In memoriam: Jim Falck, artist

by Yule Heibel on October 15, 2013

On October 5, the painter Jim Falck died. From Fargo ND, he spent many years in Boston and eventually moved to Beverly on the North Shore. From 1991 till 2002, my family and I lived in the house across the street from his. We became friends over that time, and when we moved away to Victoria BC in 2002, Jim made sure we stayed in touch. In 2012, we moved back to Beverly, to the same neighborhood in fact, albeit this time not right across the street from our friend. It was such a gift to reconnect “irl” with Jim after ten years of letters, postcards, and finally emails – he was a very uniquely gifted individual who enriched the lives of those around him.

Although I’ve stopped posting to my blog over the past year or more, it seemed appropriate to publish my thoughts about Jim, his ability to cultivate friendships and gardens, and his painting here, since it was the home of my more thought-felt writing.

In memoriam: Jim Falck, artist

Jim and I met sometime in the months after my husband and I moved into the house across from his. It was September 1991, we had a 5-month old son, and by the time the new year rolled around I was on my first real teaching job at MIT. The semester went by in a blur, and by the summer of 1992 whatever garden had come with the house had disappeared under crabgrass and behind overgrown rhododendrons, which entirely obscured the house’s wraparound porch. Sleep-deprived and shell-shocked from a full teaching load, I can’t recall much of anything, and I’m not sure I interacted with Jim at all, except for a wave or casual hello.

But we must have become friendly, somehow, and eventually (was it still 1992 or was it now 1993 already?) it was my awful rhododendrons that brought us together. Whether it was after I decided to put a proper garden into the front patch of our property, or before, I can’t remember, but Jim just couldn’t bear the sight of those overgrown shrubs any longer. He asked whether I’d mind if he pruned them, and of course I said yes. Across the street he marched, armed with alarmingly gigantic loppers.

Here the word snicker-snack comes to mind, but that wouldn’t do Jim’s pruning justice. It was more a light-sabre job: immensely skilled, fast, and laser-precise. Intense. Almost scary. Surgical. Artistic. The formerly dumpy, lumpy rhodies were now “floribunda”: tree-shaped, elegant, looking like a million bucks. I began to eye this neighbor with a mixture of awe and curiosity. What else could he do?

I didn’t yet know much about him. Seen from my house, Jim’s front garden looked unassuming. A small strip of lawn, a few shrubs, a Dogwood tree he planted; on one side a shared driveway, on the other a small patio, mostly unadorned (the profusion of potted flowers and sculptural reliefs came later, bit by bit). I couldn’t see behind the house – but that was where all the action was.

Jim was intensely private, and unless you were invited in, you could easily miss the amazing magic he wrought. He didn’t keep people out, there were no fences around his house. But unless you had a reason to wander back there, you didn’t see the gorgeous garden hidden in plain sight.

I finally got to see it after he pruned my rhodies and I was falling all over myself about the terrific job he’d done.

No matter where in the growing season we were, Jim’s garden had something going on. He was quirky about it, though, not fussy. He thought nothing of pushing plants around, moving them quickly to where he thought they’d look better. If a plant wasn’t earning its keep, out it went. If, on the other hand, it was flamboyantly showing off, it got the star billing it deserved – for the duration, because of course the garden was changing all the time. What was constant was its beauty, vitality, and vibrant color.

Other gardeners incorporate utility, opting for vegetables or drought-resistant plants or some such useful aspect. As far as I could tell, Jim didn’t concern himself with that. Sure, he had some tomatoes in pots, and if a drought-resistant plant was beautiful, it was welcome in his garden. But the first consideration was always aesthetic, artistic. The garden had to perform as an aesthetic entity.

That garden was in many ways also a metaphor.

After Jim was diagnosed at the end of August, and as he lay dying while friends were calling or visiting from all over the world, I thought about just how immense his garden was, …still is. Just as the plants in his backyard were oblivious of one another, but assembled in an artistic display that spoke to the vigor of the gardener, so his friends often knew nothing of one another, even as together we make quite the tableau.

Because Jim was intensely private, he never boasted about his many accomplishments, his experiences, his many friends. But of course he had them – the accomplishments, experiences, and friends.

And as in a garden where plants are unaware of one another but connected in an ecosystem, taking turns at blooming, showing off, and giving pleasure, his friends contributed to the richness of his life. He appreciated each of us for what we could bring into the mix.

Although he was so very private, there was simultaneously a great intensity and energy to Jim, which I already alluded to in describing how he pruned my rhododendrons. Jim was nothing if not vigorous. He attacked his garden, he attacked the work of pruning shrubs, weeding, and moving plants around. There was nothing halfway about the man. It’s not that he bullied his plants – or his friends. Ever. But he didn’t treat them with kid gloves, either. Never one to hold back, he’d freely give his opinions on the current criminals in power, just as he was willing to rip out an overgrown garden denizen. Likewise, he held strong opinions of people close to him, sometimes changing his mind about how well he liked someone – always based on how he perceived what they did and expressed.

I think this ability to attack, to do battle, was essential to his art. Because Jim was an artist, his nature wasn’t to destroy anything, but attack it he did.

The French talk about “la lutte d’amour,” the battle of love. The idea has given rise to some great art. It’s a very fraught topic, but it used to be a given that men couldn’t understand women and that there is always a battle between the sexes.

It’s also a given that most of Jim’s work is about sex.

Is it about battles, too?

Well, yes, if by “battle” we mean the willingness to engage, to go direct. To go face to face with the object of desire. To engage wholly, holding nothing back. To expose oneself in the heat of battle, to expose oneself to the other, and to render thereby what amounts to a self-portrait of the artist as a lover.

Take a look at Jim’s vibrant output and notice the battle, the engagement, that’s taking place in almost every painting. Jim worked in the great tradition of modernism started by the French Impressionists, pushed forward by Cézanne and Picasso, then continued by an Abstract Expressionism that’s distinctly American. While an art historian can look at his work and see those influences and more, there’s nothing second-rate about Jim’s output. I think that’s because, unlike many younger artists, he wasn’t embarrassed about the tradition. Yes, it was “expressionistic,” and we’ve had it drummed into us that expressionistic work isn’t “cool,” but Jim knew different.

For him to have painted otherwise would be like a gardener wanting flowers that can only bloom on cue, or only in muted shades of pastel, or only if the sky is perfectly cloud-free. And only if the gardener controlled the entire spectacle with a remote control from the safety of his computer.

Not Jim. He got dirty. In his garden he got his hands dirty, and he didn’t shy away from a “dirty” expressive painting, either. He attacked his canvas, engaged with the medium and its limitations, and the figures he painted reflect the battle as they struggle to emerge from his often vehement, always vigorous brushstroke, emerge from the paint that binds them into the flat of the canvas. It was always the “unflat” bits – the naughty bits, if you will: breasts, penises, vaginas – which, being naturally protruding or suggestive of holes and openings, become the focal points. He’d line up the bodies, just as Cézanne did, in pairs or sometimes threesomes or more, with the lines of arms and legs making a nice flat pattern from one edge of the canvas to the other. And then the unflat bits, the voluptuous parts, would bust loose, throwing the two-dimensional logic of the demure canvas to the wind. In his best work – and there’s a lot of it – the tension is palpable, the heat of battle gets into your nostrils.

Hardly anyone gets that elemental anymore.

Here’s hoping that Jim, who was such a great gardener and terrific artist, planted many seeds.

Spring 2013, Jim hanging his show at Montserrat College of Art library

Additional material:

Link to a gallery of some of his paintings

A 2012 video of Jim painting, at Montserrat College of Art, Beverly

(part of a group show of temporary wall paintings)


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