Inside Jim Olarte's Studio

Since our store first opened in 1976 we have been incredibly fortunate to work with so many talented artists and designers.  After many years of visiting their showrooms and galleries those relationships have blossomed into many lifelong friendships.  This week we highlight our dear friend and artist Jim Olarte. If you’ve been to our store you’ve most definitely set your eyes upon our 25 foot commissioned macrame sculpture in white.  If you haven’t been to our store, continue reading as we take you on a recent visit to Jim’s Laguna Beach Gallery where we discussed his art, his love of fashion and styled him up in Second Layer, Maison Margiela and The Elder Statesman.

For us and on our journey it always comes full circle.  We met Jim Olarte about 15 years ago.  At the time, Jim was a set designer and ventured into our store when it was on Westcliff; the stylist he was working with had pulled bags and shoes from the store for a fashion shoot.  We struck up an immediate friendship and when it came time to design the interior of our West Coast Highway location we commissioned Jim to create art for the store. We knew his passion for the ocean and love for creating big scale sculpture would be a perfect pairing amidst our 25 foot vaulted ceilings and large white arched windows that frame the bay.  In the 70s when Jim was just a young crafty kid he was tasked with making his mother macrame plant holders which he ended up replicating and selling at a few craft fairs.  And so the foundation was built, but plant hangers were far too small in ambition and scale for where Jim saw his future.  “I want to be at the Guggenheim.  I want the Fondazione Prada.  I wanna play big.  I wanna be the guy version of Sheila Hicks in terms of scale and accomplishment.   Give me 16 feet.  Give me three stories.  I don’t want to make two or three foot little things.  I just don’t want to play on that level.  I want the buildings [innocently chuckling]."

And so, on what began as a rainy Monday we ventured off to Jim’s Laguna Beach Gallery at 950 Glenneyre Street to catch the artist working on a number of commissions. We wanted to capture him in his element.  At first glance Jim has both a sweetness and a ruggedness about him.  He’s easy on the eyes, energy beaming from the inside out.  Jim has a naturally slim and athletic build from the many beach walks and ocean dips that serve as both meditation and inspiration to him.  "I don’t mind being alone and by myself because I get to see all this beautiful nature. I get to see all these things that if you’re really looking you only then get to see.  When it comes to my work, I’m looking for a thing, it’s not just a shell, it’s an edge of a shell that’s degraded.”

The simple truth is Jim looks great in clothes.  His passion for clothing has always been a matter of function and less about who the designer is.   In 1982, Jim opened a vintage store in Laguna Beach called ‘Locals Only’ and ran that through 2004.  And through this store a passion for fashion was brought to life and influenced his personal style.  "I wear a lot of vintage. Military shorts. Beautiful Hawaiian shirts from the 40s, not these Tommy Bahama things, these beautiful prints with character." He has quite the eye, and as you browse his gallery the attention to detail is apparent and begging for further examination.  At first glance, you see these large scale works, and as you give yourself the time to discover and run through each hand done knot and perfectly placed shell, you can almost put yourself into a meditation much like one of Jim’s own daily beach walks.  For a moment we knew what Jim felt as he created each work.  We counted over 500 knots on a sun washed yellow sculpture that to our eye resembled a human DNA structure.  For the record, Jim refers to these gorgeous knotted sculptures as “cores”.  At A’maree’s, we have an all white core measuring over 30 feet.  When we asked Jim what he wanted people to feel while viewing his work he said, “I want them to touch it. I tied every one of these knots. I know I have to tie each one of these knots myself and I enjoy it a lot. So a 40 foot piece is a lot of knots. It’s not gonna make itself.  When I’m making a core and using up old stuff and I tie knots into it I’m tying things over things and making a story that’s new with a story I didn’t create, but found.”  Jim referenced his recent reading of the book “Circe” likening himself to the goddess of Greek Mythology that gathered up oceanic finds to cast spells.  And a spell he did cast on us, as we spent a few hours in the gallery playing dress up and asking details about each piece before us.  

Jim’s studio isn’t just filled with works in his most commissioned shades of white and tan, the neutrals that we too found both grand and calming at the same time.  There is a lot of color, in fact the whole gallery provided the perfect background for us to feature both the neutral palette and everyday staples from Second Layer, bold neon cashmere tie dye from The Elder Statesman and a bit of reflective gold from the Matusda sunnies Jim wore. We first met the founders of Second Layer Josh and Jake when they would come into our Westcliff store bearing flowers and laughs.  If you saw the guys today you almost wouldn’t remember them, back in those days they dressed akin to walking off a Rick Owens runway show, a brand we carried for many years.  Joshua even wore guy-liner, yes that’s mascara for men!  We’ve carried Second Layer for about 2 and a half years now because it has the right amount of timelessness with a dash of skater edge, and it works very well for our men.   Second Layer clothing serves as an extension of one’s self- soft in structure and an ongoing companion.  We took this quote from the boys, "Like a needle locked on a groove playing Malo on the old jukebox, our ambition is to create a look that lasts. Nostalgic references and timeless classic pairings.” The Second Layer clothes we styled Jim in were a magical mix in his space.  From sun washed yellows to bright neons, oceanic blues and gem like turquoise, color and vibrancy greet you at every turn.  As we played all three roles of voyeur, stylist, and photographer, we moved Jim around his gallery in wide leg trousers and board shorts from Second Layer.  He looked as natural as his work.

Other notable works were adorned with shells.  “108 Panel” is comprised of 108 California shells, specifically Key Hole Limpets.  For those that don’t know, the number 108 is considered a sacred number in Hinduism, Buddhism and yogic tradition. Malas or Japa beads come in a string of 108 and are used for devotional meditation, mantra and prayer. With each bead a mantra or prayer is repeated to meet a total of 108.  And in true Jim form, he doesn’t alter the shells, he collects each with precision because he stands by his words “No violence to shells, because I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to cause violence to shells."  

As you enter his gallery, you are welcomed by a gorgeous mobile that at first glance looks like giant shells.  Upon further investigation, you can see the details of a boat that used to be, now transformed into a visual masterpiece that looks both oceanic and sculptural.  Jim has collected shipwreck for over 10 years and keeps each found group of wreckage in one piece of work, providing the viewer a fabulous mix of sun-washed pastels, history revitalized again through a new meaning and nowhere near the water it once thrived in.  As we left the space, we caught a glimpse of a piece of driftwood with signature Jim Olarte knotting and wrapping, but what struck our eye was the Prada triangle logo that adorned it.  You guessed it, Jim is a huge fan of Miuccia Prada, and the the idea that Raf Simmons and Mrs. Prada now work together brought him quickly laser focused in out conversation, directly to his bigger career ambitions.  Perhaps the pieces are a form of manifestation for him. After all, having his work shown in the center of Milan in the unique complex of buildings designed by Rem Koolhaas and bearing the name of genius that is Mrs. Prada is on his bucket list to be on display in.