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Artist creates popular line of whimsical figures and designs

Jim Shore started out as an engineer. But in a twist of what you might consider the usual order of things, he says, "I just couldn't imagine myself making a living as an engineer. So, I decided to be an artist."

It's a turnaround that has paid off for the South Carolina man. In the past few years, his Heartwood Creek line of whimsical figures and designs has captured the attention of folk-art lovers everywhere.

"I started carrying his line three years ago," says Jim Lauscher, owner of the Village Christmas Shoppe at Gardner Village in West Jordan. "It was a very minor piece of the business. But it has just exploded in the last two years."

Lauscher is thrilled that Shore will be visiting his store on Nov. 17 to talk about and sign his pieces in person. "He's only making 18 appearances around the country this year, and only three west of the Mississippi. We're very excited to be one of them."

Lauscher loves the variety and the detail of Jim Shore's work. There are Christmas pieces, "but I like that he also does Halloween and Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is getting to be a lost holiday, so it's nice to give it attention like he does."

Shore also does patriotic pieces, cats, lighthouses, angels and more. A brand new line features Disney characters.

A distinctive characteristic of his work is the way he incorporates quilting patterns into the designs, "and Utah is such a great quilting state that they are very popular here," says Lauscher.

Shore was inspired by the quilts his grandmother used to make, he said in a telephone interview from his South Carolina farm. "I've always been an admirer of quilting as an art form. My grandmother made these wonderful crazy quilts with embroidery and embellishments. I was always fascinated and delighted with those."

Plus, he said, "there is such a wide range of patterns and colors to draw on. There's such a wide range in the word 'quilt.' It can cover everything from white-on-white trapunto to bright, heavy Amish designs. It's a never-ending fascination just to look at them."

The same could be said for Shore's folk art pieces. He incorporates detailed farm, ocean, seasonal and other scenes into each piece. "I try to tell a story within a story. If it's not fun to look at, what's the point?"

But Shore also has an abiding respect and reverence for the tradition of folk art itself. "You think of the emigrants who came to this country and wanted something beautiful to decorate their lives. They remembered the classical art forms from Europe and made their own versions. Those early pieces are so charming in their simplicity, in their honesty."

He enjoys folk-art forms such as rose malling and Pennsylvania Dutch designs. "Anything that has a homespun, early American feel — I've always loved that."

So, even though Shore loves to paint and has done portraits, "my real love is folk art." When he decided to take up art as a vocation, that was what he focused on. At first, he and his wife, Jan, had their own casting house, where they made duplicates of his sculptures. About five years ago, he decided to move away from that and license his designs. "That way I can just focus on the creative end."

He feels very lucky that his vision of folk art caught on. "There are hundreds and thousands of talented, dedicated and deserving artists out there, and the vast majority go nowhere." Like any other venue that is based on want more than on need, he said, "only a few rise to the top. It has to do with talent and skill, but also with a big dose of serendipity."

Some things just happen, he said. "Sometimes the stars align."

He also credits his engineering background for some of his success. "It's that left brain/right brain thing — the ability to be intuitive and analytical at the same time. A lot of good crafts are artistic, but they also have balance, rhythm, proportion, structure. They are like music, where a wrong note stands out."

In fact, he quite likes the music analogy. He likes to think he puts his design together "like the notes in a chord." There are always at least two melodies going on — the image itself and the interest, character and whimsy it portrays, and the composing pattern and motif he uses to decorate it. Together they achieve a harmony of aesthetics that he hopes will hold the interest.

It's a formula that seems to be working — and it offers unlimited potential. "I don't think I'll ever run out of ideas." Shore has several new lines in the works. He's planning some literary-based figures — like Moby Dick, Tom Sawyer, the Wizard of Oz. He'd like to do a historic group, with the likes of Ben Franklin, Paul Revere, Thomas Jefferson and others. "I think it will be fun to see them done in my style."

He's also planning a series of dogs. His cat figures have been very popular, "but cat-lovers are easy to please. Dog-lovers always seem to want their particular breed. So, I guess I'll make about 10 groups of dog-lovers happy."

Shore does not see his work as "collectible." "When I got into this, I was adamant that we not treat it like that. I think 'collectible' is a word that is overused. I didn't want any limited editions, and my goal has always been to do artwork in a way that can be duplicated at prices people can afford. I'm sticking to that." Some of the larger pieces — he has a series of figures big enough to go in the garden, for example — sell for more, but for the most part, his work goes for under $40 or $50.

"I just love making art. I have done all my life. It's one of those things I was blessed with," he said. And he enjoys sharing it with others. "I'm just very happy and pleased that my work has touched the hearts of people. It's gratifying to see them enjoy and appreciate it."

If you go

What: Jim Shore

Where: Village Christmas Shoppe at Gardner Village, 1100 W. 7800 South, West Jordan

When: Thursday, 1-4 p.m.