RUSSELL — They were told to wear their sparkles for Tuesday night’s event in downtown Russell, and wear them they did.
Women in formal gowns with sequins and jewelry, men in their finest suits, girls in long, frilly dresses — and a few people in jeans, ball caps and even sweats — gathered at the corner of Seventh and Main outside Jim Cross’ Farmers Insurance office, spilling into the brick street and waiting for the event to begin.
But none of them could outshine the stars of the show — figures of a classic holiday tale created by Russell native Dustin Poché and the artist himself in a sparkling white gown with train, diamond jewelry, 5-inch heels and a silvery, curly wig.
It was a bigger debut than he’s done the past four years at this location for Christmas, but Poché said this is only the beginning. In the past, he’s created a Santa installment in just the corner window of the office, but this year it fills all three windows. Black curtains hid the installment for several days, creating some buzz in town, and Tuesday night it was time for a red-carpet reveal party.
When the curtain fell, the crowd gasped and cheered at Poché’s detailed dolls depicting characters from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” stepping close to the window to see the details of Scrooge, Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.
After the reveal, the artist made his way through the crowd, stopping to visit with friends, complimenting them on their dress and receiving compliments for his outfit and his work as well. His mother, Nancy Stoppel, sat nearby, getting as much attention from the crowd as her son.
“I am so proud of Dustin. And him dressing up like that tonight, it’s a work of art,” she said.
For Poché, the show was also about recognizing the roots of his creativity and showing that even rural America has great support for the arts.
“I didn’t think people would really believe it,” he said. So, for Tuesday’s show, he decided to “get all dolled up and show ’em what kind of support we have in Russell,” he said.
Poché lived in New York for about 10 years and showed his work professionally there for about six years, he said. He moved back to Russell several years ago and said he has found more creative freedom here than in the city.
“I would really rather do cool things like this here, because you know what I think? I think that the people in the larger places, they just don’t give Midwesterners, the small-town peeps like us, enough credit. I really think we’re a lot cooler and with-it than they think,” he said.
“I feel very safe here. My family is here, I grew up here. I’ve always been very creative. They’ve always let me express that in any way,” he said.
He credited much of that support to the late Henri Wenthe and Cecil Bricker, who Poché said were like an aunt and uncle to him and childhood friend and now business partner Matt Driscoll.
“They were very involved in the community and very kid-oriented,” Driscoll said.
“They did the local haunted house,” Poché said. “The people we are today is because of them. They were always very extremely accepting of our creativity and pushed us to be more creative, but always be kind.”
During the reception next door at Espresso Etc., he greeted two others he said were an influence in his youth — Darril and Marvel Castor, who were Poché’s art teacher and school counselor.
The night was about more than art, however. It was also in support for the work of his friends and business partners, Driscoll and Janae Talbott, who were among those leading the charge to legalize hemp production in Kansas.
Earlier this year, Gov. Jeff Colyer signed a bill into law creating a program to research the use of industrial hemp in the state. Russell County will be a pilot project in the research efforts.
The figures in Poché’s display are made almost completely of hemp products, including the clay, hair and clothes.
“I have a lot of hippie friends, and I love a hippie, but all of the hemp stuff is really marketed towards kind of burlap and brown, and I wanted to show people that it could also be really beautiful,” Poché said.
“We had hemp from all over the world,” he said.
Roche creates his figures from an air-dry clay — “Basically a glorified papier maché,” he said.
“I started mixing my own clays. I wanted to add more fiber to them so they’re stronger,” he said.
“The one thing about hemp is the fibers are longer and they’re stronger than a cotton fiber. So they make my pieces stronger, which is actually great,” he said.
A display in Expresso Etc. showed some of the different uses for hemp such as rope and fabric, and patrons could sample hot chocolate made with hemp milk.
People were excited about the hemp as well as Poché’s work.
Cheryl Herrman, Russell, said Poché has brought a sense of fun to the community. She assisted with the installation as a “gopher,” she said, helping out with whatever was needed.
“This has been a hoot. We’ve been working out tails off for about a month getting things ready,” she said. “And it’s for a good cause. It’s to raise awareness for hemp production. We need that out here.”
Shannon Trevethan, director of the Deines Cultural Center where Poché has also displayed his work, said the event was exceptional for Russell.
“At times I didn’t feel he could really pull it off in Russell, but it has really turned out wonderful. I think the community is real supportive of Dustin’s work and what he does,” she said, adding they have talked about doing more such events.
Julia Bernard has been a fan of Poché’s from the beginning. During one of his first shows in Russell, she commissioned a figure of her doll-collecting grandmother, Viola Weeks, who had recently died.
“He did a doll in her likeness. He used real human hair, he used some of her clothing,” she said. “I think it will be one of those pieces that you pass down to the next generation.”
Poché said he’s got even bigger plans for the coming year, including a show in New York and creating figures for “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — for which he once auditioned — and a presentation at the Kansas City convention of the National Institute of American Doll Artists.
He’s also working with Bradley Hendrichs, jeweler at Kuhn’s Diamond Jewelers, 4320 Vine, on a line of jewelry. Hendrichs also created several pieces for the Christmas installation, including a sterling silver spider on Marley’s hat and diamond and sapphire rings on other figures.
“I had a lot of friends helping me with this. It was a lot of fun having a lot of creative people working together on it,” Poché said.