Friends, fans pay tribute to Rockford artist Jim Julin


Jim Julin at the Symbol dedication, 2002. (Photo by Doc Slafkosky)

Staff Report

Well-known and much-loved Rockford artist and craftsman Jim Julin died Sunday night, July 22, after a short illness. He was 56.

A fixture in downtown Rockford, the artist was known for his sculptures made from reclaimed materials.

Julin created many visible works throughout the Rockford area, including the giant chair in front of Riverfront Museum Park, 711 N. Main St.; “fire and ice” sculptures during New Year’s Eve festivals; and many works throughout Rockford’s Anderson Japanese Gardens.

Upon learning of Julin’s passing, friends and art enthusiasts left flowers at some of Julin’s public sculptures in Rockford. Rockford Art Museum’s Greenwich Village Art Fair, which is set for Sept. 15-16, has been dedicated to “the creativity and kindness of Rockford artist Jim Julin.”

Following are some tributes submitted to The Rock River Times by some of Julin’s friends and fans.

Treasured mentor and great friend

By Tim Gruner
Curator, Anderson Japanese Gardens

The construction and maintenance of Anderson Japanese Gardens has been a collaborative effort by many skilled hands since 1978. Jimmy Julin started working at the garden in 1984 and stayed until 1999 when he went off to work for himself on a myriad of projects. My time at the garden began in 1989, and I was blessed to spend 10 years with him on a wide array of incredible projects, all while his creative life as an artist was in full bloom. His engineering skills, problem-solving ability, incredible work ethic, attention to aesthetics and on-the-job mentoring have left a mark on me that I am eternally grateful for.


As with this piece displayed in a 2006 Kortman Gallery show, some of Jim Julin’s art was reflected in his interest in “plumb-bobs,” which were inspired by his grandfather’s use of the carpenter’s tool. (Photo by Doc Slafkosky/Kortman Gallery)

Hallmarks of a day with Jim were methodical progress on a project, so that it worked right the first time, set in a framework of daily side-splitting laughter. In the 2,500 or so days that I began the day at the break table with Jimmy and the crew, I believe I learned something about craftsmanship and life virtually every day. In all those years, not a cross word was spoken between us; my respect for him as an artist, craftsman and human being only grew as time went on.

Jim was a joy to be around. Not only was he gifted with the things mentioned above, I was fortunate to be part of a very small audience in the shop or on the job when Jim would whistle a tune, which he did at a grand master’s level, sing in his beautiful voice an old hymn or something like “Old Man River,” which could have landed him on any quality stage, or go through some Tom Waits as if it were Tom himself standing right next to the table saw.

After Jim left the garden, he continued to be a treasured mentor and one of my greatest assets and friends. If I needed technical, material or engineering help with anything, he was always willing to help. I am so happy I took the time to call him on a regular basis, excited about a project that I had overseen that actually worked when completed, to say “Jimmy, I could not have done it without you, I want to thank you for that.” I will miss him more that words can express. I will continue to be inspired by him and will treasure our friendship for the rest of my life.

Big Jim Julin’ will be missed

By Stanley Campbell
Executive Director, Rockford Urban Ministries

Big Jim Julin was struck down by cancer.

F— cancer. F— cancer and the fact that we can’t kill it.

Others can tell you about how Jim was a great artist, a fun person. Let me tell you what I saw in just the three short visits I made before he died.

SwedishAmerican Hospital did all they could to make Jim comfortable, and adhere to the family’s requests, even though Jim had no medical insurance. Jim had gone into the hospital because the pain from a ruptured hernia was too great. The hospital found him full of cancer. If there’d been an affordable way to check up on one’s health, Jim might have availed himself and maybe discovered the cancerous growth in time to do something about it.

Secondly, there was some question concerning Jim’s wishes of the disposition of his meager property. So, while other people are “raising a toast” or “having one last shot of whiskey,” I, to honor Jim, will draw up a last will and testimony.

My friend

By Reid Jutras

My wife and I returned from a camping trip a few years back, and I realized on our excursion how much a good hiking staff might have made a difference on some of those climbs in the Black Hills. When you picture such a tool in your mind, you come up with two different images: one a modern, articulated monolith that probably tells you your GPS and how out of shape you are, or a smooth, slightly grizzled, old knot of wood that will hold the stories of your travels. I knew that I wanted the latter of the two, and my thoughts turned to Jim.

We finally ran into Jim one night as he was holding court at Octane. He might think different, but we all know that Jim’s voice and laughter ruled over a room. I told him of our trip and of my desire to track down a piece of wood to begin working on a walking staff. Jim listened intently, and then launched into an educated tale of the different woods that would suit my needs.

Out of the mouth of any other person, this monologue about different wood would have bored anyone to tears. But Jim had the gift of a teacher, and his words would come alive as you found yourself nodding along to information that you did not know was right or wrong. He finally decided upon hickory being the specific wood I needed, of which he just happened to have a surplus in at the moment. He was happy to let me have it, and would hear no mention of compensation. Each attempt at even trying to set up a time to drive by and pick it up was met with a wave of his bear-like hand in dismissal. He’d drop it off, no need to get your car dirty. The next day or so, a bundle of 10 or so perfectly lengthened hickory logs were deposited next to my garage.

What was once a token gesture from a passing conversation has become an amazing gift of a great friend. But that’s just who he was. I was able to thank Jim the next time I ran into him with the gift of whiskey in one of its many forms, something that he would never pass on. I remember we sat and discussed something; the topic was of spending time on the river and was made fuzzy by the subsequent rounds of whiskey, but the memory is not. And now, as I look at those pieces of wood that have been a project I just never started, I recall this story and that amazing man. I look forward to beginning my first wood project and thinking of the man who brought so much beauty in so many forms into our lives. Cheers, Jim!

Favorite memory of Jim Julin

By Becky Seiter-Shaffer

When I heard the news about Jim Julin, the memories virtually overwhelmed my senses. As I tried to filter the random memories, and whittle it down to a favorite, the choice was a difficult one.

Would it be the time we tried to empty our lungs of every last breath, allowing our bodies to sink to the bottom of my parents’ swimming pool so we could watch the patterns and reflections of lightning through the water during a midnight storm? Or the late-night car ride with Dan Kasten and Parry Donze in search of liquid refreshment, when we laughed so hard that physical pain made it impossible to steer the car? (Details of which I will carry to the grave, because I’m pretty sure my son reads The Rock River Times.) Maybe the New Year’s Eve snowstorm of 1985 when he told me that his old blue truck could plow through a 6-foot snow drift and not get stuck. No, couldn’t be that one, we were freezing while waiting for my father to come pull us out. Could it be the “neighborhood”? That infamous 12th Street neighborhood where I lived, when Christine Julin, Robin Leifheit, the Donzes and Kastens all lived within a one-block area. The gatherings were almost a daily/nightly ritual that commenced with “small talk” and usually ended with solutions to the world’s problems. I remember one such discussion among the Donze brothers and Jimmy that may have lasted six months, the definition of the word “art.”

Then, it came to me, my perfect Jim Julin memory. Fishing. We spent six days fishing on Petenwell Flowage in central Wisconsin with Betsy Kaske and Dan Voll. It was a week filled with laughter, friendship, good food, late-night conversations around the campfire and beautiful days. But the highlight of that trip was the final night, when we sat on the pier in silence surrounded by the most amazing sunset I had ever witnessed. The only sounds were the plunks of our lures into the water as we tried in vain to catch one more Northern, and the melodic perfection from Dan and Betsy’s guitars.

That is how I choose to remember Jimmy in my heart, with the wind in his hair, a contented smile on his face, his feet dangling in the water and gazing out upon all that he loved; the beauty of this world. He was at peace in the moment. And, at this moment, I wish for my friend the same peace for all eternity.

Saving shrubs and iris plants

By Ed Yavitz and Lory Posteraro

One day, Jim happened by a Dumpster and found some shrubs and iris plants had been discarded. He arrogated some and planted them in our garden. Each spring, they bloom, in thanks to Jim.

How to help with $$

As a result of funeral and estate financial challenges, please send funds to Chris Julin, Jim’s sister, via PayPal. Go to the site, click on “Transfer,” then “Send Someone Money,” then enter your e-mail, then enter Chris’ e-mail, then enter the amount you wish to pay, then fill out the credit card info, then click on “Personal” and “Gift” and PayPal should not charge any fees. Another option is to e-mail Betsy Youngquist at She will give you Chris’ address, so you can send a check.

From the July 25-31, 2012, issue

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