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John Lamb, Published December 17 2013

Lamb: Auction brings back cold memories of Christmases past

FARGO - I wasn’t the winning bid on anything at Tuesday’s sale at 523 4th St. S., Moorhead, the former home of the Rourke Art Gallery, but I didn’t walk away empty-handed.

My pockets aren’t deep enough for the $95,000 the house sold for, but the auction brought back a wealth of memories.

Twenty-three years ago I worked at the Rourke as a gallery attendant. Most of the time I was a greeter, a sweeper, a wine server or a dish-washer after art openings. On weekend days I was a manual laborer or an errand runner.

It certainly wasn’t like other jobs, namely because Jim O’Rourke, the namesake founder and director, didn’t pay us. Instead, employees worked off art. In fact, he didn’t call us “employees.” He preferred the term “indentured servants.” Jim thought the term was funny, but if the shackle fits …

Christmas Eve 1990 I was the sole servant working. Stationed at the desk in the Gold Room toward the back of the space, I kept an eye on the front door while doing some seemingly menial task, like re-winding picture-hanging wire or placing stamps on envelopes, neither of which was ever as easy as it sounded, per Jim’s specifications.

Jim had very particular views on things. For example, he didn’t see much use in keeping the building too warm if he wasn’t expecting many visitors, so the house was cold that day and most others. And you hoped there were no visitors, or worse yet, a visitor who bought something. Then you had to tally up the sale in the gift shop, an enclosed porch, where the counter was a granite slab, as cold as it was white.

All the while, Jim sat in his office, wearing a wool coat over a sweater, over a sweatshirt, over a turtleneck to keep warm. He was surrounded by stacks of files, invoices, order forms, bills and undoubtedly some spare papers we could have burned in the fireplace to keep warm.

If you think I’m taking literary liberties, ask Mark Strand. The Fargo photographer and professor came in that day and in no time declared this was like the scene in “A Christmas Carol,” where Bob Cratchit asks for another lump of coal to be thrown in the fire on a frigid Christmas Eve.

Jim didn’t think that was funny, but he did join us in the gold room for coffee. As it was a holiday, I think we even made a fresh pot.

I worked there for a few more years and a few more Christmas Eves, and though Jim never turned up the heat, his personality made the experience somehow worth it.

Years later, after he moved operations to the Rourke Art Museum on Main Avenue, Jim warmed up to celebrating Christmas with the staff. The last decade or so, they would serve Pizza Patrol and bottles – or more often boxes – of wine.

He would sit behind a table, invite visitors stopping in for last-minute gifts to grab a slice and glass of wine. Sometimes he would even reach behind his chair and pull a present from a box, usually a book from the museum store wrapped in billboard paper, Jim’s resourceful and colorful idea for wrapping paper.

Jim died in 2011 and Christmas at the Rourke hasn’t been quite the same without him.

Now the gallery space is sold and I may never step inside again. If I do, some things will likely have changed beyond recognition.

Things change and life goes on. I don’t need to eat Pizza Patrol on Christmas Eve or drink boxed wine for lunch. I can make a fresh pot of coffee, turn the heat up in my apartment and look at the art on my walls, art I earned in the cold, yet oddly cozy confines of the late, great Rourke Art Gallery.

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