On an especially rainy Wednesday night, Professor James R. Russell sits cross-legged on a Persian rug in his apartment building facing the Charles. “I never sit on chairs,” Russell says. “It’s less formal and I think it’s better for you. That’s what carpets were designed for: sitting more than walking on.”
Russell has lived in this historic apartment, which is approaching 100 years old, since 1993. Born to Jewish parents in Manhattan, N.Y., the Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard has branched out far beyond that city in his 58 years. Though he’s called Cambridge home for the past 19 years, much of Russell’s home is decorated with the products of his visits to Armenia, Israel, Turkey, Iran, Russia, and India.
“Home is a bit like being in the Near East,” he explains, pointing to an Afghan rug he purchased from a refugee during the war against the Soviet Union. His apartment holds a trove of ancient relics and newer acquisitions like these, all collected while he was lecturing throughout the world, each of them with a telling story from Russell’s life. “Your work becomes indistinguishable from your life,” Russell says, referencing the link between the objects within his apartment and his work outside of his home.
The main sitting room is covered with rugs from the various places he’s traveled, and painting supplies are tucked away in the corner, facing a large fireplace. As Russell relates stories of his world travels, he pours Iranian tea—similar to an Earl Grey—from a clay teapot, made by his Israeli cousin while working under a traditional Living Master in Japan, into gold-rimmed Turkish glasses.
Underneath the teapot and glasses lies a century-old metal bread tray from Armenia. “I bought it in an outdoor market and just carried it home,” he explains. “Quite a lot is stuff you find in a flea market,” he says.
The oldest objects he owns are both from Armenia, as well; one is the tooth of a plow, which he found in a lake there, the other, a bronze sword hook engraved with the swirling symbol for infinity. “I can’t swear to it,” he says. “But I think it’s pretty damn old.”
Though much of his home is decorated in relics, Russell attributes equal value to artifacts of more recent making. One of his favorite possessions, he says, is a piston from an automobile company colloquially known as “Stanley Steamers.” The piston, given to him by a colleague, was manufactured in Watertown, Mass. in 1925. “It’s not worth a fortune,” he admitted, “but to me it is.”
Looking around his apartment, Russell places all of his belongings in the same category: “It’s all human artifice and ingenuity.”
This ingenuity is displayed even on his walls, adorned with hangings from the Near East as well as various paintings: some that he purchased during his travels, some made by his partner of 32 years, Dennis, and others painted by Russell himself.
Russell had painted for most of his life, but following a severe motorcycle accident while on his sabbatical in Israel, he became more serious about painting. Russell finds inspiration from menorahs, which serve as muse for his many artistic endeavors, including Hebrew calligraphy and Hebrew prayer illuminations. “You can be infinitely creative with a candlestick,” Russell says.
He recounts his recent purchase of the candle-holders from a large outdoor market in Jerusalem, which sells fresh vegetables, other food, and an infinite supply of other products. “There’s a Georgian there who sells junk, and every time I go there, I look for menorahs,” he says.
Rooted in his Sephardic ancestry, Russell says he would love to live in Jerusalem, as he grew accustomed to the “rhythm of Israeli life” while there on his sabbatical. “I don’t go to places because they’re beautiful,” he said. “I go because of the people.”
Each object in Russell’s brimming collection exhibits the meeting point between another culture and his own: though each is only an object, every one is a reminder of the characters who make his travels worthwhile and who he has incorporated into his life. “You don’t think about these things; you just live among them and play with them.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: Jan. 25, 2013
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Armenian Studies professor James R. Russell's place of birth as Brooklyn, N.Y. In fact, he was born in Manhattan, N.Y.