Part II Jim Bowsher & the Temple of Tolerance: An appreciation and study of the artist (2024)

History Knox

History Knox is a column authored by Mark Sebastian Jordan each Saturday that is published by Knox Pages.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part II of a series. Part I was published on June 22 and can be found here.

In 1990, historian, artist, folklorist, and poet Jim Bowsher decided to start a new project for the millennium.

He had already acquired a couple of large pieces that wouldn’t fit in his Wapakoneta house, already stuffed full on historical artefacts. So, he had the gloriously mad idea of turning his back yard into a giant art installation, a rock garden gone wild.

He began collecting glacial boulders that farmers were only too happy to have removed from their fields.

Part II Jim Bowsher & the Temple of Tolerance: An appreciation and study of the artist (1)

Jim did so with the help of friends who had wrecker cranes and a dump truck. The workers at the Dairy Queen down the street got blasé about hearing the occasional deafening thud in the distance: “Sounds like Jim’s got another rock.”

Jim slowly but surely built the complex around a central mound of boulders and clay that he called the Temple of Tolerance. He wanted to make it as a safe place for troubled youth, a place where they could go to escape violence and chaos, 24 hours a day.

A generation of those youngsters now bring their own kids to the place that helped them break away from the darkness.

I once asked Jim if drugs and booze were a problem at the Temple site. He said it never was, because he stressed to all the kids who came there: “If you mess this up, they will take it away from us.”

With that understanding, the young people policed themselves, and behaved. He was pleased that even on the snowiest mornings of the wintertime, he never managed to put the first footprints down in the snow.

Part II Jim Bowsher & the Temple of Tolerance: An appreciation and study of the artist (2)

Visitors would already have been there and left before he even had his morning coffee.

To demonstrate his assertion that the Temple was open 24 hours a day, he put a side gate on it, then sunk that gate into the ground so that it couldn’t actually be closed.

Neighbors later on donated or cheaply sold more land to the Temple, resulting in it covering over an acre.

Jim tried to keep the opening ceremony reasonably serious in 1999, but when a local newspaper reporter interviewed one of the youths who flocked there, the young man said with a straight face, “Well, we were originally going to sacrifice a virgin up on the temple, but we couldn’t find one in Wapak.”

And the newspaper printed it.

Over the years, the number of visitors has grown.

Jim being such a maverick did not exactly endear him to the local powers-that-be, and they were not pleased when his number of visitors started eclipsing Neil Armstrong’s moon museum, just a couple of blocks away.

In recent years, the internet has multiplied the Temple’s fame. I recently saw a post on an Ohio travel group on Facebook.

The original poster of the thread said that they were taking a trip in the near future that would take them down I-75 in the western part of the state, and they were looking for advice on interesting sites to see.

Almost every other response in the thread was someone recommending the Temple of Tolerance.

The site abounds with amazing relics: The stone entrance to the Allen County jail cell where John Dillinger was imprisoned in 1933, the concrete step where James Dean used to sit every morning at his high school in Indiana, a huge plastic tube that holds one shell casing to represent every Ohioan killed during the wars from 1812 onward.

Part II Jim Bowsher & the Temple of Tolerance: An appreciation and study of the artist (3)

Every stone or item in the place has a story, and Jim documented them all. I picture tour guides someday leading people around and sharing the stories.

But the complex, as a whole, is even greater than some of its parts. It’s a testament to an unconventional and visionary life. And that life was utterly improbable.

After dropping out of Kent State University not long before the infamous events of the campus National Guard shootings happened in 1970, Jim traveled the world by working odd jobs to pay his way as he went.

He was working as a dishwasher at a diner in Florida when he received a phone call that his father had died by his own hand.

Years later, after his mother passed, Jim inherited the family home, which was to become the canvas for his work. He wasn’t rich, but he was able to get by and pursue his dreams of collecting stories, artefacts, and rocks.

Part II Jim Bowsher & the Temple of Tolerance: An appreciation and study of the artist (4)

It certainly made him like no one else.

For the first few years I knew him, I thought maybe Jim’s insistence that he had a Japanese actress wife was perhaps some kind of delusion, or worse, maybe something like Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily.”

I tried not to stray too far off the beaten path at Jim’s house, lest I might find a room with a desiccated corpse from 30 years ago dressed up in a wedding dress on a bed.

At least, that’s what I half-jokingly thought until I met Kozuko, on one of her periodic visits stateside.

Even then, I couldn’t resist teasing, “Wow, Jim, how much did the modeling agency charge you for this one?”

He found it hilarious and his wife just rolled her eyes, smiling at the inevitable joke, which she had heard many times before. One Temple kid’s comment: “Yeah, you’d have to live in Japan to be married to Jim.”

The two met in Japan during Jim’s roaming youth, and their regard for each other was compatible with a marriage where they would periodically check in with each other and only spend a few weeks together every year.

Considering Jim’s larger-than-life personality, I couldn’t imagine any other sort of marriage would have worked. Kozuko came back to spend Jim’s final
days with him.

Any artist or writer of any sort who came into Jim Bowsher’s orbit would get a blast of the man’s energy and encouragement, if he liked their approach. If he didn’t, he’d turn a cold shoulder.

I guess I passed muster, because I ended up spending a lot of time with him over the years.

Talking with Jim was electrifying. And while there was always a rich harvest of laughter, it never prevented him from diving deep on matters of life and death, things that he felt we too often shy away from in this world.

He also spent years volunteering to teach in prisons. One of his most jaw-dropping accomplishments was getting death-row inmates to write about their crimes from the point-of-view of their own victims.

“You’ve worked closely with these prisoners,” I once said to him. “Aren’t some of them just full- blown, unreachable psychopaths?”

“Sure,” Jim said. “A few of them, less than five percent.

“Listen, that’s why I always had it set up for inmates to volunteer for my classes. You can’t force them to do something like that, or they’ll never do it. Only a few were completely unreachable. The rest are people who had bad lives, then made bad choices, which led them to worse choices, which led them there.”

Everyone wants to believe there’s a lot more distance between the bad guys and us, but Jim saw it wasn’t true. And he was able to get a personal realization from some (definitely not all) of the prisoners that he taught, because he did it as a volunteer.

Anyone getting paid would be immediately seen by the inmates as a grifter making money off their misfortunes and mistakes. Jim was one they couldn’t so easily disregard. They recognized him not just as some smart guy, but as a guy with street smarts, a guy who could hustle words and talk them into a corner if they weren’t careful.

The inmates respected that. He had game.

But he was also human. If a show didn’t go well — and I remember a frigidly cold Wooster Jam talk in 2012 that was not a happy occasion — he could get downright combative with audience members who were close-minded.

On that occasion, there was a guy who was treating Jim and his stories disrespectfully. The man folded his arms as he sat in the front row of the audience, sighing loudly, rolling his eyes, and scowling.

Jim started picking the most politically and socially provocative stories from the items he had with him and delivered them all, with scornful force, right at this man. It was uncomfortable to watch.

Was Jim feisty about what he believed? Yes. and he had no finesse at dealing with a heckler.

His schadenfreude could be almost gleeful if he saw a public figure whom he disliked getting their comeuppance. I know of people who severed connections with him because of things he allegedly said and did.

I don’t know the ins and outs of all of that, except for one situation of that nature involving a mutual friend.

The friend had stopped speaking to Jim because of — among other things, she later told me — something disparaging he said one evening when he didn’t know she was listening.

So, after Jim failed to answer it obliquely a number of times after I had brought it up, I asked him directly about it.

He looked at me with a rueful look on his face — that grave expression his face defaulted to when there wasn’t another story to tell — and said, “Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have said what I said that night. I had a few too many beers in me and got a little too honest.”

Politeness and unvarnished personal opinions don’t walk hand-in-hand. He declined to talk about it any further, and that was that.

I knew Jim for 20 years, but like any great artist, he remained elusive on some level. Beneath the crafty wit and the stated beliefs, he bobbed and weaved every time I tried to draw a bead on who he really was.

He certainly wasn’t used to having someone else probe his thoughts the way he probed others. He was skilled at deflecting and slipping away onto another topic. He was interested in people and the world. He wasn’t particularly interested in Jim Bowsher.

Hosting Jim for week-long visits in the winter when I was the manager at the Malabar Farm Hostel, I would have spectacular all-day conversations with him that sometimes continued on the following day.

But after a few days of conversing at that tremendous rate, I always found that Jim ran out of steam. Or, more accurately, I ran out of steam. For Jim Bowsher’s legendary energy was fueled by pulling energy from those around him. That’s what performers do. He was always on. Always performing.

For all his desire to be remembered as a writer, or artist, or storyteller, perhaps his truest essence is this: He was a performance artist who crafted the character known as Jim Bowsher.

His masterpiece was living for so long as that character while shielding his innermost self from more than the occasional glimpse:

The scared boy in a Florida diner returning to washing dishes after he didn’t know what else to do with the news of his father’s suicide in his ears.

The smart kid unable to flourish in any kind of structured educational system because he had already read books far beyond the class syllabus while having no interest whatsoever in other required classes.

The man with a compulsion to speak what he perceived as the truth in an age when truth-tellers are mocked and ridiculed.

The Temple of Tolerance, his collection of historical artefacts, and his poems are all byproducts of Jim’s determination not to live a passive life.

He did what he had to do to avoid living the kind of workhorse life that pays the bills and keeps up with the Joneses, but never feeds the mind or the soul. It wasn’t that he was lazy, not at all, because he worked like crazy on all his projects.

He just saw that he had a rare opportunity in this world of doing what he did, and the world needed it. So, he ran with it.

Did he reach his goals of transformation and understanding? Of course not. We artists never do. That just-out-of-reach goal is what keeps us going. Along the
way, we hope it helps the world.

From my understanding, Jim had funneled some money into a fund for keeping the Temple going after his death. Some have questioned why, if he had any money left at all, others were raising funds to help him during his final fight with cancer (even if it turned out to only be a small amount that was raised, the fund founder assured me).

To me, the answer is plain: The Temple (and the adjacent house full of artefacts) was Jim’s life work, the entire complex is a folk-art wonder, not to mention a treasure trove of meaningful history. Nothing, not even his own well-being, would be allowed to drain money from that preservation fund.

As a fellow artist, I get that. What we creatives produce is far more important than the flesh-and-bone creature who created it. We’re just vessels. It’s what we manage to funnel out of the imagination into this so-called real world that matters.

After 20 years of knowing Jim, I could say that each person he met was analyzed and targeted as someone who could give him a story, someone who could assist him in his activities, or someone from whom he could draw energy to perform his stories and monologues and diatribes.

But there was one other category that he made room for, and this is the one that weighs deep against any human flaws he may have had. And that was helping people understand where they were in their lives and how they could move forward from that point.

He was a person who could change other people’s lives. He could inspire you. He was generous in the time he gave other creative people, to make them feel supported. He could make you look at the things you were afraid to face, and in so doing face them down.

He could lead people to hope and possibility.

Part II Jim Bowsher & the Temple of Tolerance: An appreciation and study of the artist (5)

I asked Columbus artist Shane Wheeler to write some thoughts about Jim:

“Jim Bowsher never had his own biological kids, but he took in thousands over the years and saved so many others by being such an understanding person that only wanted everyone to heal from their wounds. He deliberately didn’t have any so that he could use his time for kids that had bad homes.

“I’ve never met anyone who understood me the way Jim did. We have an absolute one-of-a-kind bond as kindred spirits and he always told people that IF he did have a kid, he believed it would’ve been me.

“This man saved me when he looked me in the eye and recognized the real me without either of us having to say a thing.

“The first picture is from the first day I met him. I was nervous to meet him and didn’t know anything about him so I avoided eye contact and just listened; afraid he might find out I was gay and be judgmental.

“After a bit of time of him telling us stories he pointed to me and began to tell a story of a lesbian couple and one sat right where I was sitting. It caught me off guard and I looked up and looked him in the eye and every lie I was telling myself about who I was dissolved on the spot.

“The next few pictures are from the next time I went back to his house and when he answered and remembered who I was, he said, “There you are.”

Part II Jim Bowsher & the Temple of Tolerance: An appreciation and study of the artist (6)

It meant a lot when Jim said “There you are” to Shane, because Shane had in the meantime started the process of transitioning gender after a lifetime of feeling lost, and Jim recognized the real person finally taking shape before his eyes.

That’s a powerful affirmation, and one that changes a person’s life. Shane is one of many whom Jim helped.

I myself received affirmation from Jim as a writer, poet, historian, and storyteller. He even joined me for some joint storytelling performances, something I’m not aware of him doing often — if ever — with other speakers.

It helped make me realize that I wasn’t just pretending to be a writer and speaker, I was really doing it, and was actually able to go nose-to-nose with the formidable Jim Bowsher and survive the comparison.

Without that affirmation, I don’t know if I’d be here today writing this and publishing historical books and speaking all over the state. There are a lot of us out here who are, in one way or another, Jim’s kids.

Part II Jim Bowsher & the Temple of Tolerance: An appreciation and study of the artist (7)

All of these layers, these stories, these artefacts, these mysteries, are part of Jim Bowsher’s legacy. Some swear by Jim Bowsher, others swear at him.

It will always be that way, and that’s fine, because he took strong stances for what he believed. He certainly put his art before anything else, including himself. He was ruthless at letting anything stand in the way of his creative legacy. Whether that’s a flaw or a strength depends on the viewer’s angle.

To me, it was necessary.

Look around you at this world. We need the Temple of Tolerance now more than ever.

In recent years, Jim struck up a friendship with a former classmate of his from Wapakoneta, Dan Newland, a writer who lives and works in Argentina, but visits the United States yearly.

Though they never spoke to each other all those years ago in school, they now found themselves relishing each other’s conversation and stories, and when I met Dan, I felt the same regard. Dan and I have kept in touch regularly ever since.

So, I was not surprised that when Jim died Wednesday, June 12, 2024, around 6 p.m., I heard about it just over an hour later from Dan, in Argentina.

We had both known that the last time we each saw him — coincidentally, both in November of last year — that it would be the last time.

I was there hosting a poetry reading at the Temple. Jim was so tired that he only came out and watched the last few minutes of the reading. He spoke briefly but eloquently to the poets; made us both laugh and cry.

Part II Jim Bowsher & the Temple of Tolerance: An appreciation and study of the artist (8)

His additional “one more thing” comments — the kind of thing that used to go on for hours — only lasted 15 minutes. Dan and I had hoped the seemingly unstoppable phenomenon of Jim Bowsher would cheat death yet another year.

But it wasn’t to be. Death finally got a word in edgewise against the most notorious, fast-talking joker this world has ever seen.

When I heard, I wrote back to Dan, “Something tremendous has gone out of this world.” And so it has.

I find it almost incomprehensible that I will never hear that cackling laugh again, except in dreams or in the few surviving videos of his work. But he will live on in people’s memories, in his collection, in his writings (most of which are still unpublished), in his rogue complexities, and in the Temple of Tolerance.

Jim Bowsher is dead. Long live Jim Bowsher.

Part II Jim Bowsher & the Temple of Tolerance: An appreciation and study of the artist (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Jeremiah Abshire

Last Updated:

Views: 6573

Rating: 4.3 / 5 (74 voted)

Reviews: 81% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Jeremiah Abshire

Birthday: 1993-09-14

Address: Apt. 425 92748 Jannie Centers, Port Nikitaville, VT 82110

Phone: +8096210939894

Job: Lead Healthcare Manager

Hobby: Watching movies, Watching movies, Knapping, LARPing, Coffee roasting, Lacemaking, Gaming

Introduction: My name is Jeremiah Abshire, I am a outstanding, kind, clever, hilarious, curious, hilarious, outstanding person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.