More Lives to Live: James Rigoni

Jim Rigoni and his dog Buddy pose outside the new RigoniWorks art gallery in Sister Bay. Photo by Len Villano.

Henry David Thoreau’s experiment in living simply at Walden Pond was only one of “several more lives” he had to live. In that same spirit, James Rigoni has opened Rigoniworks Art Gallery in Sister Bay. “I was a photographer, a computer programmer, a home builder, and an author,” Rigoni said. “Now I’m an artist!”

The gallery features multi-media sculptures, photographs, sketches, furniture, and functional pieces – work as varied as the artist’s past career. And in some respects those occupations have contributed to his success as an artist.

Visitors may find intriguing the low vessels Rigoni has created by welding a mosaic of metal items – including tools, nuts and bolts, and gears – into a smooth, openwork surface. Individual items tend to disappear into the pattern until the viewer looks more closely at the piece. These functional bowls, delicate in appearance but sturdy in construction, assemblages of found materials re-purposed as art, might serve as emblems of the artist’s life.

Although Rigoni’s work is featured in galleries both in Florida and California, he has had no formal art training beyond classes at his high school in Hurley, Wisconsin.

He learned photography through on-the-job training; when first out of high school he worked part-time in a photography studio in Ironwood, Michigan. Throughout his life he has freelanced as a photographer. “I shoot what catches my eye,” he said. “I show how I see the world, from my perspective.”

Rigoni creates a diverse collection of artwork, including sculptures, photography, and furniture. Photo by Len Villano.

After high school, he also was employed by a prefab home business. “It’s a nice thing, working for a small company,” he said. His tasks were varied, driving trucks, operating cranes, and learning about the business.

At Gogebic Community College in Ironwood he earned a degree in business/computer science and worked for a time as a computer programmer. “Beware of all enterprises that require a new set of clothes!” he laughed, as he quoted Thoreau. “That was not me,” he said of his relatively short-lived experience as a computer programmer.

Eventually he formed his own business, Bay Area Builders, located in Sobieski, Wisconsin. For 23 years his company built custom homes.

But along the way he taught himself woodworking and learned welding from his father; he has jumped out of planes and made SCUBA dives; he has been a pilot and a ski instructor; and he wrote a book.

John Bruder, his father’s classmate who served as a navigator in a bomber during World War Two, had spent 33 years cloistered as a Trappist monk when 18-year-old Rigoni met him. “What do you want to do with your life?” the monk asked. “You can have anything you want in the world, but you have to sacrifice something for it, sacrifice poverty for wealth, ignorance for intelligence.”

This piece showcases Rigoni’s creativity with discarded, rusted metal. Photo by Len Villano.

Bruder’s approach to life later inspired Rigoni who discovered a similar philosophy in the books of Richard Bach, and was especially influenced by Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. “I’ve read it many times,” he said, “and each time I get something different from it because you’ve grown, your life has changed, and a different part is more relevant. Hopefully my book does the same” for readers.

In Time Once Again the central character Jim meets at a skydiving drop zone a man who becomes his mentor, helping Jim to make sense of the scattered experiences of his life and realize that no personal growth is possible without setbacks. “The Powers that Be,” Rigoni explained, “provide a canvas for you, but leave most things up to you.”

“Everything I make, I have to like,” he said. “I’m not producing art for commercial purposes. It’s more of a personal thing, that reflects my style.” He has been creating artwork for years, but “gave most of it away. I enjoy it so much that hopefully I can make a living from it as well.”

Rigoni’s gallery is a suite of rooms that not only includes display space, but an alcove for doing his own matting and framing, and a studio. With its metalworking machines and woodworking equipment the room looks as much like a workshop as it does an artist’s studio.

“Instead of my art being an occasional sideline,” he added, “now it has become a focal point.”

Lindsui and Carla Donahue from Sister Bay and North Port admire the Rigoni’s varied artwork. Photo by Len Villano.

He is pleased when “form meets function” in his work. “I like how things flow and blend,” he said, but he also appreciates art that can be useful.

Rigoni is dyslexic, a fact that he didn’t realize until he was diagnosed while in college. “I am probably very visual because of that,” the self-taught artist said.

He has experimented with various media, including fused glass and plaster in addition to his work with metal, wood, and photography. “I might have ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder], too!” he joked; when “I work on something and get stuck, I move on to something else.”

The pieces on display in Rigoni’s gallery cover a large spectrum of approaches to art. Many of the photographs are landscapes and studies. The sculptures range from purely abstract to stylized representational pieces. Furniture and vessels are both imaginatively decorative and functional. The gallery also features limited work by a couple of other artists.

Rigoni now makes his home in Gills Rock, but “hides out” a few months each winter in the Longboat Key-Venice area in Florida. He chose Sister Bay as the location for his gallery because “I’ve been up here every summer. This area is conducive to the kind of work I do.”

Perhaps the use of found materials is appropriate for a self-taught artist. “A guy brought me a pair of spurs the other day,” Rigoni said. “His grandfather had been in the infantry. ‘Can you use these?’ he asked.”

The spurs will become part of a work of art at the hands of this man who has had several lives to live, and now has chosen to live fully as an artist. Thoreau would approve, as would his friend Emerson, a man well-known for his promotion of self-reliance.

Rigoniworks Art Gallery is located at 2350 Maple Drive, #104, Sister Bay (occupying the space formerly Julie’s Upscale Resale shop) and is open 10 am – 6 pm daily through October, as well as by appointment. (Time Once Again: Evolution of the Spirit is available both from Amazon and the author’s website.)

For more information contact Rigoni at 920.680.8595 or via email at [email protected]. To view his work visit