finish. (Photo: Jan Worth Nelson)

Dotson said she has made “hundreds” of wooden bowls in cherry, walnut, maple, apple and oak, but has given many of them away to family and friends, “so people are tired of them and don’t want them anymore.”

He continues to do it because it’s relaxing and, “If the wood is dry, I can finish a bowl in one go, so if you want instant gratification, it happens pretty quickly.”

More importantly, Dotson loves the act of saving and honoring Flint’s fallen and remaining old trees. His Flint Trading Company show is called “The Found Beauty of Flint,” and after traveling the world and now working in human resources at Diplomat Pharmacy, Dotson maintains that his hometown holds joys and delights not often known to outsiders.

Take trees, for example. He has a special eye and respect for the ones the city has cut down and left by the side of the road, the ones that have fallen in backyards and forests, and sometimes the treasured trees that have had to be cut down because they have outlived their usefulness.

Sometimes beauty is “hidden,” Dotson said.

“Some people might look at a grey old tree in their yard and think it’s just dead, but I look at a tree that may have been standing in that yard for 200 years…think of all the things that tree has seen.”

It requires a steady hand, a face shield (dangerously shards fly off) and sometimes time to remove moisture from the wood as needed without splitting it (sometimes carefully using a microwave), and to pick just the right balance and shape.

The bowl in the middle was carved from a fallen pear tree in Worth Nelson’s backyard. (Photo: Jan Worth Nelson)

“I’m not creating something,” he says, “I’m just bringing something to light. Something that’s always been there. Someone was going to throw it away at worst, or burn it at best, and I’m chopping it up and burning it in the fireplace. Yes, I can make something cool.”

Dotson has a deep understanding of Flint’s history of abandonment and reclaiming dignity: His father worked at FisherOne, as did his grandfather, who participated in the sit-in strikes; his mother grew up in the Dakota on Franklin Street and attended St. Mary’s; Dotson himself attended the recently demolished Holy Redeemer and graduated from Grand Blanc High School.

Dotson’s baby daughter, Aurelia, held by her grandmother, Karen McDonald Lopez, looks at her father’s work, shown at left by Ebony Johnson. The horse in the background is Sarah Latz Snesskamp’s “Taurus,” an acrylic on canvas. (Photo by Jan Wirth Nelson)

Upon his return, he purposefully chose the College Cultural district, known for its foliage, where he now lives with his wife, Karina, and their newborn baby, Aurelia.

So he knows a lot about the sources of the raw materials for his artworks.

“We love trees,” he said. “We love the stories behind them. They all have a story. If someone has had a tree in their yard for 50, 60 years, it’s part of our home. We get used to our trees. Losing a tree is like losing a tooth.”

They cut out a piece of a fallen tree and make something out of it. “You can keep it forever,” Dotson said. “It’s like putting part of the tree back.”

In the meantime, Dotson has become familiar with the material and enjoys its sensory specificity.

His favorites are cherry and walnut: walnut “looks like chocolate when you’re working with it” and has a deep, dark shine when finished, and cherry is a hard wood that’s resilient and strong, yet easy to work with.

“Plus, I love the smell,” he says. Unlike apple wood, which doesn’t smell like apples, cherry wood smells like lathe-cut cherries. Walnuts smell like horse manure when wet, and maple smells “horrible,” he says. “Like dog pee.”

Dotson’s work on display at the Flint Trading Company exhibition (Photo: Jan Worth Nelson)

As a rule, Dotson never buys wood; he only uses wood that he finds himself or that is donated for his projects. Sometimes local lumber yards let him choose from salvage lumber that would otherwise be discarded. Sometimes friends and neighbors bring him knots or stumps.

And when a tree falls, like in my backyard, or a Bradford pear splits and falls into the garage and has to be chopped up, my neighbor Dotson comes over and gets a chunk to chop up, and a few weeks later he delivers a bowl that’s so beautiful, I can’t bring myself to put anything in it.

He likes the functionality of the bowls, and eschews any coating that might be more intrusive than linseed oil: “I want people to feel the bowl and know they’re touching wood,” he says.

For more information about the Dotson exhibit, contact Flint Trading Company at 810-820-7119.

Electric car Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be contacted at

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