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The high value of human talent

Vocational Rehab helped local artist David Russell re-enter the workforce following a stroke.

Story by Lori Shriner + Photography by Parla Parker

For decades, artists have flocked to the Lowcountry from big cities for a peaceful, quiet refuge. Many have shaped their careers here. David Russell, a graphic artist for group46 Marketing in Bluffton, is among them.

Russell spends his days immersed in his craft, finding a unique connection between creative ideas and graphics. His artistry is transformed into impactful communication pieces representing local brands.

In his younger years, Russell found his artistic calling in painting and sculpture, as well as playing the drums. His parents were legendary figures of the “creative revolution” age of advertising in the early 1960s. Mary Jane Russell was an iconic supermodel featured in the work of photographers like Richard Avedon, Lillian Bassman, John Rawlings, Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Irving Penn. Her husband, Ed, served as the account supervisor for Volkswagen’s “Think Small” campaign at an advertising agency in New York, later becoming president of the agency.

After spending time at Sarah Lawrence College, Russell studied at the Silvermine School of Art in New Canaan, Conn. He worked for a book publisher, and the Franklin Library (as in the Franklin Mint). But he said found the rat race largely unappealing and later went to work for a printing press.

His parents moved to Bluffton for a quiet retirement. As they developed an increasing need for assistance at home, Russell came to the Lowcountry to look after them, hoping to continue his artistic career path.

On his birthday in 2013, Russell suffered a stroke. The physical trauma changed his world in an instant. He remembers waking in the middle of the night with a sudden realization that the left side of his body was completely paralyzed. Russell managed to roll out of bed, falling to the floor. He crawled to the phone to dial 911 – barely able to speak – and was transported to Hilton Head Hospital, feeling incapacitated and terrified. He was soon airlifted to the Medical University of South Carolina’s Comprehensive Stroke & Cerebrovascular Center.

Russell was fortunate to be in such excellent hands: MUSC was awarded a major grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support the development of a Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) in Stroke Recovery. The center currently supports 30 studies investigating stroke recovery processes specific to walking, balance and strength training, arm and hand function, voice and swallowing disorders, depression, visual neglect and sensation. Russell’s positive experience with the MUSC staff remains as a deep gratitude for its outstanding level of care.

The VR Department serves as a workforce development partner, helping businesses achieve a competitive advantage by assisting qualified job candidates who are trained in a wide variety of skills and have good work habits. VR provides services to those affected by anxiety, depression, substance abuse treatment, physical impairments, or one of more than 130 other disabilities. Its goal is to help a person minimize or eliminate the impairment interfering with their job performance.

VR helps employees through counseling, guidance, medical or psychological evaluation and/or treatment, training in personal and social skills, job-site modifications, or accommodations and referrals to other service providers. Tax credits and other financial incentives are available to help with training, orientation and accommodation. After hire, assistance is provided to both the employer and employee for at least 90 days.

Russell’s patient and persistent quest to recover was matched by his co-workers at group46. They provided a nurturing environment for job-specific training and discovered his strong ability to adapt to rapid change, pleasantly surprised by the results of his beautiful work. The successful process gained notoriety, too: group46 President Ryan Lockhart was awarded Employer of the Year at the 2017 Vocational Rehabilitation ceremony for his advocacy and partnership with the agency.

Russell’s advice for aspiring young artists and people with disabilities is to be willing to apprentice. “Don’t go for the big bucks up front. Learn to take criticism,” he said.

For more information about Vocational Rehab, visit or call 800-832-7526.