It would probably never occur to you that the distinguished, well-spoken bookseller at Barnes & Noble bookstore in Spanish Fort is one of the Eastern Shore’s finer visual artists. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but now a resident of Fairhope, Jim Laugelli is self-taught, utilizing collage and mixed media for work that follows an intuitive and improvisational path. He is an ongoing, exhibiting member of the Eastern Shore Art Center in Fairhope, where he also had a one-person show in July 2014. In 2013, he received an Award of Merit at the Eastern Shore Art Center Member’s Juried Show. I, along with George Fuller and his trusty camera, recently caught up with Jim for coffee at the Barnes & Noble Cafe, Barnes
& Noble’s delightful in-house coffee shop for a bit of Q & A.
Tell me about your life before Fairhope – particularly, when did the art bug first bite you?
I’ve always had an affinity with art. Not just visual art, but music, literature, and film as well. I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a teenager, music was a dominant force in my life. Not as a performer but as a fan. You could say music served as a gateway to all the arts for me. After college, I was still not sure what I wanted to do with my life. This was during the late ’70s and early ’80s. The driving force in music at that time was Punk and New Wave. The Do-It Yourself attitude that permeated that scene really resonated with me. It encouraged me to try making art. Up to that point I was only a fan, and I had no formal training in any of the arts. Having quite a few friends who were artists and musicians at that time also was inspirational. And so, armed with little more than a great desire, I started making collages by cutting up magazines. I also decided to teach myself to play the saxophone. In short order I found myself joining a band with friends. Several of the other members of the band played sax as well and they encouraged me and offered tips. It was very much an in-the-moment, on-the job-learning experience.
Did you enjoy being in a band?
Why didn’t you pursue it as a career?
It was loads of fun – for a while. But after several years of this, I was again feeling lost and not sure what to do with my life. Playing music was not going to provide me a livable income. In fact, it provided no income at all, so I was constantly going from one odd job to another just to have a paycheck. After a move from Pittsburgh to Boston, where my life seemed to reach an even bigger impasse, I picked up and moved once again. This time to Chicago, where I had a few friends. At this point I’d given up playing music. I never felt like I was ever going to be good enough to make a living at it. In fact, at this time my attempts to do art of any kind always seemed to be aborted by my inner voice telling me I was not good enough. I eventually settled into a life of bartending and enjoying life in a big city with all it had to offer. Music, theater, film, art and literature were all still in my life and informed very much who I was, just not as a participant. It was in Chicago that I met my wife, and after having our second child, we decided that we wanted to get away from the big city and be closer to my wife’s parents, who had moved to Fairhope.
How did the move to Fairhope affect your creative energy?
The move to Fairhope was tough at first. I was a Northern city boy with no rural connections, South or North. While the small-town atmosphere
was what my wife and I were seeking when we decided to move here, it proved to be a bigger adjustment than I anticipated. Still, I met some folks, got acquainted with the town and settled in. With little of the distractions that a big city provided and a growing desire deep inside to once again start making art, I was determined not to let that inner, critical voice deter me. In some ways, it was the isolation I felt after having moved here that provided me with the drive to move forward. That, and the fact that Fairhope has a very supportive art community, was also inspirational. I started making collage and mixed media work and was feeling good about it.
Feeling good about it in what way?
With a new-found attitude that said, just create and don’t concern yourself with that critical inner voice. Eventually I learned how to block that voice out, not completely, but enough to not let it interfere with the creative spirit that gripped me. I joined the Eastern Shore Art Center soon after, and when my first members’ gallery submission sold, I felt energized. Subsequent submissions also sold, and I even won an Award of Merit at the Members’ Jury Show in 2013. A year later I had a one-person show at the Eastern Shore Art Center as well. I sometimes think that it was this move to Fairhope that truly centered my long sought-after desire to make art.
You say you are self-taught. Tell us about your preferred technique and its intuitive and improvisational path.
I have never taken any formal art classes. I’m a rather impatient person. When the desire to do something strikes me, I tend to want to act on it immediately. I don’t want to be bothered with learning the do’s and don’ts of how to do it. I realize that many artists probably would scoff at this idea, but I’ve found this approach has served me well. After all, I’m not about to go back to school to get a degree in fine art. This is not to suggest that I oppose learning. On the contrary, I read and seek out information as much as I can. It’s just that I have not had the formal training that often defines how someone approaches a project.
Do you find this a disadvantage?
No, I never learned the rules and so I’m free to not follow them. This is also why I work in mixed media and collage. I find it a forgiving medium. It suits my trial and error approach. I am free to experiment and produce with little regard to guidelines. I follow an intuitive path, and while this process can produce as many mistakes as successes, I’ve learned that errors become a new avenue to follow and resolve. Much like improvising musicians taking the song into an unexpected region. You take what is given and run with it, even if it goes in a completely different direction than first imagined.
What have you done recently, and are you working on anything at the moment?
I’m always working on something. I recently completed a piece that The Eastern Shore Art Center asked me to create as part of their 12 Days of Fairhope Christmas banners for the City of Fairhope. I was given “8 Authors A-Writing.” As you are aware, Fairhope is the home of quite a few renowned writers. For that piece I chose to use a quote from local author Sonny Brewer’s The Poet of Tolstoy Park. Sonny’s book was the first book I read when I arrived in Fairhope. It struck a chord with me, and as it takes place in Fairhope, it seemed like the right choice for this project.
Besides art you are very in tune with the current literary scene as well as literary knowledge in general, which is why I seek you out when I shop at Barnes & Noble. Do you find this literary connection helpful in your art?
All art influences me in some way. Painting, film, music, theater, and literature all have touched me
and speak to me. In some ways, writers and visual artists share a bit more in that they both engage with their art in isolation. Many of my favorite authors are experimental. A lot of the beat writers from the ‘50s have influenced me. I think there is much to glean from William S. Burroughs’ cut-up method, and reading Kerouac is like listening to a jazz musician improvising. The collage and improvisation aspects are two things that I think I share. Working at a bookstore provides me with a lot of fodder, be it for my own artistic endeavors, or for the chance to turn people on to new writers. It’s a great environment to explore and exchange ideas.
I could see that some of Jim’s regulars were hovering; the battery on my phone was running down – as was the time on Jim’s coffee break. My buddy, master photographer and magazine editor George Fuller had gotten what I hoped were some good shots of Jim in his work environment, so we bid him goodbye and headed south to Fairhope, quite impressed with the portrait of the artist.
Martin Lanaux moved to Fairhope, Alabama from Hillcrest Plantation, Louisiana in 1977.
He has been a lover of books and an avid reader since his first Little Golden Book at the age of five. He sits on the boards of the Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts, The Fairhope Public Library Foundation, and the Fairhope Public Library Board of Trustees.