Meet the Train Man: James Russell, artist

Perched on the front porch of the historic post office in Harrisburg, James Russell pulls around a blue, tattered messenger bag, drawing out a large clipboard and a sketchpad.

He clips a sheet of paper to the board and slips on his glasses. With a few clicks of a mechanical pencil, he begins meticulously sketching the nose of a train with a delicate hand.

He pauses when he hears the rumblings of a train coming down the railroad tracks in front of him.

"It's a Norfolk Southern," he said before the train's whistle blew.

Many people passing by the old post office off Robinson Church Road know him as Bubba, but perhaps he's more even commonly known as simply the train man.

He's out there - rain or shine - about six days a week. When it rains, he shields his sketch pad by sitting on the post-office porch.

The 46-year-old, who has a developmental disability, has been drawing trains since December 1981, he said.

He knows because he's good with dates, he added.

He started out with cars but moved on to trains.

Every now and then he still draws cars, he said, holding up drawings of a 1974 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and a 1972 Chevrolet Corvette, each signed with his name in neat cursive with the date.

But trains are his passion.

It takes him a day to finish one of his drawings, or maybe two for the more detailed ones. In a year's time, he draws hundreds of trains.

"I got to practicing," he said. "They say practice makes perfect. It's got to where there ain't nothing to it."

He does his drawings by looking at pictures of trains in magazines and books. But when he wants to draw freight trains, he sits out by the tracks. He watches them go by and memorizes their shape and details. Then he starts drawing.

"I draw it the way I see it," he said.

Russell uses pencils and sometimes fills in his sketches with colored pencils. Smoke billows out of the top of his trains as they fly across a grassy scene with blue skies and a few puffy clouds.

"I don't know where in the world he learned it," said his mother, Margaret Russell. "I can't even draw a stick dog."

Sometimes Russell sells his drawings when the historic post office opens during the farmers market held on Monday evenings. The ones he doesn't sell he keeps in a book.

"He seems to enjoy it," his mother said. "It's all he ever does."

She never tires of the trains.

"As long as he's happy," she said.

Russell rides his scooter almost daily about two miles to the tracks by the post office.

He's had a scooter, which he drives to Concord Mills Mall to buy train magazines, for about 10 years now. Before the scooter, he rode his bicycle as far as to Eastland Mall in Charlotte - more than 10 miles - to buy them.

Russell rode on a train once several years ago from Charlotte to Kannapolis, but he's content to just watch them pass by.

He knows the trains' schedules. He knows an Amtrak train will fly by around 7:50 a.m., and a Piedmont usually comes just before 10 a.m.

"I know an Amtrak when I hear it," he said. "I know the sound of a Piedmont, too."

Russell often stays out at the tracks until dark, working on his drawings. He sees about 16 passing trains a day, he said.

"What really gets me is how teenagers draw graffiti on these trains," he said, looking up from his work. "I don't draw graffiti on my trains. I could draw it for detail, but I don't draw graffiti on my trains."

Within a couple of hours of sitting out at the tracks one day last week, several people stopped below the porch, saying hello to Russell or asking about the post office or the farmers market.

"See you later, Bubba," one man called out from his car as he left.

Russell doesn't even know the man. He doesn't know a lot of the people who seem to know him.

"Ain't that just messed up," he said, shaking his head as he got back to work.

A woman pulled up next.

"Can you come do my yard later when it's not so hot?" she said.

Yes, he nodded. Russell isn't a full-time artist.

After he graduated from Central Cabarrus High School in 1982, he worked at Harrisburg Elementary School as a janitor. Now he sometimes does yardwork for people to earn money.

Brandon Grant of Mint Hill stopped and hung out of his truck's window to catch up with Russell. He had been passing through the area when he saw Russell's scooter sitting out by the tracks. Grant attended Harrisburg Elementary in the early 1980s when Russell worked there. They hadn't seen each other in years.

They reminisced about how Russell used to ride his bike to Grant's neighborhood, Cabarrus Woods, to play basketball. And when Grant's mother died, Russell drew him a picture of a Pontiac Firebird, the car his mother drove.

"You still drawing trains?" asked Grant. "You sure know your trains."

The conversation came to a halt as another train passed by, its whistle shrieking as Russell eyed each passing car.

When it was gone, the friends laughed about basketball games and neighborhood bullies.

"I can't believe you remember that," said Grant after Russell easily recalled the name of a kid who picked fights in the neighborhood.

"I may be half slow-like, but I've got a good memory," he told Grant.

Grant parted with a handshake and a promise to come back and visit, leaving Russell to his work.

Now in silence again, Russell picked up where he left off.

"Coming along just fine," he said.