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Surf Shacks 057 – Jim Olarte

Jim Olarte is an artist in every sense of the word, from his unique found object works to the way he lives his life. Stepping into his beach bungalow in Laguna Beach is like walking onto another planet — or a scene out of movie mashup of Avatar meets Pirates of the Caribbean. Upon arrival, you are led down a rickety outdoor staircase lined with a yellow, braided snake of nautical rope that stretches almost thirty yards. At the base of the stairs, you are greeted with a scene that is truly out of this world: long tangles of rope braids hang beneath deck ceiling above like colorful jungle vines, found seashells and beach detritus dangle in the form of intricate, hand-made mobiles room dividers and blinds. Then there are tables with his prized beach-combing finds all laid out and organized neatly, like some pirate treasure room of sorts. Jim is a simple and humble man, but like any true artist, he is also a character layered with complexities and eccentricities that are both charming and intriguing. If you are already looking for Jim on Instagram, don’t bother, he’s still rocking a clamshell flip phone. Old school; just what you would expect from a guy who ran one of the hottest and most influential vintage stores in Southern California for decades. After meeting him, I have so many more questions for Jim, but we’ll just start with this interview for now.

Who are you? Tell us a little about yourself.

I am a professional beachcomber and macrame craftsman, collector, bibliophile, and Aquaman.

Where are you from?

I’m from Southern California, born in San Pedro.

How long have you lived here in Laguna?

Since 1977.

What are your favorite parts about the area in which you live?

The Pacific Ocean and South Swell Donuts in south Laguna.

Laguna seems to have had a pretty strong art community over the years. What makes this area such a good place for artists to call home?

Laguna is blessed with an amazing coastline and being secluded makes for an idyllic environment that encourages creativity.

My family has a long history of driving down the coast. I have photos of me at the Pottery Shack and Husky Boy Burgers when I was five years old. There are photos of us at Killer Dana before the breakwater was built. So Laguna has always been special to me personally. Growing up in Irvine (University High, class of ’74) and coming through Laguna Canyon to check the surf and driving up the coast to Huntington, Laguna always seemed like the most likely place to settle.

After high school, I spent three and a half years on Maui. I did the whole backpack and sleeping on the beach, body surfing “Slaughterhouse Beach,” bus boy, stoner lifestyle. A friend of mine was living in Laguna at the time, so I landed here in 1977 and never left.

Another reason Laguna is so special was that it was a “gay community” and we always felt comfortable here. My partner, Larry and I built our business and life here (over 24 years). I was living here in Laguna when I met two wonderful women (a lesbian couple) who wanted a baby. I had been in a relationship with Larry for about 10 years at that point and we had been friends with these women for about 7 or 8 years, and together we created a “family.” I now have a 26 year old son and a 3 year old grand daughter who all still live in the area.

Plus, having lived here since 1977 and having a store, we know a lot of people. Laguna is and will always be a “beach town” and I always appreciated the diverse community with all it’s faults and rewards.

When did you you first get into beach combing and creating your unique style of art with found objects from the sea?

All my life. My family always went to the cliffs in Palos Verde and beach combed there. I also always had jobs that required me to be creative.

When I was going to high school in Irvine, my mom wanted macrame plant hangers. Being a good son, I taught myself and learned macrame. I sold through some art fairs in Irvine. I kept this craft inside til years later when Steve Jones from Quiksilver asked me to make some macrame hangings for the Roxy stores. So then I began making large scale macrame and had an exhibit at the Craft And Folk Art Museum (across from LACMA). I created two large shell sculptures for Tommy Bahama in NYC, a 35 foot white macrame installation at A’Maree’s in Newport Beach, and many other commercial and private installations.

My craft and talent has opened many doors for me.

How would you describe your art or your personal style?

My craft and personal style is very “strict and precise.” I am always thinking of “scale.” And personally, I will only wear certain brands and vintage clothing.

What are some specific projects you’ve been working on lately?

I’ve been doing some large scale macrame installations at Roberts-Irvine Vineyard up in Medford, Oregon, Lot 579 at Pacific City in Huntington Beach, the Hunting Lodge, the Four Seasons in Lanai, Hawaii.

As a bonafide “beach person,” it must be great to live to close to the ocean. What are your favorite parts about your home?

My patio / studio. Seeing my various collections and obsessions out there. NO TV.

Do you surf? What first drew you to the ocean?

I can surf (I’m an occasional longboarder), though I would rather be in the water, whether it be swimming, exploring or sailing… I was raised in the ocean.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever found on the beach or in the ocean?

I have so many collections of “detritus:” fossils, sharks teeth, arrowheads, beach glass, lead weights, etc.

My beach of choice for the last ten years has been Cameo Shores Coves, just south of Corona del Mar. I take the bus, do my hike and explore all five or six coves there. So most of the time the REAL treasure is the serenity and quietness that I find there. I am very adverse to crowds. I want to be the first person on the beach seeing untrampled tide lines and beach glass.

I did find, last year on my birthday, an unopened Vail of marijuana tincture. Since it was my birthday, I opened it and celebrated. Also, one morning, I was low on cash and all of a sudden, floating in the water was a $20 bill…

For a person who spends so much time beach combing, it must be pretty depressing to see how much trash you pull out on a daily basis.

There IS ALWAYS TRASH on the beach (Cameo Shores Coves). As it is close to Newport Harbor, people are always throwing stuff off their boats. I do my part and pick up plastic. I go through phases of my dedication to picking up trash though. As much as I care about the tide pools and coves, I find myself being pissed off and remember that I come to the beach for the serenity and calmness it brings me. So I pick up plastic bottles, beer cans, towels, t-shirts, shoes, sunglass frames, snorkels, masks, fins, plastic straws out of the water, throw them away and continue on my hike. I cannot clean the entire beach, nor do I want to. I mean, sure, it would be amazing to have it be pristine and beautiful, but that’s not realistic unfortunately. There is such an awareness of our environment nowadays though and so many people are pitching in. If only we ALL did our part… We humans are so careless and selfish about our coastline and environment.

Tell us about your previous venture with the Locals Only shop and your set designing / prop styling days. Are there any stories or projects that have stood out over the years?

In 1982 we started buying & selling vintage clothing (by “vintage” I mean 1940’s–1970’s men’s & women’s clothes) and this was before “the Internet.” My partner, Larry Craig and I opened a small space (9 x 13 ft.) with a pink neon sign: “LOCALS ONLY.”

We sold Levis 501, Aloha shirts, gaberdine cowboy shirts, 1940’s rayon floral dresses, leopard jackets, etc… The English Beat & The Stray Cats were BIG. We edited and presented vintage clothing as fashion. All the high school kids and designers from Shawn Stussy, Michael Tomson, Jeff Yokoyama all started shopping with us. Laguna was the home of many surf companies and through our business we got to know them all. We had three locations in the “Sleepy Hollow” area of Laguna during our 22 years.

During the mid 80’s, Locals Only became well know to many collectors, Japanese dealers, German & English tourists and tons of Laguna Beach high schoolers, surfers, models, punks, and rockabilly kids. The store was tightly edited and we followed fashion closely. Customers included Lisa Eisner, Bette Midler, Lee Rocker ( Stray Cats), Malcom McClaren & Lauren Hutton. There was a amazing moment when the Vogue Fashion Director, Carlyne Cerf de Dudzelle came in with Christy Turlington, Estelle, Helena Christenson, Karen Mulder and they were just CRAZY for Levis 501’s. All those beautiful supermodels trying on used Levis, we were STOKED.

This was a time when whole design teams from Abercrombie & Fitch, Quiksilver, Roxy, Billabong, Stussy, Gotcha would come in to get samples to reference and had a budget to buy stuff. No one had iPhones or anything like we have today to get references from, so they just bought loads of vintage clothes. You used to be able to buy superb vintage clothing as this was a time where if you had a good eye and a vision, you could make a lot of money. There was no eBay, you had to do research, dig deep and be “in the know” to find very specific materials. The internet killed this experience in a lot of ways.

We were really famous for our selection of Levi 501s. And through doing our window displays, I caught the attention of Steve Jones, who hired me and soon I was working on photo shoots and designing some trade show booths at Gotcha. That led to some modeling for Stussy, Gotcha, Quiksilver and creating “sets” for photo shoots (Roxy, Quiksilver, Abercrombie & Fitch Quarterlies, Union Bay, Swell, etc.). I got to work with Art Brewer, Dewey Nicks, Stephen Zeigler, Pamela Hanson, Tom Adler, Mark Oblow, George Salas, Bruce Weber, Mike McGill, Michael Voorhees and I worked a lot.

After 24 years of retail (vintage clothing), my favorite memory is the amazing array of models, personalities, designers, photographers and life long friends that shopped and were inspired by “Locals Only.”

What was it like working with Bruce Weber on the A&F Quarterlies?

EPIC. Bruce Weber has such an amazing “eye” and style.

It’s always a case of “who you know.” I was working with Dewey Nicks while he was shooting for Roxy. I was the prop location stylist and he was good friends with Lisa Eisner. He was interested in hiring me for a Union Bay job. Lisa, being friends with Dimitri Levas (Bruce Weber’s stylist) suggested that we work together when A&F was shooting here in California. We met and discussed what they were looking for: a “surf shack.” I had some old photographs of surf shacks and proposed that they build one. A&F built a 3-sided “surf shack” at San Onofre so all the models and Bruce Weber could shoot inside. Gathering and using my personal collection of furnishings and Steve Jones’ collection of thrift store surf paintings, we created this “set.” We shot at Crystal Cove, before they restored the cottages. It was amazing – everything from the models, the whole Abercrombie team, shooting with Bruce Weber, the HUGE Budgets. We had a Lion at Crystal Cove with Nat & Beau Young, Tony Hawk skating off the surf shack, a chimp, an elephant. And since I had put together and furnished the whole surf shack set, I was asked to write descriptions for the A&F Quarterly / Spring Break 99 issue and got credit.

After that, I was hired again and went to Florida for a two week shoot. And since A&F was sourcing props for their Hollister stores, I was also hired to find unusual props. The synopsis for buying: “an adventurer traveled and collected artifacts in the south pacific,” pretty specific, which I was good at. Through our store, “Locals Only,” a woman came in, she started talking to Larry and since they both grew up in Laie, Hawaii, turns out her dad was married to Marlon Brando’s wife’s sister (so they had gone to Tahiti during the filming of “Mutiney on the Bounty,” during the 1950’s). She was living in San Pedro and was a pack rat. The next day I drove to San Pedro and spent the next three days going through his garages, yard and junk stashes. I brought home Tahitian Canoes, spears, blow fish, wood surfboards. Amazing stuff. Abercrombie & Fitch bought most of it all from me to use for their Hollister prototype store, then they had those pieces reproduced to go in all the other stores. So A&F bought stuff and our collections grew as well.

Any parting thoughts, words of wisdom, sage advice?

I am a HUGE advocate of the Nike mantra: “JUST DO IT” and “NO to single use Straws”

/ Photography and interview by Matt Titone

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