Artist Jim Lambert Defies Description

Whimsical. Charming. Folksy. Eclectic. None of these words sum up Jim Lambert’s work, but all are accurate. This New Hampshire artist doesn’t fit neatly into a category — perhaps that’s exactly why he’s so beloved.

At the annual League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s Fair in Sunapee each August, artist Jim Lambert of Hillsborough gets peppered with questions:

Where do you get your ideas?
What is it made of?
What the heck do you call it?

It’s no real surprise. Once you take a look at his work, it’s hard to look away. His quirky suns, dogs, cats, chickens, birds, Abe Lincolns and other humans look slightly surreal, but at the same time are very down to earth.

Many visitors to his booth — and those who see his pieces in the League’s Concord and Littleton stores — like to use the word whimsical to describe his style, but it’s clear that Lambert’s work involves much more than mere whimsy.

We wanted to find out more, so we came up with even more questions.

Where did you come from?

Lambert grew up in Claremont, and his mother and father both came from large families with seven or eight kids, so naturally they were both frugal and skilled at making things — talents they passed on to him. “My mom was always busy making something,” says Lambert. “She was an incredible seamstress, making clothes for myself and my brother, and she also baked and decorated cakes for weddings and special occasions.” His father was employed at a local foundry where he worked with his hands, so early on Lambert learned firsthand that “idle hands are the Devil’s tools.”

He liked art class at St. Mary’s School — despite earning the nuns’ disapproval by finishing class projects before the others so he could work on his own — so he decided to go to Plymouth State University to pursue a degree in art education so he could become an art teacher.

Because of this, Lambert is classically trained in art. “Since we were training to become art teachers we had to be familiar with all of the disciplines, from graphic art and ceramics to landscapes and portraits and still lifes,” he says.

“Crazy Dog,” scrap wood, stick and tin sheeting

In his senior year, he got a little restless studying and painting bowls of fruit in the classical style: He wanted to experiment. One day, he read a news story about a man who stabbed his girlfriend to death, and something took hold of him — he wanted to tell that story through his art.

Lambert covered a medium-sized wooden board with wallpaper and set an old frame around the perimeter. “I dipped my fingers in a can of red paint and wrote ‘I loved her’ with my fingers,” he remembers. “It was a bit off-center and the letters were dripping.”

He says the work was a total gut reaction and was influenced by true-crime magazines of the time, where blood-spattered crime scenes were often described in painstaking detail. Somebody bought it for 20 bucks. It was the first thing he ever sold.

After he graduated in 1968, he taught art at Newfound Regional High School in Bristol for 10 years before striking out on his own to create art full-time. A couple of artist friends were setting up at a Christmas fair at Canterbury Shaker Village and asked Lambert if he wanted to make something to sell at their booth. At the time, gnomes were popular, so he cut some old boards into an approximate shape and painted them to resemble the mythical underground creature. A few sold, and several customers said they looked like folk art.

Lambert was intrigued and delved into a few books on the subject. “I liked it because people were making stuff that they knew,” he says.

Plus, he learned that folk artists used materials that were already on hand — wood scraps, bits of iron, milk paint left over from painting the barn — which appealed to his frugal nature. So he began to make animals he liked —cats, dogs, chickens — and started exhibiting at a few crafts fairs and shows throughout the state. A buyer for the American Folk Art Museum in New York spotted his work and commissioned him to make some wooden cats for its gift shop, and his career took off from there.

What do you call this stuff anyway?

Besides using the terms quirky and whimsical to describe Lambert’s art, people often label it “outsider art.” Today, Merriam-Webster defines outsider art as “art produced by untrained or naïve artists (such as children or psychiatric patients) who are not part of the mainstream art tradition.”

Years ago, after he’d started out as a full-time artist, he read a New York Times article about an outsider art show at the Museum of Modern Art. “I thought, ‘Isn’t that great, they’re going to have an art show outside.’” He laughs at the memory. “That’s how naïve I was about what was going on in the larger art world.”

He understands why people use the term outsider art, but he dismisses it as a description of his own work because of his academic background. But people want to call it something since it doesn’t fit into any defined category, so he obliges them.

“At first I called it folk art, but then it morphed into contemporary folk art because I’m creating images that I’m seeing today,” he explains. But that confused a few people because, well, it still looked old. So he finally settled on contemporary primitive folk art, which has met with no complaints.

It doesn’t matter anyway, because here’s his own definition: “I’m taking found objects and making art.”

What is it made of?

Sticks. Rocks. Beads. Tin scraps. Moth-eaten sweaters. Old model ships. Papier-mâché. Bottle caps. Wig hair. Pieces of old porches. Rubber duckies. Wheels from an old baby carriage. Thrown-out medicine cabinets. Bits of yarn. Old fence slats. Barbed wire. Alarm clocks. The paper slip from a Hershey’s Kiss candy. A birthday party hat. Old wire. Ad infinitum …

Presidents, most notably Washington and Lincoln (see below), are frequent subjects of Lambert’s art. Here Lambert holds “Father of his Country,” painted tin and cabinet-wood

Where do you find this stuff?

The better question is where doesn’t he find it?

Friends call when they’re heading to the dump: “Is there anything you want me to look for?”

Carpenters and construction workers pull into his dooryard to offer him leftover scraps from job sites.

And when he leaves his apartment and studio in an attached adjacent barn, he never knows what he’ll find on the doorstep when he returns.

Then again, there’s already so much material in reserve that when a buddy occasionally drops off something in the barn, Lambert may not notice it for a while.

When he’s out and about, Lambert keeps an eye peeled for something that might work, either now or at some point in the future. “I’m always scrounging,” he gleefully admits.

Nothing is sacred — or out of contention. The seat from an old outhouse, a stovepipe —  everything’s fair game, and everything inspires.

And it doesn’t necessarily have to be old. The birdcage that imprisons a cat with a bird perched on top came from Pier One. “If I want to keep making these I can’t find them unless I go online or find one by accident,” he says.

How does New Hampshire inspire you?

The real question is, how doesn’t it?

He’s lived his whole life in the Granite State, he says. “How would I ever move?”

Where do you get your ideas?

Everything speaks to him; it’s simply unavoidable.

And since he works both with household castoffs and stuff rustled up from nearby woods, one thing often naturally leads to another.

Say he’s running low on cats to sell in the League stores. He always starts with the tail: a stick. He’ll glance at a pile of sticks in his studio, but if nothing has just the right twist or turn or kink, he’ll head off into the woods for more. But he often gets sidetracked when he finds a stick that reminds him of something else, so he’ll go off on a whole new tangent, leaving the cats temporarily abandoned — until he spots a sick that would make a perfect feline tail.

“It’s like osmosis,” he says. “Everything just changes all the time and I just witness it. It’s not a conscious effort on my part. I watch it happen, I watch my hands, and I just get lost in the process.”

Where do you work?

His studio is, shall we say, a bit disorganized — he refers to it as “organized chaos” — but admittedly no different than a certain writer of similar temperament. The only difference is that said writer works with paper, pencils and laptop, while Lambert has potentially injurious materials overhead and underfoot.

“The challenge has been to maintain an environment that’s safety conscious, but then again, I work in a barn,” he says. “It’s not a typical studio environment. It’s not neat and organized. Besides, this is how I work.”

How long does it take to make each piece?

“A lifetime.”

What do you like about the annual League of New Hampshires Craftsmen’s Fair?

After spending years setting up at shows and fairs up and down the East Coast, these days Lambert only does the annual League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s Fair in Sunapee, the oldest crafts fair in the country. Given the way he works and the naturally jumbled state of his studio, Lambert admits to holding onto a bit of nostalgia about his early years at the fair.

“People would just show up with sawhorses and put stuff down,” he says, and he’d do likewise, throwing his booth together willy-nilly. “People like going to yard sales and they like to discover things.” At other shows, he admits to hesitating before entering a booth that looks too fancy and unapproachable, which is why he likes to keep his own a little jumbled, though standards at the fair require considerable decorum.

“Bottle cap Mermaid,” twine, costume jewelry, bottle caps and porch railing top

Each summer, he strolls around the fairgrounds to survey the other booths, and lately he’s noticed a disturbing trend. “Everyone’s getting older,” he says. “There are no new younger people coming in.” It’s a trend he attributes to diminished art programs in the schools, but also to society in general. A few years ago, Lambert was taken aback when a man came into his booth and told him that his work — and the fair — was a vanishing breed. “He said, ‘Soon you won’t be able to go to a fair and see people who make stuff selling their own work, it’ll just be online,’” Lambert recalls. And the artwork will be smaller. While today’s hipsters and the makers and DIY movements are growing, he says they primarily work with different media, typically smaller items to sell on Etsy that are also easy to ship.

He particularly likes talking with people he meets at the fair. “I don’t have much contact with the outside world in my work,” he says. “When you’re working at home, you tend to have a bit of tunnel vision, but when I walk around the fair I see potters and jewelers and see how they do stuff.” Though he’s a loner at heart — and puts on a pretty good gruff-artist act — there’s something else he particularly relishes about the fair.

“I believe that the work is just an excuse to talk to each other,” he says. “Occasionally, someone will come into the booth and we start talking and it’s like we’ve known each other in another lifetime. Other times people will start to tell me really personal stories, and sometimes I think, ‘Why are you telling me this stuff?’”

But he admits it’s a testament to the strength of his work that encourages people to start spilling their guts to him minutes after walking into his booth.

Is there anything you regret selling?

“All of it.”

What do people do with your work?

The first time you encounter Lambert’s work at his Sunapee booth or hanging on the wall at a League shop, you’d be excused for standing there for a moment slack-jawed, trying to take it all in. But Lambert says he’s more gobsmacked by what happens after a customer brings their piece home.

“It’s almost like they have a religious experience,” he says. “I’ve had countless customers tell me that my pieces are much stronger when they’re by themselves.”

A few years back, he created a large piece depicting a group of baby pigs in a huddle, their leather ears poking out from the picture. Lambert sprinkled a few quotes about friendship around the perimeter of the frame in pinks and light grays, and when he visited the customer at her home and came face-to-face with the work hung on a purple wall, he just froze. “It was absolutely incredible to just walk into that room; it just jumped out at me,” he says.

Susan Dispensa lives in Danbury, and she has 13 of Lambert’s works in her collection. She purchased her first piece — a fox in a henhouse — in 2007 at Sunapee. It’s an old window with four painted horizontal panels: one contains a hen, one shows an egg, another is background, and the last panel displays the face of a fox with a carved wooden nose jutting out. It’s still her favorite.

“Jim’s art is accessible and imaginative, and anyone can enjoy it,” she says. “His art makes me smile, and his message is peace and happiness.”

“It’s just a bunch of sticks and wire,” he says. “But I really like the fact that I can take junk and make a piece that has that kind of effect on people.”

What are you up to lately?

“I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing,” he says. “After all, I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

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