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Alabaster carver featured in Chicken Soup book

Jeremy Russell at work on the Freedom Eagle.
Ron Bailey Photography |

Book signing

Purchase a signed copy or a piece of alabaster from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday at High Country Gems and Minerals, 311 8th St. in Glenwood Springs.

Garfield County native Jeremy Russell’s story is one of 101 featured in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back.”

The short piece “Carving a Future,” has a starting point of July 14, 1996, when Russell, then 26, fell asleep at the wheel on Interstate 70 near New Castle and rolled over. The head wound, broken back, shattered pelvis, shard of steel that later took his right leg and three resuscitations it took just to get him to the hospital are a tale unto themselves, but that’s really just the beginning.

Russell woke missing memories back to his freshman year of high school and with no desire to return to his life as a rock ‘n’ roll musician, drywaller and driver.

“I was living life in the fast lane and I needed a good kick in the butt,” he said. “I really believe the accident made me a better person.”

Despite chronic pain, he began to pursue an old interest in the arts. When a friend put him in touch with local miner Robert Congdon, a magnificent project was born.

Congdon brought Russell to see his fledgling alabaster quarry near Avalanche Creek, and shared his vision for a fixed sculpture near the entrance.

“When he showed me that wall of alabaster, I knew he was just as much of a dreamer as I was,” Russell recalled.

With very little experience, Russell began work on a 50-foot-wide eagle, originally titled “The Cost of Freedom” but now known simply as the Freedom Eagle. The process gave him a new purpose.

“Carving that eagle has been one of the best painkillers I’ve had since my accident,” he said. “I’m completely out of my body when I’m carving.”

He hopes the same idea can someday be translated to help the veterans to whom the piece is dedicated.

Russell remembers the father of one of his childhood friends serving as a door gunner in Vietnam.

“I was incredibly proud of him,” he said.

He was less proud of the way the man was treated upon his return. It gave him a purpose for his project.

“It’s always been about more than just a big hunk of rock. It’s about thanking our veterans for their service,” he said. “I can’t serve as a soldier, so I’m doing what I can to serve my country.”

The carving of the eagle itself has been caught in red tape for years now, but Russell, now 46 and working as a medical courier, is having the material he already carved out — 100 tons of it — laser engraved by a veterans group in Grand Junction. The results will be sold to support the Veteran’s Art Center and help pay for future carving.

The pieces will be available at a launch party and “Chicken Soup” book signing at High Country Gems and Minerals this Saturday from noon to 6.

“Being in this book is really cool,” Russell said. “I kind of like that it’s not all about me.”

A movie based on Russell’s story is also reportedly in the works.

As for the Freedom Eagle, Russell recently obtained a mining certification and hopes one day to complete it.

“I intend to finish what I started,” he said.


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