Jim Orman never expected to be an artist. After years of building theater sets and fine furniture, he tried his hand at something more artistic. “Elaine only convinced me I’m an artist in the last couple of years,” he said, referring to his sculptor girlfriend. “I think I’m a craftsman. I became a carver by accident.”
Place to Place
Jim grew up in Ventura County, California. In high school, aside from distance running, Jim had no idea what he wanted to do in the future. One day his speech teacher called Jim up to his desk. He criticized Jim’s work and insisted he redo it. “I was thinking, I’m out of here. But I redid it. He called me up and said, ‘Okay, that was good. And if you ever do anything less than that, I’ll fail you.’ We became lifelong friends. He introduced me to theater.” His teacher took him to see Guys and Dolls at the local junior college at the end of the term. Suddenly Jim knew what he wanted to do.
Those plans were interrupted by a tour in the army. When Jim came back from a stint in the Vietnam War, he employed strict criteria in choosing a college. “I said, ‘What’s the best party school in California?’ Everyone said hands down, San Diego State University.”
He got his theater degree and proceeded to explore every aspect of the theater. He did a stint as an actor with the Giving Tree Children’s Theater Company in Los Angeles. He started a theater company with friends presenting plays in Ojai, California, and worked as technical director for the cultural arts program at a community college. “I’ve done everything in, on or around a stage you can think of and probably a few things that would never cross your mind,” he said.
While working in academic theater, he realized that he was teaching what he’d been taught. “My response to this bit of enlightenment was to move to San Francisco to further my education,” he said.
While Jim was driving to San Francisco, a friend was riding a bus in the city, sitting next to a woman studying a script. The friend mentioned Jim’s imminent arrival and the actress said, “The Magic Theatre is looking for a carpenter. Have him check that out.” The next Monday he started as the last guy on the crew and finished the season as technical director.
“I learned what it was to produce theater on the professional stage,” Jim said. “I also learned something about the mystery of art.” He got to watch Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaiken create the play “Tongues.” “The Magic Theatre was my graduate degree,” he said. “The seeds of my future were planted there.” During his tenure he oversaw the world premieres of sixteen new plays.
Marriage and the arrival of his first child became the motivation for a bigger paycheck, which led to Jim changing directions. “I talked my way into a high-end cabinet shop and a new education began.”
In 1982 the young family decided to move to Alaska.
The first summer in Alaska was on Kodiak Island working in a fish processing plant managed by a friend from high school. A touring production by the Alaska Repertory Theatre passed through town. While attending a workshop, Jim met the staff of the company, which led to a job offer. This set a pattern that would fill the next two decades: working with small theater companies while building furniture on the side and working as a handyman/carpenter. This led to the formation of his working philosophy, what he calls “exploring the art of living.”
In 1992 he was introduced to the Yupik carver, Jack Abraham, who wanted to write a play. Two years of consultation resulted in the production of “The Raven’s Apprentice.” Jim described their consultation, “We would meet twice a week. While we talked Jack would work on his masks. I observed. One day I went home and said, ‘I’d like to try this.’”
“My first pieces were really, really rudimentary,” he said. “I would try to take what he did and replicate it.” The work might have been rough, but Jim didn’t give up. The results are evident today in his current carvings and woodworking.
Two things stand out about Jim’s building work: high-quality workmanship and fearlessness. Both stem in part from his theater work.
“As I tell my clients, because I started out as a stage carpenter, I have no fear,” Jim said. “I’ve built Baron Von Richtofen’s bi-plane, King Tut’s sarcophagus, and everything in between.”
His workmanship starts with feeling his connection to each piece of wood. “Finding that bit of life that’s in the wood,” he explained. “Because I’ve had the opportunity
to build log cabins, a barn built around a timber frame, regular stick frame construction, cabinets, tables, doors, decks and carved sculpture I discovered that there is art in every aspect of building.”
Jim left Alaska in 2002 and spent six months in Yakima, where his brother lived. While in Washington, he met his partner, sculptor Elaine Treadwell. They lived in Sequim and Port Townsend for a while before moving to Portland. “I’ve always loved Portland,” Jim said. “I got to be in Portland the day Nixon resigned. This huge party happened in the street, somewhere around Morrison in Southeast.”
After moving to Portland in 2008, Jim and Elaine opened a gallery called Full Circle, located on SE Stark. In addition to showing their work in the gallery, they hosted other artists including a featured artist each month. During that time, Jim also started showing at the Urban Art Network’s First Thursday Street Gallery. This year he plans to expand to other venues. Look for him at an art show near you.
Last year Jim and Elaine moved to North Plains, craving a little more quiet than they got in Southeast Portland.
Always a fan of Shaker-like simplicity, Jim’s work is now taking a slightly more ornate turn. “I’m working on a concept now of combining carving and furniture,” he said. “I think that’s what my future is.” He learned to create inlay from a fellow woodworker in Alaska, and is combining that with carved legs. “It’s different from anything you’ll see commercially,” he said.
The foundation of Jim’s work is the process of discovery, finding the image hidden in a carving blank or seeing the combinations of woods to create a piece of furniture. “I hope to continue growing as a craftsman and to learn more about instilling art into the equation,” he said. “I am inspired by the scope and versatility of the artists who participate in First Thursday and can only hope that the art-buying public will discover the gold mine that is the artists of Portland.”