Guardians of the Dunes

by Jan 17, 2024Art & Culture, People, Southport Oak Island

Dean Russell’s driftwood art attracts attention on the dunes of Oak Island.

Dean Russell is too modest to call himself an artist, but those who enjoy his creations, found on an empty beachfront lot on Oak Island, would likely disagree.

Artists see things others may not in the mundane. They have a vision for what can be. They take inanimate objects and turn them into something that has character and can elicit emotion. By these definitions, Russell is indeed an artist despite his protests.

His sculptures, crafted from nothing more than driftwood found on area beaches, attract attention on the lot off E. Beach Drive between 55th and 58th streets on Oak Island. Those who have discovered these unique creations bring others to the beach so they can see them for themselves. People photograph the wooden creatures and post them on social media, creating even more buzz for Russell’s work. The curious wonder when something new will be added.

Oak Island NC Dean Russell

Russell, 51, estimates he’s built 10 driftwood creatures in the past few years. The locals named his first creation Root Groot, and Russell collectively calls his works the Guardians of the Dunes, a nod to the popular Marvel movie Guardians of the Galaxy. (Groot and Baby Groot are characters in those films.) So far, his creations have held up well during coastal storms, although sand has started taking over some of his earliest works.

It all started in 2021 when Russell, a soft-spoken and down-to-earth soul, moved to Oak Island and began collecting driftwood during his beach walks. Like those who collect shells, his inventory quickly grew.

In examining his treasures, he began envisioning how the pieces of weathered wood could fit together to form something greater than the sum of its parts.

“I’ve always built stuff, like Hot Rods and things like that,” says Russell, who does home remodeling and lawn maintenance. “Building and putting together stuff just comes naturally to me. So, I started building these creatures in my yard in pieces, carried them over to the empty lot, and put them up.”

Driftwood Sculptor Dean Russell

Russell draws inspiration for his characters from the classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Like Max, the book’s main character, who uses his imagination to create monsters, Russell uses his mind’s eye to craft his creations. And like the young explorer in the book, Russell strives for his monsters to have unique personalities.

That’s not to say, however, that his work is meant to reflect the characters in the book.

He’s currently working, for example, on “a hermit-looking guy” with a working title of “The Local.”

“Lots of times I start something and I’m not sure what it’s going to be,” Russell says. “They’re just ‘whatever’ until I start seeing how things could work together. Sometimes it starts out as one thing and it ends up as something completely different. I never really know what it’s going to be until it’s all said and done.”

Dean Russell Driftwood Sculpture

Asked if he plans to continue adding to the Guardians of the Dunes, he says he will — mostly because it is what people want.

“The main reason I do it is because I see the reactions I get from people,” Russell says. “From kids to 90-year-olds, they really seem to get a kick out of it. I like to see them smile and I like the fact that they really seem to enjoy it. If there’s a demand for them, I guess I’ll keep at it.”

Find the Guardians of the Dunes creatures on E. Beach Drive between 55th and 58th streets on Oak Island.

Photography by Brenda Torrey