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Farmers Phoenix
Farmers Phoenix

Farmers’ Phoenix

by Nan Clark of Chesterfield, MA
photos by Mark Picard

One definition of phoenix is: “a person or thing that has become renewed or restored after suffering calamity or apparent annihilation.” My story is about just such a renewal.

Meet James Kitchen: Musician, furniture mover, avid reader, writer, poet, historian, family man, animal lover, sculptor, and farmers’ friend. Born June 18, 1953, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Jim grew up in the suburbs in a place called Caddy Vista. This is a wooded, rural area with the Root River running through it. According to Jim it was a good place to catch crayfish.

“I would always come home with muddy feet which my mother didn’t appreciate. Growing up I would work on farms, picking green beans, helping with haying. Of course, I would come home all scratched up but I didn’t mind. One of the farmers had a huge table — the biggest I’ve ever seen — where we would all eat after the hay was in. The farm women prepared the wonderful food for us at the end of the day. I was paid $1.00 an hour and I ate my share! I was always around farms and there were many. In 1972 I read that it was the first year that there were more people than cows in Wisconsin! People here in the east think only of beer and cheese when they think of Wisconsin. On television we are depicted as very polite and not very sophisticated. (chuckle)

Farmers Phoenix

When I was 15 or so I taught myself to play guitar, piano, harmonica and ended up as part of different bands. Just about any kind you can think of: Jazz, Blues, Soft Rock, etc. I played Congas in the Jazz band, Blues Harp (harmonica) in the Blues band and also played banjo, spoons, you name it. If anyone advertised for someone to play a certain instrument in their band, I said, ‘Sure, I do that.’ Then I went out, bought the instrument, and taught myself how to play it. I even started my own band called ‘Jim Kitchen & The Appliances.’ We did Bluegrass, Vaudeville, Soft Rock, and Country Mix. We did spoofs on other songs. I did spoon solos and I have a pair of Lawrence Welk spoons from 1970. Currently I’m learning the accordion.

After one semester of college I left to concentrate on music and the bands. Then, in my 20’s I returned to college at University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee as a history major. To defray expenses, a friend and I started moving people’s furniture. During one move he said ‘Hey, we could get a hernia doing this!’ So we named our business HERNIA MOVERS, Inc., bought a van and the jobs and money came rolling in. I was called the ‘Potentate of Totin Freight.’ Business was so good I quit college in my 4th year and devoted myself to music and moving folks for the next 14 years. Hernia Movers actually got licensed in 48 states and we had big semi trucks. We were written up and advertised everywhere – journals, radio stations, even Playboy magazine gave us a plug.

At the time there were 123 moving companies in Milwaukee and we had to find a way to be different. The name helped but we also chose to move antique stores and gave them a good discount. That showed we were very careful if we could move antiques and not break anything. Later my partner bought me out and Hernia Movers is still in business. You see, I wear a lot of hats but the most important one is marketing. Even with my sculptures now. I know some artists who are really good but don’t do well because they just can’t market themselves. Also, I know others who aren’t really that good but are good at marketing, so do very well. Ideally, you want to be both a good artist and good at marketing. Actually, it’s harder than you think. I was brought up to not be pushy. Still, I need to be assertive without being aggressive. It’s a fine line but you have to find that middle road. I’m still working at it.” (laughter)

Farmers Phoenix

Jim, you once said you could carry anything but a tune. Is that true? Don’t you sing?

“Oh, yes, I sing. That comment was just kidding. My sense of humor is one of the most important parts of me. You don’t have to have it but I think it helps get through life. The older you get the more you need it. If your body begins to fall apart, a sense of humor helps you survive with dignity. My humor often comes through in my sculptures. Many people see the whimsy I intended. For instance, I’ve done a rooster that some people initially think is just a silly looking rooster walking. But, if you look closely, you see the base is an axe head. To me it means to enjoy every good moment because you don’t know how close danger is. I did the rooster long before September 11th. Humor is based on truth.”

In the 1980’s Jim wrote songs and published three books of poetry: ‘Sleep for Success’ (more of a joke book), ‘Writer’s Blocks,’ and ‘Writing My Wrongs.’ He continues to write songs and stories. His most recent book is ‘There’s A Madman In My Mirror.’ He feels that all the things he has done are tied together.

“Music is really poetry set to music. Also, there’s music and poetry in my sculptures. When I look back on my life it sometimes looks like I had no focus. But then I realize that what I have done is all the same thing—a creative spark. Everybody is creative in different ways. We all try to juggle and balance things in our lives: family, home, chores, job, exercise, music, art, recreation. I do the most important things in the morning or I never get to them. First I’m with my wife and kids and then I walk for an hour. No phone! While walking I write lists and ideas and solve all the world’s problems. Sometimes I get ideas for sculptures in my sleep. I use a tip light pen for stuff I write in the middle of the night.”

Farmers Phoenix

In 1989 Jim married Karen Henell, an attorney with a very successful law practice. They lived in Wisconsin until 1993 and have two children, Ben age 11 and Rory age 9. Jim came east before the rest of his family because he worked for his brother, Denis, at that time in the publishing business. Actually, he had worked for Denis once before but found it hard working for an older brother. That’s when he went into the moving business. He needed to become a success on his own. Which he surely did. Then he went back with his brother again and when Denis moved his business east Jim came with him. For 14 months Jim flew back and forth from Hartford to Wisconsin – every week!

“My wife was pretty wonderful. As an attorney she had two offices she ran. Plus, she also had our two young children, the dogs, and the house to take care of. She was a marvel, she still is. Part of my success is that my wife is very supportive and I have the most wonderful children in the world. Karen is also very active in the town and school. She gave up her law practice to follow me out east. She quit that career because she disagreed with the way most lawyers functioned – mostly for money instead of helping folks to resolve problems. Karen now works out-of-the-house for the State of Massachusetts. She’s in charge of various volunteer groups. She’s very stable and practical. Karen is the center leg of our compass while I circle all around the outer edge. I’m very lucky.”

Farmers Phoenix

In his brother’s publishing company Jim was very good at negotiating with printers, paper suppliers, etc. Still, it was a thankless job as his efforts simply made everyone else look good. Deadlines were very stressful and eventually caused Jim to have high blood pressure and other stress problems. The money was good and he felt obliged to stay because it’s hard to change jobs when you have a family to help support.

Jim credits his wife with the idea that they should take a vacation to get him away from the stress of his job. This was six years ago. The whole family went to Wells Beach in Maine. While there Jim spent one day just balancing rocks in various formations. Other people at the beach crowded around including one woman from New York City who was an art teacher. She said the three words that changed Jim’s life.

“Who’s the artist?”

Suddenly a light bulb went off inside Jim’s head and he said, “I am.” It was at that very moment he realized he truly was an artist.

Farmers Phoenix

Back home Jim began carving faces on rocks with hammer and chisel. True to his Indian heritage he carved an Indian head depicting the ‘Trail of Tears.’

“My sister is into genealogy and has proof that we are 1/8 Cherokee. It was on my grandfather’s mother’s side. While my sister was in Texas once she talked to people on the father’s side of the family about our Indian heritage. They were insulted. They certainly didn’t want to be related to Indians. My sister was shocked because she thought it was pretty neat and a real honor to be related to Native Americans. So do I.”

Rock carving was the beginning of what was then only a hobby for Jim. He continued to work for his brother a few more years. Jim began collecting old pieces of metal and taught himself how to weld, so he could do some sculpting. Local friends and farmers who saw his work started giving him their broken junk.

Jim and his dear family live in a wooded area in Chesterfield, Massachusetts. He says he wouldn’t have it any other way. He wants room for his kids and dogs to go out.

Farmers Phoenix

“I had a moose in my backyard a couple of years ago. I was so thrilled! Since then I’ve had bears, fox, wild turkey, deer. But I don’t think I can top the moose. Remember I said people in the east don’t really know much about Wisconsin? Well, reverse that. I thought everybody back east just decimated everything and moved west. When I moved out here I had no idea there would be all this woods and wildlife. What a nice surprise. Western Mass is just so wonderful. Let’s hope we keep it this way.”

The children have Jim’s sense of humor and they love to read. Both are interested in music. Ben plays the saxophone and Rory the piano. Jim collects all kinds of books which his kids love. I’m sure he has taught them his philosophy.

“Everything is connected. You like Art? Well, Art is connected to history. So is music. History helps you find out about people and their cultures. When someone gives me a piece of farm equipment for my sculpture I want to know all about it. How was it used and by whom? What kind of animal was involved? The more I know about it the more I sense how to sculpt it. I take old, rusted, broken farm tools of a nearly bygone era and they become history which I bring back to life. Once 90% of the population here were farmers and now it’s more like 5%. Each piece has a history and the more beat up the more story.”

Farmers Phoenix

By 1999 Jim had enough sculptures to put on display locally. Folks began buying. About this time his brother’s business fell apart and Jim wondered what he could do next.

“You always hear, as you are growing up, that you should follow your heart. Do what you really love and the money will follow. If you don’t have a family depending on you it’s a lot easier to do. When you have a mate and kids and a mortgage it’s a lot bigger leap. So I wrestled with myself, knowing I would most like to devote myself to my sculpture. Could I dare dream that I could make a living doing what I love? Would I be happy?”

About that time Jim heard about John Stritch, a sculptor in Hinsdale, Massachusetts, who has switched careers in mid-life when he was a successful surgeon. Mutual friends made it possible for them to meet.

“John is 30 or 40 years my senior so I didn’t know what to expect. When I first saw him he was lounging in his garden, laughing, and surrounded by his happy family and friends AND also his sculptures. That was all I needed. Since then John and I have become friends and he is definitely my mentor. John Stritch took a huge leap from being a surgeon to being a sculptor. He has no regrets. I decided that’s what I wanted: to be surrounded by my happy family and friends and my art work and be laughing. So you see, I did follow my heart and now the dollars are starting to come on. Recently a vice president of Hershey Candy Co. bought one of my bigger pieces and paid me well. I called that piece ‘Siddhartha’ from the book by Hermann Hesse. It is made from old wagon wheel rims. In the book a man searches for enlightenment and finds it where he least expects to. Kind of like what I’m doing. Now I just like to stay still and experience it. There is great serenity in ‘Siddhartha’.”

Farmers Phoenix

I asked Jim how he got started using old farm tools. He said, “Part of it is growing up with farms. Another part is thanks to my friend, Vic Zononi. We go to auctions together. He got me to help clean up his yard and there was metal all over the place. I offered to buy stuff from him and he accepted. You see, I cleaned his yard and paid him for his junk. Just like Huck Finn! (laughter) Vic was a local farmer and shepherd for many years. At first he thought I was crazy when I told him what I could make out of a particular piece of metal. Once I showed him what I could do he started giving me pieces and telling me what they could become. ‘Here’s a nose for you, Jim.’ Now all my neighbors are saving stuff for me. People stop me on my morning walks and yell, ‘Hey, I’ve got some metal for you.’ Today a guy offered me a couple of buckets of old railroad spikes. Sometimes folks have something special they want. One woman said her father had died and left junk in the garage. She asked me to make something for her to remember him by. So I made a bird for her from her father’s stuff.”

Last July Jim had a display at the William Cullen Bryant Art Show in nearby Cummington. Everybody came there looking to buy art work. He sold a ton of stuff, literally, and his sculptures won first prize and Best-of-Show. Karen said he was bursting his buttons. A few weeks later he had a display at the famous Cummington Fair. He sold very few things and that put the buttons back on! Jim says, “What happened was a lot of farmers came who were not looking to buy art. They would say, ‘That’s interesting. That’s part of an old Ferguson tractor. I used to have one of those. In fact, I lost my little finger in there in 1937.’ They loved telling me their stories. The good news is they all liked what I was doing and most of them offered me metal from their old farm machinery. They weren’t buying but they were happy to help the cause. Actually, they helped me identify some pieces because I don’t always know what it is or what it was used for on a farm. Which reminds me – it was a great help to me to read some Small Farmer’s Journals because I saw things in there that helped me identify stuff I have been given.”

Jim’s sculpture is preserving a nearly bygone era of family farming. When he looks at an old, worn, pitted piece of metal he thinks of its history: the ox yoke ring, a plow blade, hay rake, buggy spring. He feels emotion for them and it shows in his work. He uses lots of shovels. He says, “Years ago, if the handle broke on a shovel, the farmer made a new handle. Nowadays, most folks toss the shovel and buy all new. A cheap one for 7 or 8 dollars. Once every farmer had to be able to fix whatever broke down, especially during the Depression. They would use whatever was handy like bale hay wire. My favorite place to get metal is from a farmer who lived through the Depression. They didn’t throw anything away. It’s a treasure trove of stuff. Even if it’s broken. I love to hear the history of the piece and the animals. A farrier friend gives me horse shoes and they are all different. I learned that if the horse walks a certain way the farrier has to correct it with the shoe. Each one is unique. Once in a while someone gives me ox shoes which are also unique. Also I get rings from ox yokes and some are nearly worn through. I think about all the days those animals and the farmer went back and forth in the field. Oh, my gosh. The labor. The time. Some people don’t realize, for instance, what it was like to gather maple sap with oxen or horses. Many folks today just go to the store and buy some maple syrup but never think about it. It was a lot of work but also there was wonder in it. Imagine a cold, sunny day with the aroma of maple syrup in the crisp air. What a wonder! The strength of the animals in their thick coats. That’s what it’s all about. That’s priceless. And I think of that while I build a sculpture using an ox yoke ring.

Farmers Phoenix

It’s strange how I seem to be able to find just the right piece for a particular sculpture. There’s something mystical about it.

If I act smart and think I know what I’m doing it always seems forced. Things work better if I just start playing with various pieces, like clay. My subconscious is so much smarter. There’s something within us. Like when I began ‘Siddhartha.’ I started out with these hoops and began making a big mouth, a face. But it turned out to be a guy meditating – much deeper meaning. So I just let it happen. There’s magic, too. My Lotus flower is made of 7 shovels and old butter knives and pliers. This piece plays music when it rains. Raindrops strike the butter knives and a plink-plunk results from each blade being a different length. Thus a different tone – it’s quite magical!”

Now you know why I wanted you to meet Jim Kitchen and see some of his oddly compelling sculptures.