The Fossil Guy. The Mushroom Guy. Or maybe better known as the Sculpture Head Guy. Jim Sherpa is the man within the white house on Giles St. that keeps watch over Second Dam.
Known most for his large sculptures of heads and animals, including but not limited to a lion and a tarantula, along with Bill Murray and Pee Wee Herman, Sherpa contains multitudes and could lay claim to the title of Ithaca’s Renaissance Man.
When I first greeted Sherpa at his home, he was working on a painting that, at the time, was just a red circle on a grey slab. He had aspirations to turn it into a Statue of Liberty motif that reflects the current state of America.
“I want people to know that ‘Liberals’ stand for liberty—for everyone, even you” he said. “‘Conservatives’ conserve. Everything. For themselves.”
Sherpa early on expressed a desire to understand how things work. A former theater arts major, whose foundational talents led him to where I found him on a sunny Thursday afternoon, quickly launched into a discussion of the local flora and fauna, complete with Latin phrasings.
In addition to his artwork that is as much a part of the architecture of the home as the shutters and nailed-on street numbers, Sherpa is an avid explorer of Ithaca’s woods and gorges. He has spent time cataloguing fossils around the area including what he described as our “City Fossil:” the plumalina plumaria.
In his pursuits, Sherpa has begun to understand what Ithaca was like long before any of us were around.
“I’m just a curious person,” he said. “I like to know things.”
A commission-based sculptor, he has spent most of his time recently focused on his other pursuits outside of his art due to the lack of public events for his sculptures to be featured at during the shutdowns. In the past, his work has appeared at Reggae Fest, Carmen Road Artist Quarters (CRAQ), and has been attached to bikes and floats to ride in parades and other events in the surrounding areas.
Besides the absence of work, quarantine has been a relatively smooth transition for him.
“I’m not particularly overly social,” he said. “I’m sociable, but I don’t need to be around a lot of people. So it hasn’t been terrible for me.”
During our interview, three cars slowed down to take a picture or to get a better look at some of the work that was on display. The house is almost like a local landmark, its exterior marked with sculptures that lend themselves to creating their own local lore.
But Sherpa, instead of leaning into the Boo Radley potential for local mythology, truly cares about the town he lives in and the street he has taken to protecting from people who threaten the natural sanctity by throwing out glass bottles and blocking the sidewalks, making it unsafe for pedestrians.
“I just want everyone to have a good time,” he said. “I’m not about hassling. I want everyone to be safe.”
Before coming to Ithaca, Sherpa moved to Oswego after leaving his theater arts major early, a decision he admits was a bit of a political statement that he now regrets with a laugh.
“It was just a way to stick my thumb up at the system and say ‘I earned it, but don’t need your piece of junk paper,’” he said. “Maybe not my best choice.”
Sherpa was drawn to the theater early on. Growing up in Syracuse, he performed in local shows and cabarets put on by his church.
“I was much acclaimed for playing crazy people, so I stopped acting when people thought that I was like the people I was playing,” he laughed. “But theater is the closest to my roots that I can get.”
After leaving school and moving to Oswego, he lived in a self-described little shack that overlooked a river. The shack had just a wood stove with no running water or insulation, but still possessed a certain charm, according to Sherpa. Before long, Sherpa and a friend of his, nicknamed “Colorblind James,” formed a jug band named “The Water Street Boys” after the little shack in Oswego. The band, which featured Sherpa singing and also playing the washtub bass, was a form of performance art and an expression of Sherpa’s feelings at the time.
“I was just a punk kid,” he said. “And me and my friends just scavenged all this sh*t and made everything beautiful out of the most amazing stuff.”
Much of Sherpa’s life deservedly belongs in a book. He talked of hitchhiking down to New Orleans and getting caught in blizzards before finding his footing down south and eventually bringing down the Water Street Boys to usher in their brand of style and performance complete with their Golden Age-inspired outfits.
“You can’t be involved with a scene in New Orleans without it being theatrical,” he joked. “After we showed up, all the street musicians started dressing better and making a lot more money. This one guy even thanked us.”
Sherpa eventually ended up in New Mexico, where his adventures continued in the form of an escaped kidnapping, a Native American revolt, and residing next to a nudist colony. But so begins with any traveler, life started to take form around him. In Sherpa’s case, his daughter was born and he moved back to the east coast with his new family. They eventually settled in Brooktondale in 1989, and after a while he relocated to his current house of iconic status.
“I love the culture and music here,” he said. “There are so many people doing so many good things and they are so talented.”
In his time, he has seen the city of Ithaca begin to take form with a range of positive and negative effects on the community. But Sherpa has always remained an integral and unique part of the town that seems like an extension of himself and his values.
After years of designing sets for local performance groups like the Kitchen Theatre and Ithaca Ballet, with some of the designs beginning to take form on his lawn, he was approached by a friend with a unique request.
“We need a giant five-foot head of Phil Collins,” he said, imitating his friend on the phone. “I said, ‘yeah, so why are you calling me?’”
Since the Collins head, which was papier-mâché on top of chicken wire, Sherpa has developed his own unique strategy to ensure that the heads stay dry even in the gloomiest and harshest of the Ithaca seasons. He calls it “déJim-mâché” a process similar to papier-mâché that uses old flannel fabric soaked in a mixture of old paint and glue that is layered over the frame to shape the object. Some of the creations light up, slide on cables, and are moveable.
“I think most of the time I’m always most proud of the ones I just finished,” he said when asked about which ones are his favorite. “But I’d probably say the lion and Bill Murray overall.”
He credits his own version of Bill Murray in “Ghostbusters” as helping him to bring back some of his painting skills that had been lost overtime. Mr. Murray can still be seen on his lawn behind the trees and army of knick-knacks.
Even though Sherpa is unaware of the effect he has had on the culture of Ithaca and the association his house and his art have for so many people in their connection to the town, there is a feeling that he will always be here. In some ways Ithaca is Gorges, but also Ithaca is the Mushroom Guy. Ithaca is the Sculpture Head Guy.
And Ithaca always will be a reflection of our local lore. From the Twelve Tribes, to the stories of Kurt Cobain’s ashes and Nabokov almost burning “Lolita” on East State St., Ithaca is and always will be our stories.