Jim Sohr: 25 Year Retrospective

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Jim Sohr: 25 Year Retrospective

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No Prison for the Mind:

The Art of Jim Sohr

by Adam Falik

When Jim Sohr was in his early 20’s – having migrated from a Methodist upbringing in Waukesha, Wisconsin to the French Quarter of New Orleans – he served three-and-a-half years in Louisiana State Penitentiary.  Sohr had been smoking marijuana with a guy who wanted Sohr to sell some to a friend of his.  He wasn’t interested in selling but the guy insisted, so Sohr sold him a half-matchbox full, an amount that would today be considered negligible, but this was the mid-1960s and the guy Sohr sold to was an undercover narcotics officer.  It was a set-up.  Before Sohr could actually be arrested, though, he fled New Orleans for California.  There he fully immersed himself in the “hippie dope craze,” taking LSD, smoking pot prodigiously, selling, and even climbing the ranks of distribution.  But he got busted again and though California wasn’t interested in persecuting Sohr, they expedited him back to Louisiana, where he was tried and sentenced to seven years in prison.  

            Louisiana State Penitentiary, more commonly known as Angola, and also referred to as the “Alcatraz of the South,” is the largest maximum security prison in the United States.  The prison houses Louisiana’s death row for men, and the state execution chamber.  In 2004, Paul Harris of The Guardian said, “Angola has always been famed for brutality, riots, escape and murder.”  Yet Jim Sohr’s Angola story is not the typical tale of prison horror scenes many others have written and told of. 

            “Actually I had it pretty good,” Sorh tells me from his home in Chalmette.  “A couple of times when I was out I actually wished I was back up there.” 

            Understanding Sohr’s take on his time in Angola is integral to understanding Sohr’s mindset, as well as his art.  Angola can almost be considered the hub of Jim Sohr’s life, to which all previous experiences led, and from which all future gains branched.  Angola forced him off drugs, and imposed upon him the necessity to affirm his manhood.  Incarceration also marked the beginning of his artistic life.  It leant him the time and space, and perhaps discipline, to truly shut his eyes from those who laid demands on him and turn completely inward into his imagination.

 Jim Sohr has retired to a two-story brick-front home in Chalmette, Louisiana.  It’s one of the larger houses on a street that still visibly suffers from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.  The street itself is in terrible shape, upturned with potholes.  The house had seen ten feet of water.  A former carpenter, Sohr replaced all the walls himself after he purchased the home in 2006.  The downstairs still feels like a work in progress, partially because Sohr’s paintings have been taken off the walls for the purpose of photographing this catalog, but also because the ceiling beams are still exposed.  “Once you tear out water-soaked sheetrock, you’re not too eager to put sheetrock back,” he explains.  We speak in what might be considered a living room.  It’s hard to tell.  We’re surrounded by stacks and stacks of Sohr’s medium and large-scale canvases, as well as many paintings still in progress, what Sohr calls his abstracts.  Dominating the high-ceiling open space is the original “Zor Bird” sculpture, which earned Sohr a $25,000 grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation.  The monies allowed “Zor Bird” to be recreated in metal and placed where it now stands, arresting and zany and joyful, like so much of Sohr’s art, outside the Children’s Resource Center on Napoleon Avenue in Uptown New Orleans.

            Sohr is now seventy years old.  He stands over six feet tall with subdued bearing while still possessing the vigor of a working artist.  His sculptures, which should be considered an extension of his paintings for all their humor, came out of the excess of materials and energy he found himself with when he finished rebuilding his home.  He had the wood and tools; he used the same color schemes he’d been utilizing for more than forty years on his canvases. 

“I would have done a lot more sculpture in my life if I had the space,” Sohr says, not with complaint but as a simple explanation.  Sohr doesn’t make excuses, and he doesn’t have regrets.  He is at a point in his life where he neither has to justify himself, nor protect the truth of his life from anyone.  His parents are both dead, as is his sister, who died of cancer a couple of years ago.  His children are grown, and even the men responsible for his time in Angola, the undercover cops, lawyers and judges, as well as the guards and prison officers, have all passed away.

Jim Sohr was born on August 3rd, 1940, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee.  It was a blue collar, industrial town.  His father was a school teacher who went on to become vice-principle, his mother a registered nurse who stopped working to raise her three children (Jim’s brother is still alive, living in Wisconsin).  The father was a disciplinarian.  Jim once caught hell for the mistake of buying a candy bar from the monies earned on his paper route. 

“I was never happy,” Sohr explains.  “I couldn’t adjust to anything.  Everything was planned for me, everything was determined.”  Both his religion and his career were included in that program.  Though he couldn’t do anything about being a confirmed Methodist (a religious practice Sohr would leave behind when he left Waukesha) he never fulfilled his father’s wish/demand of Jim becoming a high school mathematics teacher.  After a couple of years at Carroll University, Jim drove himself out of Wisconsin, not stopping until he hit New Orleans.  First thing he did was sign-up and ship-out with the Merchant Marines.  Because of disagreements with union officials, Sohr only made a single, three-month tour. 

“I would have liked to make a couple more trips, but it’s a solitary life.  As it turns out, most of my life after that was solitary, so I probably would have adapted.”

He enrolled in what was then Louisiana State University in New Orleans.  He studied psychology, though devoted his time more to drugs than academia.  It was the 1960’s and having escaped his family and the didactics of their religion, having turned his back on the tight-ship of the Merchant Marines, the freedom of the psychedelic experience held a lot more attraction.  Amphetamines, marijuana, and LSD were Sohr’s drugs of choice.  Their impact upon Sohr’s art is evident.  The myriad lines of converging faces, meshing background and foreground, morphing figures geometrically composed and hyper-exaggerated can be a playground for the drug-induced mind. 

Drugs introduced an entirely new sort of imagery into the 1960’s cultural terrain.  Zap Comix, sold on the streets of Haight-Ashbury, featured the works of Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, and Victor Moscoso.  Rick Griffin’s poster art for the Avalon Ballroom and Fillmore Auditorium combined counterculture vision and music, as did the album covers of the day, such as Robert Crumb design for Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills, and Martin Sharp’s cover for Cream’s Disraeli Gears.   All of which made direct impact on Sohr’s imagination, even if he hadn’t yet lifted a paintbrush, or considered contributing his own imagery to the mayhem of the era.  Though a child of the 1960’s drug-culture, Sohr had not yet started painting.  That would only come in Angola.

However rose-tinted the portrait Sohr makes of Angola, he hadn’t completely escaped Angola’s violence.  When he first arrived he caught a beating.  Initiation stuff, dues paid.  In his first days upon “the walk,” the area between dormitories where the prison population mingled, five guys approached Sohr to shake him down for the money he’d brought in with him.  Sohr tore a guy’s shirt, found a Coke can on the ground and beat the guy in the head with it.  The whistle blew, everyone was shuffled inside, and Sohr knew he was in trouble.  Back inside the dormitories they caught up with Sohr, beat him and tried to rupture his kidneys.  Because Sohr wouldn’t say who had done it, prison administration wanted to put him in the hole, but a kindly captain (in Sohr’s telling of Angola there are several kindly captains, guards and prison employees) sent him to the hospital for eight days.  Those eight days later, the same five approached Sohr and asked if he’d changed his mind.  

            “I said, Fuck you, asshole,” Sohr recounts.  “And they said, Well, we’re gonna talk about this.  And they went off to the side and came back and said, Jim, we decided that since you didn’t rat us out we’re gonna let you live on the walk.  And I never had a problem after that.”

            But it was Sohr’s participation in two separate prison programs that allows him to sing so sweetly of his Angola time.  The first was that he joined Narcotics Anonymous.

            “I hooked up with the head knocker up there, the guy who was in charge of all the convicts, and he took a liking to me.  They realized they could use me to go around and talk to people against narcotics.  It’s actually a con job.  They’re always trying to convince people that prisoners are rehabilitated.  So I went around and told kids that they should stay away from drugs or they might end up like me, in prison.  I gave speaking trips around the state and I got a lot of judges and people to write in letters for me.  I got a gold seal.  They’ve got a fancy name for it.  Clemency.” 

            Though the gold seal definitely helped trim jail time, reducing the seven year sentence to three-and-a-half served, it was the prison’s art room that really set Sohr free.

            “I don’t know why they had such a nice art section, except they had to convince people that they were trying to help the prisoners, educate them, provide jobs, and so forth.  That’s where I started to paint, where I learned to paint.  I had a little room where I could look out over the fields and see all the convicts cutting cane.  And I had my coffee pot.  I started painting morning, noon and night.”

            The administration provided Sohr with oils, though he would later switch to acrylics.  He was able to purchase rolls of canvas, which a guy in the prison carpentry shop stretched for him.  But mostly what Sohr was granted was time to work.  While most of the prison population spent excruciating hours struggling not to lose their minds, Sohr was upstairs, in his own work room, becoming an artist.    

So what did he paint?  Was it the line of convicts cutting cane against an afternoon sun, the sight of which would have floored a Millet or a Wyeth or even a Hockney?  No.  By now Sohr was learning that the truest essence of his freedom lay in shutting his eyes, in turning inside himself.  He was happiest viewing the picture-show taking place behind closed eyelids.  When he ultimately opened his eyes, he got to work.

“I didn’t paint anything realistic.  It was all from my imagination.  Sometimes I would have a concept and walk around that, but it just came out of my subconscious mind.”  

At the time of his incarceration, Sohr had a girlfriend who would drive to Angola every week to take whatever he had painted to the outside world.  Right off the bat his painting began to sell.  “I’d get fifty, sixty dollars,” he recalls.  “That was good back then.  And I had an art show one of my friends in New Orleans put on for me while I was in Angola, but I couldn’t attend.  It was uptown, on Magazine Street.”

Sohr’s prison time passed productively.  The positive reception to the first works he created allowed him to take his new craft seriously.

When I first started painting I was so naive as to think I was going to make Picasso look bad.  I thought I was going to take over the world.  When I got out of Angola I got a couple of paintings in shows at the Delgado Museum of Art.  [Later named the New Orleans Museum of Art].  Bullard [E. John Bullard, Executive Director since 1973] had one of my paintings over his desk for years.”

As long as Sohr remained with his eyes closed, turned inside, and therefore toward his art, he was safe, commander of his life.  Opening his eyes meant allowing the world in.  That was how he met his wife, when a friend brought her and her sister to one of Sohr’s shows.  They married, and moved to Acadiana, in French rural Louisiana.  Sohr took a job at Air King, the fan manufacturer, while his wife worked as a bookkeeper.  They had two children, and Sohr stopped painting.  In Acadiana he could no longer fantasize himself away from the demands of family.  His daughter needed new dolls to play her own imaginary games with; his boy wanted someone to toss him a ball.  Ennui lulled Sohr for ten years, until his marriage finally disintegrated and his wife took the kids to live with her mother in Metairie.

Sohr had since become an independent carpenter.  While paying child support and seeing the kids on weekend, he moved back to New Orleans, taking a place in the Bywater neighborhood – where he would live for the next twenty years.  And he was painting again.  By day he would work as a carpenter, and come night he would live the euphoria and curse of a solitary artist turned wholly into their craft.  As a painter being shown about town, at galleries and at the Contemporary Art Center, he would have to face what the work he was producing meant to him, as well as how his paintings were being received and categorized by the public. 

“My friend in Angola, Harold Swan, put a label on my art.  Cartoon primitive surrealist.  There’s a comic influence, there’s a surrealist influence, and it has to be primitive because I’m not art educated.  I had no formal training except at Angola, and that was maybe a convict who would say, Do it like this or do it like that.  I loved Picasso and I loved Dali.  And Marc Chagal.  The only person I can draw a line of comparison too is Fernand Léger.  He had the heavy dark outlines.  But I didn’t discover him until I was long on my path.  I had an albatross around my neck because I was hung up on this European school that was rapidly becoming out of favor.”

Sohr grew up reading the Sunday funnies.  They were where he fell in love with the saturation of bright primary colors, and the defining black lines he would later see mirrored in Legér.  Besides the underground comics of the Height-Ashbury scene, Sohr also admired Walt Disney and Dr. Seuss.  But there were other influences besides comics.  The art writer D. Eric Bookhardt has made multiple references to Sohr’s Wisconsin influence, identifying the infusion of beer, polkas, and jukeboxes in Sohr’s paintings.  The Jukebox is a particularly apt observance, the liquid colors that moved with tiny bubbles around the Wurlitzers, and which flows like syrup through the veins of Sohr’s work. 

“It should be obvious that I wasn’t born and raised in the south exclusively,” Sohr acknowledges.  “There’s no magnolias [in my paintings].  And the landscape is more open with prairies, not like [George] Rodrigue with his oak trees.  There’s as much Midwest as there is Southern.  There’s a lot of drug culture in my work.  Peter Max, LSD, hippies floating through the heavens.  Flowers in the hair.  I could appreciate that.  The hippie culture was very conducive to art.  Though I’ve been free of drugs for thirty, forty years, you never get that out of your mind completely.  And I think the Methodist church comes into my paintings in the form of hatred and animosity, ‘cause I really resented being programmed like that.”

Sohr and I flip through the many stacks of canvases leaning against the walls both downstairs and upstairs, pausing for a respectful moment on his versions of Picasso’s “Guernica” and “Weeping Woman” (Picsasso is the only artists Sohr has made conscious renditions of).  As we identify the mythology of figures which time and again have appeared throughout Sohr’s work – with names like Kookoo Zombie, the block heads and square-headed SNUDDs, the blue fish-people of Orlando, Florida – I consider how the standard by which we measure success more often than not belongs to others.  There are more than two-hundred canvases in Sohr’s home.  Besides these are the countless others sold, some of which were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, others that Sohr simply lost track of.  It’s an immense body of work; a lifetime of work.  The sheer quantity describes a largely solitary life measured though the lens of artistic pursuit.  In roundabout strokes, I inquire what it’s like for Jim, examining his work in its entirety, collecting it all into a catalog.  Is it satisfying, or does it feel as if something were missing from all these painted canvases?  There’s no need to be elusive; Sohr immediately catches my drift and speaks frankly about the time his daughter asked him why he was wasting his life painting, the night his mother inquired doesn’t he think he’s got enough already, can’t he just stop, and the sole cousin who strove to convince Jim that all this work was not a waste.  Sohr credits the Joan Mitchell Foundation for realizing that his sculpture work is valid, but he wishes, overall, that there was more feedback on his art, good, bad, or indifferent.  

            “I’ve had what I consider some masterpieces, less than ten, probably,” Sohr confesses.  “But it’s debatable, have I been wasting my life?  Actually, at this point, I couldn’t care less, I’m just trying to get through alive.”

            We continue to weave our way through the stacks, pausing again before the sculptures Sohr truly wishes he had more space – another house’s worth! – to work at, ending before a table from which he shows me a black and white photograph of a smiling baby.

            “See, I started out as a cute little baby, and then they got after me, messed up my head, made a Methodist out of me and chased me outta town.  I wasn’t looking to hurt nobody,  I was just an innocent little kid.  Wanted to live my life the way I wanted to live it.  It took years until I could start from scratch, build my life the way I wanted to.  Angola was a turning point.  I said, I’m free of all those people, I’m in prison and they can’t get me.  Angola didn’t break me.  The convicts didn’t kill me.  I came out of it with my manhood, and what more can you ask for?  A lot of my friends up there didn’t do as well, didn’t do well at all.  But I did.  I survived.  I’m proud of that. 

“Though I do have one dreaded thought,” he laughed.  “What are my poor kids gonna do with all these damn paintings?”