No Separations – Jim Gelfand (1952-2014)

Jim Gelfand, Untitled

“Can you let me in?”

I was on my way to to work, leaving my apartment building. “Do you live here?” I’m sure I couldn’t hide my skepticism. Head to toe, this didn’t seem like a person who had a home. He reeked. His teeshirt and ripped pants had to have been worn for at least a week straight. He was wearing a different tattered shoe on each foot.  His fingernails were filthy talons. His grey hair and beard, wiry curly masses and disguised his face but for his eyes.  His back was arched which cocked his head at a peculiar angle, and his arm hung somewhat paralyzed on one side.

“Yes, apartment 5d.”

“Can you show me on the buzzer?”

“Jim Gelfand.”

I opened the door for him. He struggled up the step, panted heavily and almost fell over. I steadied his arm and took him to the couch in the lobby. Now I was curious.

“I have Parkinson’s disease.”

Context is everything I suppose. The super had just changed the outside locks. “Can I help you get into your apartment?”

“That’d be great.” After letting him catch his breathe, we went into the elevator and headed up. He was still panting, though less heavily. He hit the fourth floor button. We get out and he heads to the apartment in the far corner. He fumbled with his keys, adorned with a snow globe fetus suspended in a clear pregnant belly. “Which apartment did you say?” We were on the forth floor. He lived on the fifth. Back into the elevator. I knew when we finally approached the correct apartment, because the funk from a man living in solitude in a broken body greeted us. Jim took out his keys again and with great care, slowly pushed the door open with his body. “Will you come in and sit with me for a second? JUST DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING.”

I was not prepared.

We were greeted by eight foot totem poles with eagles and orcas imposing their presence from the corners of the entryway and living room. No lights were on, but plenty of windows casted eery glows throughout. He headed to the bedroom. I followed him. I peaked into the bathroom. The walls behind the toilet were black with shit. Words were scraped into it. He sat on the bed. “Do you mind if I look around?”

The more I did, the more overwhelming the details became. The space was filled with artifacts from his past and the lives of others: antique dolls he found on the street, dollar store disco balls and cheap glittered knickknacks, decrepit toys, Roman columns, Southwest Native American imagery. In the living room, bright colored stained glass bounced on freshly painted turquoise walls. Cracked plastic/porcelain dolls surrounded by relics from his own past. An album titled Method Acting exposed the ambitions of a younger man. I had walked into a living mausoleum.

Jim Gelfand, Untitled

Since that initial introduction, my wonder increases every time I see Jim and his apartment. Instead of numbers, the clock in his bedroom is made from Barbie faces.  

Jim Gelfand, Untitled

Time isn’t measured inside this space but it passes. Jim has been living with Parkinson’s Disease for 20 years. He wakes up with the sun and goes to bed with it. The only appliance aside from his stove utilized for its common function is a 10-year-old discolored television set, usually on during the day. Lately a social worker comes five days a week to assist Jim. On his off days, Jim walks to a local shelter for meals. He is not a hoarder, but a methodical creator. He has to be. The severity of his pain necessitates purpose with every movement. Every object in his apartment is placed with the symbolic purpose of an Egyptian tomb, though dedicated to the flux of the present.


Context is everything I suppose. Jim is homeless. Jim is eccentric. Jim collects. Jim deals with his disease. He strips the familiar objects from other peoples’ lives of their assumed function and reincarnates them over and over again narratives of death, disease and decay, alongside beauty, whimsy and laughter. One day the disco ball necklace is used to pull a pig on wheels behind a toy car along the baseboards. The next it adorns the clothed porcelain figurine looming over a cobra.

Jim Gelfand, Untitled

It’s difficult to distinguish a single piece, but why should there be separations? He is an artist in a romantic sense; his life is his work. The entirety of the myriad relationships between his life, his emotions, these objects and their narratives are impossible to experience singularly. In this sense, his work is not separate from the grotesque degeneration his body is going through. His molar fell out in August and it lies next to rings and his house key on an incense pedestal, it’s December now.

Jim Gelfand, Untitled

the totality of this disease
waiting like a henchman
to have its way
through the inevitable days
that cut you off at the knees
and bring you down
like a lion with its prey
the same deadpan eyes
there’s no escape
the disease won’t wait


The prewar architecture is accented with meticulously drawn poems like the one above, scrawled in capital letters on the floors, ceilings, walls, entryways, doors, bathroom, bedroom, even behind the radiator.  

toiletSome are desperate in nature and furiously written coming from a man in a body that functions independently from his mind. Some are clever word plays, like the boxing gloves attached to the arms of the arm chair named “LOST AND FOUND” and “FINDING LOSS.” Some are about love.


Imagine that every action is accompanied by pain.  Time becomes an artificial marker imposed by an external world.  Time passes in Jim’s home, it exists, but without symbolic/arbitrary notions.  Yes, Jim lives rather isolated.  My thoughts in the beginning of my interactions with Jim involved things like, “where is this man’s family?” and “why isn’t he in a treatment center?” But these are my arbitrary distinctions and judgements of how someone should be dealing with a specific circumstance, like Parkinson’s Disease, at a particular time in his life, in his 60’s.  Jim is free from these prescribed and codified notions of how he should exist, and this evident in the work he has made for decades. His home is his Chocolate Factory. His home is his treatment center where Jim reconciles with his reality constantly. He does it by immortalizing himself directly on to his bedroom floor in permanent marker, surrounded by his empty prescription bottles.

The recliner chair is occupied by a friendly gathering of reclining figures, including faceless dolls, naked dolls, portraits of himself, a looming eyeball, a radio and copies of his album released in 1980. ONE THING LED TO THE OTHER.



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