Jim Sohr’s artistic career began when he was serving time in Angola Penitentiary for marijuana possession in the late 1960s. He hung out in the art room while he was in prison and learned to paint. He was eventually released for good behavior and continued painting at night while he worked as a carpenter during the day. We visited Jim at his art filled home in Chalmette to discuss his life and artistic process.
NCM: Are your paintings very expensive?
Jim: They are now! I just sold one for $22,000.
NCM: Wow! Congratulations! When did you first start showing your work?
Jim: 1967 is when I first started showing my art. After Katrina, I took a holiday for a while. I still kept painting but I didn’t show anything. Now I’m getting back into it a little bit. I have shown at the Crescent City Brew House and the New Orleans Art Center Gallery.
NCM: Where are you originally from?
Jim: I’m from Waukeshaw, Wisconsin, which is about 17 miles west of Milwaukee. When I turned 20, I threw everything in my car and got out of there. I never went back! I drove straight to the French Quarter.
I have been in Louisiana off and on ever since the early sixties. I went out to New York and San Francisco for awhile, but I always came back here. After Katrina I wanted to get out of New Orleans, so I moved to Chalmette. I don’t like New Orleans now because it’s not the same. I lived in the Bywater for many years.
NCM: What led you to become a professional artist as opposed to just painting as a hobby?
Jim: When I was in Angola, I was assigned to the Education Department but I didn’t know exactly what part of the Education Department I wanted to be part of. I was walking up and down the hall when I looked in this room and I saw Harold Swan painting. He was painting big paintings. I was so impressed, I said, “I’d like to get to assigned to the art room”.
So I got assigned to the art room and I was able to paint morning, noon and night. They even bought supplies for me.
NCM: Did you ever paint or draw before you went to Angola?
Jim: Not really. I was interested in it and I liked to look at pictures of European Masters – the works of Picasso and Chagall fascinated me – but I didn’t devote much time to art until I got to Angola.
NCM: Did they give you actual lessons in Angola? Or did they just give you a paintbrush and say, “Have fun!”?
Jim: I was pretty much on my own, but Harold Swan gave me a few points. He was self-taught too, but he had learned a few tricks over the years. He told me about underpainting and things that came in handy. He was a very good artist.
NCM: What genre of art would you call your work?
Jim: I have been labeled as a Surrealistic Primitive Cartoonist, if that makes any sense to you. Everything has a heavy black outline around it. And that’s where the cartoon influence comes in. It’s Surrealistic, has a cartoon influence, and I’m self taught.
NCM: Do you use acrylics or oils?
Jim: Acrylics. I started out using oils, but what I like about acrylics is the drying time. With oils you have to wait a day for it to dry before you can go over it again.
NCM: Whose work inspires you the most?
Jim: I would have to say Picasso. Right behind him I would say Marc Chagall and Salvador Dali. I never got to that degree of sophistication as far as Dali’s techniques and everything, but I like some of his ideas, like the melting clocks.
NCM: Did you have any other mentors besides Harold Swan?
Jim: No. He’s the only person who ever gave me any hints, that I can think of.
NCM: When you got out of prison, did you immediately start supporting yourself as an artist?
Jim: When I was in Angola, I had a girlfriend that would come up every week and I could give her my paintings. She took them and brought them to galleries. I had an art show, but I was in Angola, so I couldn’t attend it! Then I had regular art shows for years. After Katrina I had a show and it flopped, so I said: “To hell with this! I’m just going to get out of the art scene for awhile.”
For several years I didn’t show my work. I didn’t go to art shows. I just stayed here and painted. And I have accumulated a lot of paintings in the process.
NCM: How do you differentiate your art from other artists work?
Jim: I’d say that the black all lines have a lot to do with it. The only other artist that I know whose used them as extensively is Fernand Leger.
NCM: How do you deal with negative criticism?
Jim: I love it because it brings attention to me! Negative criticism can be very, very valuable. Especially if they don’t have a valid reason for saying it other than it being their own personal opinion.
There was a long period where I painted a lot of women’s breasts. A lot of people didn’t like that. Men more than women.
NCM: Men didn’t like it?
Jim: They don’t like it at all. It makes them very uncomfortable. They could look at Playboy magazine and enjoy it, but they can’t look at one of my paintings without being embarrassed. That’s funny to me.
NCM: Would that cause you to change your style? Would you stop painting breasts?
Jim: No, I would just go somewhere else. I have removed paintings from display and brought them home or displayed them other places.
I like negative criticism. Still, when somebody likes it, that’s so much better.
NCM: How do you come up with some of this wild imagery? I’m asking from a creative perspective.
Jim: The images come from my subconscious mind. I can sit down and close my eyes and can conjure up everything since almost the day I was born. My earliest recollection was when my mother tied me up in a snuggle bunny. You know what that is? And I couldn’t move and it was cold. And she went off to another room and I was screaming. “When are you coming back?”
She had control over me. That was before I could walk and talk. I can recall just about everything that ever happened to me.
NCM: Are you putting yourself into your paintings?
Jim: I don’t know. It comes from my subconscious mind.
NCM: Did you read a lot of cartoons or comics growing up?
Jim: I have loved comics all of my life. Pablo Picasso, Dr. Seuss, Walt Disney, and comics, that’ll get me started!
NCM: What do you wish you’d known about being a professional artist before you got started?
Jim: Absolutely nothing. When I got out of Angola, the government gave me money to complete my education. I enrolled in an art school, but the instructors didn’t like what I learned in Angola. So I didn’t last there.
NCM: Do you have any advice for new artists or anyone thinking about becoming an artist?
Jim: Yes, don’t give up your day job! There is no money in it. I would work all day as a carpenter so that I could paint a few hours at night.
NCM: When did you start supporting yourself as an artist?
Jim: I never did. I’m in the hole now. I lose more money than I make.
NCM: How do you come up with a profitable way to price your art?
Jim: I don’t want to price my art. I want somebody else to do that. I have an agent who has helped drive the price up. There’s so much expense that people don’t know about. When you buy art in a gallery, the gallery takes 50 percent. Art supplies are also sky high. For example, that jar of pink paint that cost me $70!
NCM: How many paintings do, or did, you complete in a week?
Jim: Well that’s hard to say because I’m working on 18 at one time.
NCM: So it’s kind of like an assembly line type thing?
Jim: Each time I go to paint I decide which one I want to work on. I’m not going to let anything go out if I’m not happy it. I’m sort of a perfectionist too.
NCM: Could you pick a favorite of all the things you’ve done, all the work you’ve painted?
Jim: I think “Big Foot” would be my favorite one. That’s the one that sold for $22,000. I sold that recently. I had originally taken it to a gallery on Julia Street to see if they could sell it for me and the owner ran me out of the gallery. He said, “Well, that’s nice, but I can’t use it.”
NCM: Did you paint that one recently?
Jim: No, I painted it years ago. I sold it recently, but it never got any exposure. I just put it off in a pile somewhere else and forgot about it. I wanted to destroy it, but I am glad I decided not to.
NCM: That’s a wonderful painting. Was it a private sale?
Jim: Yes, I had an agent who knows a lot of people who collect art. I’d much rather sell to individuals than go through a gallery.
NCM: How did you find your agent?
Jim: After the storm I’d given up on the New Orleans art world. Luis Colmenares had just opened up a shop and I drove by there a couple times. I saw his sign and got curious, so I went in there and talked to him. He’s a fantastic guy! He does huge sculptures. I realized he was the person who could sell my paintings.
An artist is the worst person to sell his own work. The trick is to find the right agent. I had an agent before who skinned me alive. I had to go see a lawyer to break the contract and get out from under him.
You have to depend on the integrity of the person you’re sending the paintings to, and that can be dangerous! Don’t ever misjudge a person’s integrity in this business. There are a lot of scoundrels in the art world.
NCM: After your experience in Angola for marijuana possession, how do you feel now that all these states are legalizing marijuana? Are you bitter over your punishment?
Jim: It makes me angry when I see the cops busting a little kid for marijuana. I equate marijuana with alcohol possession. Parents should be responsible for keeping their kids away from those things. I’d rather have a kid smoke dope than get drunk.
I think they did get kind of carried away though: they gave me seven years for a matchbox full of marijuana. But I’m not bitter because going to Angola probably saved my life. If I had stayed out there, I’d probably be dead. I knew a lot of people out there who are not around anymore. I was in the drug world and it’s a vicious, vicious world.
I knew one drug dealer in San Francisco who was stabbed during a dope deal. They took his dope and instead of paying him, stabbed him in the heart with a butcher knife, then rolled him up in the sleeping bag and threw him off a cliff. Those are the elements that I was exposed to.
And without Angola I wouldn’t have started painting. I would have ended up being a 40 year old junkie!
I quit smoking 30 years ago. Three years ago I quit alcohol. I haven’t had drugs for 30, 40 years and I don’t chase after women. I gamble a little bit at the Pool table. If I’m not careful, I’ll turn into a Buddhist monk! But I’m happy. I don’t miss any of that stuff.
You can see more of Jim Sohr’s work at Crescent City Brewhouse and New Orleans Art Center Gallery.