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In Character with Jim Grandy

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - No, Jim Grandy isnt a Gulliver among Lilliputians. Hes just showing off the miniature Japanese garden that advertises his larger works.Jim Grandy pulls a terrific bit of advertising behind his Jeep. Grandy, who lives just east of Vancouver, Wash., builds Japanese-style teahouses, fencing and gardens for clients up and down the West Coast. And just to be able to show them what a $200,000 garden might look like, he’s built one in miniature that follows him all around town.

Portland Tribune: How did you get started building Japanese gardens?

Jim Grandy: I had a detached retina. Part of the treatment is you’re face down for 30 days. It was super painful. While I’m face down I started thinking about various things I could build. I’m a carpenter. My original idea was to do the I Ching 64 hexagrams but it was too complex.

I was down to my last $36 and my wife was finishing nursing school and we had a couple of kids. They had a little pile of bamboo next to these inexpensive pine poles. It took me three months, but I made 10 or 12 Japanese-style trellises and put them on my VW van and took them over to Seattle. I sold them all in one day, and by the time I got home there were orders for more.

Then I heard about a $350,000 Japanese teahouse. I’d built houses before, so I knew this was a small structure and all I needed was one person to pay me that much and I’d be doing pretty well.

Tribune: Nobody pays $350,000 for a small backyard structure.

Grandy: That’s what I thought. I never found anybody with $350,000, but I built a teahouse and put it into a garden show. My first client was at Mt. Tabor, a 10-by-10-foot teahouse open on three sides, for $5,000.

Tribune: Business took off and your reputation grew?

Grandy: My wife, Nina, got a call at the house once. “We’re looking for the bamboo man. He’s a small Japanese man.”

Tribune: How tall are you?

Grandy: Six-one. But the beard makes me look giant. They just assumed.

Tribune: What did your wife do?

Grandy: She said, “My husband is the bamboo man. He can be Asian if you want him to be.”

People assume I’m Buddhist. They assume I know feng shui. There’s quite a few people who think I’m a shaman, from (seeing me) up on Alberta Street. This one woman had a band, and she wanted me to act as a shaman in a video, mostly because of the beard and how I look. And she thought I was a little magical because of the structures. So I acted in her video.

Tribune: Just to set the record straight, do you practice Buddhism or any ancient religion or …

Grandy: Christianity? Mostly I take my mom to church and sing real loud.

Tribune: A favorite job?

Grandy: In California near the Hearst Castle, this guy had been calling me for quite awhile to come down, and I told him I’d have to have a pretty significant job, something like $25,000, to come down there. He showed me what he wanted, it looked like a miniature Japanese village. I told him it was going to be more than $25,000. He asked how much. I said $62,000. He spent half a second and said OK. Which made me feel like I should have said $80,000.

Tribune: Most unusual job?

Grandy: The one a lady had built so she could commit suicide? She was a sad person. I always get to know my clients, and as I got to know her I realized what she was up to because she was talking about ending her life all the time and she wanted a room in which to do it. My role wasn’t just building it at that point, but being a counselor. I tried to build it so beautifully that she wouldn’t want to go.

The most fun job was a teahouse in Diamond Springs, Calif. A family was building a private meditation center. They’d bought 12 acres just for this teahouse.

I pointed out, because it was way out in the woods away from their house, that their daughter would probably lose her virginity out there.

Then I went home and my twin daughters were 16 or 17 and I went out to my teahouse, out in the woods behind my house, and I open the door and there’s a mat and candles and I said, “Hey, wait a minute.”