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Lamb: O'Rourke had great eye for art

Over the past couple of days, friends and family have memorialized James O'Rourke, the regional art force who died Thursday afternoon. Memorialized and likely mythologized. Of course, he was a tireless and single-minded supporter and patron of th...

Jonathan Harper and James O'Rourke
Jonathan Harper, left, and James O'Rourke measure a painting by artist Jonathan Twingley in 2009 while setting up an Abraham Lincoln exhibit at the Rourke Art Museum in Moorhead. Forum file photo
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Over the past couple of days, friends and family have memorialized James O'Rourke, the regional art force who died Thursday afternoon.

Memorialized and likely mythologized.

Of course, he was a tireless and single-minded supporter and patron of the arts, in particular his 50-plus years as the director of the Rourke Art Museum and Gallery.

That is the formal portrait of O'Rourke. But as the organization's curator, his character is reflected in the thousands of pieces he collected from around the world.

He was as vibrant and colorful as a Gordon Mortenson floral landscape, as strong-willed as a Charlie Beck woodcut of a plowed field, as mysterious as one of Fritz Scholder's paintings and as intricate as a Rose Cree woven willow basket.

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I worked at the Rourke Art Gallery in the early 1990s. Jim wasn't the easiest person to work for, as there was only one way to do things - his way, the right way.

But I learned a lot working for him. The right way to sweep a floor. The right way to make coffee. The right way to trim bushes. The right way to hang a show and the right way to wind up and label the hanging wire when a show came down. Even the proper placement of stamps on a letter - it was never as simple as you'd think.

Of course I also learned about art, which to O'Rourke was one of the few things you really needed to know about.

After a Beck opening in '91, I sat with the artist, O'Rourke and another man. We were talking about basketball star Magic Johnson, who had just revealed he had HIV. O'Rourke didn't know who Johnson was and couldn't understand why people were more interested in talking about an athlete than in discussing art.

The only other acceptable conversation topic for O'Rourke seemed to be food. Before it closed, he had a regular table at the Tree Top in Moorhead, and from his chair he could look out and see the Rourke museum at 521 Main Ave.

Later he took over table 34 at Sarello's, where they named a martini after him, a nod to his signature martini lunches.

Similarly, he had a standard spot in John Alexander's overlooking Main Avenue and Fourth Street, just a block away from the museum.

Museum treasurer Brian Gramer said after a Tuesday night board meeting that he and O'Rourke went to John Alexander's only to find someone else at O'Rourke's table. They found a suitable alternative, but halfway through their dinner, when O'Rourke's table was cleared, Jim moved to his accustomed spot.

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Fittingly at Friday night's preview to the Cameron Peterson show that opens Sunday at the gallery, many members wore tweed coats and colorful ties in memory of O'Rourke's favored attire. No doubt more than a few spilled over to Sarello's and John Alexander's, or another favorite, the Speak Easy, afterward to raise a glass in O'Rourke's honor.

He will be remembered for his style, his taste and for shining light on all the art around him and in this community.

And for doing it his own particular way.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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