James Oliver grew up old: Taos artist James Oliver talks about his colorful life and times

By Rick Romancito
Posted 4/7/11

Making art comes naturally to Louis James Oliver, Jimmy to most people who know him, Louie to his daughter. See the video.

"It just comes to me sometimes," the 73-year-old Taos artist said on a warm and slightly breezy afternoon last week. "I'll …

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James Oliver grew up old: Taos artist James Oliver talks about his colorful life and times

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Making art comes naturally to Louis James Oliver, Jimmy to most people who know him, Louie to his daughter. See the video.

"It just comes to me sometimes," the 73-year-old Taos artist said on a warm and slightly breezy afternoon last week. "I'll go three months watching TV and lying in bed and not feeling that aura of the spiritual self and consciousness coming into me. And then, suddenly, I'll wake up and I'll start doing it."

Throughout his small house are little gems of art, assemblages he put together out of a wide variety of found objects during those spurts of creativity. In his work you'll see evidence of electronic parts, toys, old typewriter guts, things that may mean nothing by themselves but when composed with such great intent, they become statements on a wide variety of things that cross Oliver's mind.

In one corner, there's something very different from the mostly playful works along almost every wall. It's a painting he calls his "Obituary." It depicts a dark shape lying in a grave "floating in the cosmos."

He didn't say so, but it's easy to see he has contemplated what the end will be like and has found it both melancholy and a conclusion to the life and times he's been through. Like the time he ran into John Lennon and Harry Nilsson while they were being chased out of the Troubador nightclub in L.A. after they were heckling the Smothers Brothers on stage. That was in 1974, a time chronicled by The Beatles historians as Lennon's "lost weekend" period, when he dived into the bottle for around a year or so with guys like Nilsson.

In a video, shot for The Taos News Media Center (www.taosnews.com), Oliver explains the incident publicly for the first time. The way he tells it, he was in the right place at the wrong time for Lennon and Nilsson. Just as they escaped out a sidedoor, Oliver called out, "Hey John, it's me, Louie!"

Next thing you know, they were all piling into Oliver's nearby flat where the musicians played piano and sang and hid out from the angry crowd. Oliver said they were "blitzed" and he was a little blitzed too, so he decided to make them all hamburgers. Funny, crazy, and true to life.

Oliver was born Dec. 17, 1937, in a coldwater flat on the Bronx-Mount Vernon border in New York. Growing up, he said one of his first jobs was as a shoeshine boy. He also worked in his grandfather's barbershop, sweeping up hair and doing anything that was needed.

His face goes dark, though, when he talks about the abuse he suffered as a child, but he doesn't dwell on it.

"Like I said," he tells me, "I grew up old, but I'm younger now." It's one of those statements, tossed off almost unconsciously, that will stop you in your tracks, but that's part of his story.

Like the time he went to Hollywood to become a movie actor. He studied and had done quite a bit of stage work in New York, which he planned to use as the foundation for a film career.

"My first movie was 'Hells Angels on Wheels' (1967) and I played a guy named 'Gypsy.' And Adam Roarke was in it, he passed away, and Jack Nicholson too. It's an underground film. Then I did a TVA show where I met Johnny Barrymore. We became very good friends before he passed away. That was another motorcycle TV thing that starred Ben Gazzara called 'Run for Your Life.' "

His resumé on imdb.com lists a wide variety of movies and TV shows into the mid-1990s. One of them that won't be on that list turned out to be a rather infamous underground anti-war movie that he says wound up with the filmmakers burying the negative in the desert somewhere to keep the feds from stealing it.

"In 1968, Sal Mineo got together … Sal and I were great buddies, man. I know things turned out badly for him eventually. But, we did 'The Fortune in Men's Eyes' (a 1967 play and 1971 film by John Herbert about a young man's experience in prison, exploring themes of homosexuality and sexual slavery). Sal was producing the (play at the Coronet Theatre in L.A.) and they were looking for someone to play 'Rocky.' So, I got hired as Rocky and then they brought out some people from the New York cast, because it was a big show in New York off Broadway. So, the producer didn't like me. Moe Weiss, he'd say, 'Hey Sal, whatta you got him up there for? You could be playing Rocky.' "

One thing led to another and Oliver was out. He was fired.

"Supposedly it's in the books somewhere," Oliver said with a laugh. Early in his adulthood, Oliver lost track of his only daughter, Angela. She was 26 when they finally were reunited. Oliver says he can hardly wait to send her the link to the video we shot so she can see what he looks like now.

"There were 14 years when we didn't know where we were," he said.

He is a great believer in family. On a table in his house he has a table on which are displayed photos and other mementos of family members. Like the one of his uncle John who taught him how to make model airplanes. These aren't little plastic Revell models. These are high quality, handmade classic aircraft he fashions entirely by hand. He carves the struts, the fusilage and covers the wings with the right materials.

Some have even been sold for a nice chunk of change. They hang now, frozen in flight, from the vigas in his ceiling. Oliver doesn't show his work anywhere. He says he once had a bad experience with a gallery. But, you never know. The right gallery might come along and offer the right deal.

He is, though, a discovery waiting to happen. Only time will tell. These days, Jimmy Oliver makes his rounds, does some art, watches TV, does some more art and even finds time to play cribbage and, if luck will have it, maybe a lottle bocce ball in a little field next door he put together.

There's always another chapter to his life, just waiting around the corner.

Anyone wishing to contact James Oliver is welcome to send an email to tempo@taosnews.com.

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