Local artist Jim Harpole's unique style has a niche market that reaches all the way around the world. His one-of-a-kind paintings have been sold in all 50 states and in 36 countries across the globe.
What sets Harpole apart from all other painters? The fact that he uses clam shells as his canvas, calling the finished pieces "shellscapes."
"I was looking for pearls, and I painted anyway. I took a shell home one day and I thought, 'That looks like a natural diorama.' I started painting them in '75, selling them in '75, and I've done over 18,600 since then - about four and a half tons," Harpole said.
A few years after Harpole came up with the idea for shellscapes, an NBC affiliate out of Green Bay did a story on his artwork.
"NBC Network picked it up, so it was shown around the country," Harpole said. "I didn't get to see it because I didn't know it was going to be on NBC Network, but I started getting calls and letters from all over the country."
Averaging one shellscape a day since 1975, Harpole has perfected the technique. The scenery he paints ranges from deserts to Wisconsin winters to seascapes.
"You can do just about anything on the shells," Harpole said. "I think Wisconsin winter scenes on the shells are the most popular, because if you get some light coming behind it, you wind up with a warm winter scene."
The winter landscapes are so popular that they outsold portraits of palm trees in Hawaii.
"It was funny, I was the only one selling winter scenes in Hawaii," Harpole said. "I'd take the shells out of the rivers here, paint Wisconsin winter scenes on them, send them to Hawaii, people would go on vacation over there and say, 'Wow, this looks like home,' and they'd buy them and bring them back here."
Harpole worked with an Hawaiian shop owner who requested palm tree shellscapes, only to find that tourists were uninterested in yet another palm tree-themed souvenir.
"She had so much palm tree stuff, I said, 'Here's a dozen winter scenes. If you don't sell them within a week, I'll buy them back,'" Harpole said. "I went in there three days later, and she said, 'I sold all the winter scenes, so bring me all you can.' After that, it was just a continuous thing, sending them over there until she retired."
Harpole's favorite subject matter to paint in his shellscapes is one of the United States' national emblems: the bald eagle.
"I came up with the eagle in 1976. I could see the sweep of the eagle's wings in there, but it needed a head," Harpole said. "On that side of the shell, the hinge sticks out a bit, so I put a gob of paint there, and took my brush and sculpted it. It took about a week and a half for it to dry, but that's what happened with the eagle."
For the most part, Harpole paints freestyle, without needing an example of the subject matter he is painting. The exception is when he is working on a specific scene or custom portrait, like an old Wisconsin windmill, the USS Cricket steamboat, or a replica of a home or building.
"Now that steamboat there, that's Admiral Porter's steamboat on the Mississippi River during the Civil War. That was his flag ship. I looked at a picture to do that," Harpole said.
Many of Harpole's shellscapes come with an interesting story describing the origins of the painting.
"That's an old windmill from here in Wisconsin. It was a saw mill. What's interesting about that, the guy I did it for told me they had bells on the windmill, and when the wind would start blowing, they'd get out of bed and go out there and start working because they could only work when the wind was blowing," Harpole said.
As for his custom work, Harpole uses more than just clam shells for canvasses, and has integrated items such as saws, tables, turtle shells and ostrich egg shells into his artwork. In addition to incorporating unconventional objects with art, Harpole has used traditional media as well.
"When the old Woodruff Chamber of Commerce was here, I did a painting in there, and then they tore it down. We thought the wall was wood, and when it came time to tear the building down, it was concrete," Harpole said.
Up until last year, Harpole personally collected all of the clam shells used in his art from Wisconsin rivers.
"I handpicked all the shells until last year, when the DNR shut down taking live clams in Wisconsin. So that's the end of the pearling industry in Wisconsin, when they shut that down," Harpole said.
The years Harpole spent searching for pearls has made him very knowledgeable of the organic gem, and he regularly shares what he knows, describing the pearl's history in Wisconsin.
"I've talked to people about pearls all the way from pre-schoolers to the American Gem Society," Harpole said. "The button industry in Wisconsin used to be huge. Merrill had six button factories. Fremont had two button factories. The major industry of Stevens Point in 1915 was mother of pearl buttons. That's how big the industry was."
After all of his pearl searches, Harpole has had some incredible finds.
"One pearl I found is in the Smithsonian. It came out of Honey Creek in Waterford, Wisconsin," Harpole said. "All the jewelers around the United States put this collection together for the Smithsonian. Indiana and Wisconsin have the only pearls in the collection."
According to Harpole, Wisconsin pearls were a grade name in the 1900s. Since the northern water is colder, pearls are created slower, forming a tighter crystalline structure.
"The most pearls I found in one clam was 600. It came out of Honey Creek down in Waterford. I opened it up, and it looked like it was a Siamese clam. It took about four hours tearing that sac apart, pulling those pearls out," Harpole said.
And the biggest pearl he has ever found?
"This pearl came out of the Fox River at Burlington in about '78. I was offered $10,000 when I found it, and I said, 'Nope, it's worth more than that. I'd rather keep it,'" Harpole said.
The giant pearl is considered a museum piece, sizing up to 1-3⁄4 inches by 1-1⁄4.
After all of his years handling the shellfish, Harpole has never had his fingers pinched in a clam's mouth. Though Harpole has evaded a run-in with a clam, his son, at the age of 10, had a painful encounter.
"He's never gone clamming with me since then. He sat on the bank and cried. That clam was 150 years old, and I've still got it at home," Harpole said. "But he got his finger in it, and he was yelling, and I didn't have a knife with me to pry it open. I just had to pull his finger out of it."
In order to determine a clam's age, Harpole compared it to counting a tree's rings. According to Harpole, and unfortunately for his son, a clam of this size and age has a bite force of 600 pounds per square-inch pressure.
"It's kind of like a shark's jaw. He swears up and down he didn't really mean to stick his finger in it. He was the only casualty I know of," Harpole said.
With all of the pearls Harpole has collected over the years, he decided to share some of what he has with his customers.
"What I'm doing now, since the Wisconsin pearling industry's over, I'm putting a little Wisconsin pearl back in each shell as a souvenir of the pearling industry of Wisconsin," Harpole said.
This tribute to Wisconsin's pearl industry adds to the exclusivity of Harpole's work. There have been artists who try to mimic his work, but it is not the same thing.
"In '79, after this appeared on NBC Network news and I went back to Florida, there were several people there painting for shops, but they were seashells and stuff like that," Harpole said. "They never took off like the ones I paint. They weren't as detailed and the subject matter was different than mine."
With work that can be found across the world, Harpole has indeed found a niche art market.
For more information, visit harpolegaller.com. To see Harpole in action and to view his finished products, look for him in the Minocqua Trig's entrance way, and he also has shellscapes for sale at Gas Light Square.
Sarah Hirsch may be reached at email@example.com.
Posted: Thursday, August 7, 2014
Article comment by:
I loved finding this article. I used to show a large pony in Wisconsin when I lived there and was a child member of Welsh of Wisconsin. One weekend show in 1978, the first place prize for all of the classes included a ribbon and a handpainted shell. I brought mine out today to show the treasures that I hung on to (I won 3 of them that weekend) and decided to research the artist. I was thrilled to find your article. Thank you.