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Airy Aesthetic : Self-Taught Craftsman, 84, Gives Folk Art a Down-Home Italian Spin

October 01, 1987|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

What goes around keeps coming around--and around--for James Giminiani.

At 84, the Italian-born craftsman is il padrone of Ventura's most famous folk-art landmark.

Brightly painted pinwheels rise on eight-foot stalks above the dahlias, roses, geraniums and bougainvillea that grow in front of his modest wooden house at the corner of Poli and Ann streets.

"Wind-Mills 4-Sale," reads a hand-painted sign that rises above a white picket fence.

Born Domenico and dubbed "Jimmie" when he came to this country in 1921, the self-described "Windmill King" says his only background in art comes from drawing lessons that he took as a toddler.

Now he not only paints and builds giant, weather vane-sized versions of the hand-held child's toy, but he also has trimmed his house, inside and out, with scrolling floral garlands.

Giminiani says his fascination with whirligigs dates back to his childhood on his family's seaside ranch in Italy. His father, a livestock breeder and tobacco shop operator, helped the nine Giminiani children build waterwheels along a stream that fed into the farm's forge.

"They were just small wheels like this dish," he says, holding up the dinner plate from which he serves visitors garden-fresh figs. "We painted them with flowers and my father laughed."

Therapeutic Occupation

Giminiani's artistic bent did not blossom until he married a schoolteacher in 1934. Six months later, Julia Giminiani came home with a swatch of framed silk and instructions to paint a picture for her sister's upcoming birthday.

"She never knew that I could do anything like that," insists the gentle and generous man who speaks with a thick accent and struggles with a faulty hearing aid.

For the next quarter of a century, it was always, "Honey, would you put something here," Giminiani remembers. Wildly unfurling garlands of flowers adorned Christmas gifts, envelopes to distant family members, kitchen cabinets.

But if Julia Giminiani rekindled her husband's talent, her death in 1958 set it ablaze. Giminiani says her death took him "20 to 25 years to get over" and taught him a valuable lesson: "If you keep your mind occupied, you won't think about the past."

Giminiani picked up a paintbrush and hasn't put it down since. Murals of ducks in flight, pastoral woodland scenes, groves of sequoias, waves breaking on the shore swept over the house and small apartment buildings the couple had acquired in Bakersfield.

One day, Giminiani built a wooden arch that begged for decoration. From the depths of his memory, he pulled his old friend--the whirligig--and affixed a pinwheel on either side of the gateway. But it wasn't until 1979, when he moved to Ventura and bought a dilapidated house, that the Windmill King really got rolling.

His two-bedroom home's ocean view reminded him of his childhood Italy. Its wood-trimmed walls--the kind that never quite seem to meet at a right angle--provided a canvas for brightly colored posies and fleur-de-lis. The front yard offered a resting place for the arch--now sans windmills.

Most importantly, a corner lot offered exposure for the giant pinwheels that began to grow as quickly as the flowers in his verdant garden. Motorists were soon stopping to ask whether they could buy the windmills.

Double-Decker Model

Four years later, the Windmill King came up with what he considers his greatest achievement--the double-decker pinwheel. With the slightest breeze, two striped disks effortlessly sweep past each other in opposite directions.

"This," he says, quickly tapping the blades of a double-barreled model, "creates an illusion." The smaller disk suddenly appears to be a bull's eye with jagged bolts flying from it.

"It looks easy now, but it took me a year of trial-and-error to make the double windmill."

In quick succession came other improvements. A heart-covered tail now decorates each pinwheel, doubling as a weather vane. And, on some models, Giminiani says, wind-activated knockers keep gophers at bay by sending vibrations up to 300 feet through the ground.

Now he conducts sporadic business from a gaily decorated table on his front porch that is littered with paintings of flowers, Polynesia and big-eyed children--some Jimmy's handiwork, others not.

'Ring the Bell'

A faded, handwritten sign invites visitors to "Ring the Door Bell for Service." Other signs are set aside on a nearby wall: "Gone to Church Be Back Soon," "If No Answer Please Come to the Backyard" and "Gone to the Dentist."

Every day, Giminiani rises before dawn, changes the flowers on a pinwheel-bedecked altar in his living room and attends Mass at a mission a mile away. Returning, he might squeeze a glass of orange juice from the fruit that grows on a tree in his front yard.

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