Palm Beach couple reveals lifelong talents
At the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County’s fortieth anniversary celebration art exhibit last fall, the question at the forefront of everyone’s mind was, “Who knew?”
Jim and Eleanor Woolems are no strangers to the community. Guests at the Cultural Council party were fully aware of their successful company, Woolems Luxury Home Builders. But few knew their secret: They’re artists, astoundingly talented artists.
“We did our art for our own enjoyment, something we shared as a couple,” says Eleanor. “We’ve flown under the radar.” But their cover was blown when Nichole Hickey, manager of artist services for the Council, dropped by the Woolems’ offices one day. Struck by pieces of art she spied—a sculpture of a man’s torso made from a hollow tree and a few oil-painted nudes—she asked who had created them. The answer surprised her. Jim was the sculptor; his wife, Eleanor, the painter.
Not missing a beat, Hickey soon asked the couple if they’d be interested in showing their work. “When Nichole suggested that, it was wonderful and spontaneous,” says Eleanor. “It just landed in our laps.” The Woolems and Hickey curated a co-exhibit of a dozen works by James and 11 by Eleanor for the couple’s first show together (which was Jim’s first show ever).
A native of West Palm Beach, Eleanor knew by age 5 that she was destined to be an artist. She studied and practiced, graduating to the adult level before even reaching high school. “The desire to make art is impossible to ignore,” she says. “It is part of who you are, and if you try to deny it, you’re putting a dam up around your heart.”
Jim took a different path. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, he moved to West Palm Beach when he was 11 and went on to make his mark as a carpenter/contractor, later founding Woolems Luxury Home Builders. One could argue his creations—gorgeous manses lining the landscape from Jupiter to Miami to Key Largo—are artworks themselves. Indeed, Architectural Digest has flaunted some of his homes on its glossy pages, including that of Old Spice/Proctor & Gamble heiress and art collector Tina Bilotti.
But Jim never saw himself as an artist. “I’m a builder,” he says bluntly. “If I’ve ever wanted something, I’d build it.” It started with go-karts and canoes as a kid, then he started apprenticing in carpentry and hand-carving surfboards at his own surf shop.
It was at that surf shop that he met Eleanor 48 years ago. She had accompanied a friend to the store to check out the custom surfboard he had ordered. And Jim, as he recalls, was “awestruck.” “She was so beautiful and fun,” he says. “For me, it was love at first sight.”
As Eleanor remembers it, Jim was “very insistent on being my boyfriend.” His drive, hard work, and generosity won her over. “Our dreams, in terms of what we wanted in our lives and our artistic endeavors, were similar,” she says. “And we agreed that we weren’t the starving-artist types. We wanted a nice life without money worries.” Eight months later, they married and were later blessed with two daughters and three grandchildren.
Photography by Jacek Gancarz
The couple’s professional success—Jim in construction and Eleanor as a Realtor with Sotheby’s—afforded them the opportunity to convert a warehouse into an art studio decades ago. There, Jim was able to watch his wife’s magic. “She is clearly an artist,” he says. “I was in awe that she could do all those cool things, and she slowly nudged me into it.”
Still, art was strictly a hobby for Jim, something to share with his wife. But that changed after a friend gifted him a sculpture class for Christmas about 25 years ago. Says Jim: “At the end of the course, the instructor copied my pieces and put them in a show and won first place.”
The experience earned him an “I told you so” from Eleanor, and ever since, he has welded, hammered, and assembled sculptures from objects gathered at his work sites. “There’s so much out there in nature that has been discarded,” he says. “There’s no need to go out and buy supplies. For me, the thrill is seeing something lying on the ground—like an old tire, a steel rod, or an oak stump—and thinking, ‘I could cut that in half and make something cool.’”
Flash forward to October 2018, when Jim found himself having an art show. It wasn’t exactly a comfortable feeling at first. He recalls: “As it got closer to the show, I saw how much work they were doing and thought, ‘Good God, what is this about? Oh my, they think I’m an artist! Eleanor is the artist. I’m the contractor.’”
But everyone at the opening gave them accolades—Eleanor and Jim—and the affirmation fueled his confidence and passion. A recent Rhode Island School of Design color theory course has opened his mind to the kaleidoscope of color, beyond the black and white he’d mostly relied on prior. Eleanor, who retired from Sotheby’s eight years ago and returned to school to earn a bachelor’s degree in studio arts from Florida Atlantic University, continues to paint, delving into landscapes at the moment. Both are also exploring printmaking.
The Woolems are also big supporters of the arts in Palm Beach County, donating to the Cultural Council and the Armory Art Center, where Eleanor still takes classes. As for future art shows, Jim says to bring them on: “I wouldn’t have any objections. It’s quite fun, and really fun to do with Eleanor. If an opportunity came up, that would be wonderful.”