Prolific Spokane artist James LaVigne, a self-described artistic archivist whose artwork of architecture – most of it steeped in realism, some dipping into the fantastical – died May 22. He was 71.
His daughter, Michele LaVigne-Silva, said her father died from natural causes, though he suffered health issues stemming from either a stroke or heart attack several years ago.
Always toiling away at a canvas, LaVigne is described by many who knew him as Spokane’s own “starving artist.” Since his first introduction to the Lilac City’s art scene in 1979, according to a Spokesman-Review article on his gallery “Spokane in Retrospect,” he’s made a name for himself as an eccentric craftsman who painstakingly put many of the city’s monuments to paper.
Throughout the decades, his work has greeted residents and visitors across the city, from the Spokane County Courthouse to the Spokane Transit Authority Plaza. A rendition of perhaps his favorite architectural feat – the Monroe Street Bridge – hung above his fireplace in black and white, and in color above diners at the Spokane Club’s restaurant.
“This was his passion,” his daughter said Thursday, as she cleaned out a studio in his rented home in Browne’s Addition. “His life. His muse.”
Born in Spokane, LaVigne quickly made a name for himself in art circles for his meticulous attention to detail, at times bordering on the type of illustrations prominent in the architectural profession. In 2011, he told KSPS Public Television his dream was to become an architect before financial troubles quashed it.
Friends say his process involved wandering around the city, finding a structure that spoke to him for whatever reason and getting to work with research before putting pencil to paper. The finished product would often end up on a dozen or so prints he’d sell for a couple of dollars.
“I remember him riding up on a motorcycle with a girlfriend for his date one time,” said Jim Kolva, owner of Kolva-Sullivan Gallery. “He needed 20 bucks. So I gave it to him. Later on he delivered a print or two.”
That same obsessive eye that caught others’ at times got him into hot water with clients, Kolva said. LaVigne would promise a piece but then spend months or years perfecting it.
“He had a reputation,” Kolva said. “He was a bit quirky. A pretty nice guy. Quiet in a way. But flamboyant.”
By the 1980s, LaVigne worked out of a small studio at 819 W. Riverside Ave. in the heart of downtown Spokane, where he’d often venture out in search of his next subject.
It was there that his life turned upside down when a fire ravaged the building in 1996. According to newspaper articles, his neighbor sparked a flame while cutting small magnesium plates, which quickly spread.
While the fire didn’t reach his works, the smoke and water did. LaVigne said at the time he lost about 50 original works, the biggest of which was a half-finished 6-by-14-foot painting of a biplane flying under the Monroe Street Bridge.
“That made me vomit,” LaVigne said at the time.
Fittingly enough, a version of that piece called the Barnstormer was eventually finished and hung in the STA Plaza, where it greets visitors venturing off the second-floor elevators.
The painting, a rarity for the artist who preferred to work with pencil and oils, shows the old biplane flying up from the east side of the bridge. In the background there are no houses, no Maple Street Bridge – just greenery. And a small cluster of onlookers on the bridge, released from LaVigne’s mind at a particular moment in time.
“He was very much a historian,” said Charlie Hinton, owner of the William Grant Gallery. “If you look at any of his pieces, everything was exact to what it was. Every detail.”
That same penchant for the past surfaced in his distinct style – for the past decade or so he sported a soul patch on his chin and a Johnny Cash-esque pompadour, as though he’d ripped it straight from the pages of a 1950s beatnik fashion magazine.
That fondness for history meant he would spend weeks or months researching a monument before even beginning the gargantuan task of capturing every detail in ink or graphite Hinton said. At any given time, it was normal for LaVigne to have up to 50 pieces in production.
“He just had to be sure he had all his ducks in a row before he even started,” Hinton said. “And then, as he painted, he knew it was correct.”
After the fire in 1996, LaVigne took a short hiatus from art after suing his neighbor for starting the fire. The case was thought to be settled; LaVigne argued his attorney did so without his permission, however.
After making its way through appeals, it wound up back in front of a Spokane County jury that in 2003 awarded him $195,000 in insurance money. Friends and family don’t know what happened to that small fortune.
“If you had a vision in your mind what a hardcore artist is, that was James’ life,” Hinton said. “Absolutely down to the T. You could not have painted a better picture of what a starving artist was like until you met James.”
In his later years, LaVigne suffered what many thought to be a stroke. Because he was deeply private, nobody really knew for sure, including his daughter.
His artistic output slowed until about three years ago, when he moved to his Browne’s Addition home on Second Avenue near the Rosauers supermarket and began painting more.
Up until the end, Michele LaVigne-Silva said he would grind away for hours at a time in one of the three studios he had in his home. And always to the sound of classical music and talk radio from Spokane Public Radio’s KPBX station, pumped in from large speakers he hung from the ceiling.
It was in that state that he died – still in the middle of a few pieces. One of them, a rendition of the old Globe Hotel building on Division Street where the Globe Bar and Kitchen now sits.
The other, a drawing of his favorite bridge. But this time, joined by an alien – the fantastical side of LaVigne many didn’t get to see.
“He was out there,” LaVigne-Silva said. “A character … And a creative soul.”
Editor’s note: This article was changed on May 31, 2019 to correct the spelling of Michele LaVigne-Silva and the Kolva-Sullivan Gallery.
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