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Temple of Tolerance creator working to preserve vision

Copy of Jim Bowsher on top of temple.
Renee Wilde
Diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer, Jim Bowsher hopes to leave behind a legacy that enlightens and inspires future generations.

Jim Bowsher hauled 9,999 rocks and boulders into his backyard to create the Temple of Tolerance in Wapakoneta, Ohio. The stone monuments have been featured on Roadside Attractions and Atlas Obscura.

Jim has been diagnosed with stage four cancer and is now working to preserve his visionary art site for future generations.

There are no street signs that point the way to Jim Bowsher’s Temple Of Tolerance, and yet everyday people find their way to this residential street. Jim’s backyard is open to the public 24/7.

To access it, one simply walks up his driveway and enters through a decorative red metal gate.

On that day, a group of young girls were roaming through the yard. Jim greeted them and asksed if this was their first time at the garden. One of the girls, Isabella Folds, said that she lived right down the road and comes every day.

Isabella had streamed one of her visits to the garden and that got the other two interested in coming. These neighborhood kids were exactly what Jim had in mind when he created the space.

The vision

Side gate into Jims Yard which is open for neighborhood kids 24/7.
Renee Wilde
Side gate into Jims Yard which is open for neighborhood kids 24/7.

In the 1980s, Jim Bowsher told his brother Walt that he had a vision to turn the backyard of their childhood home into a safe space for kids in Wapakoneta.

“Walt said, I’ll start out helping you, but how long do you think it will take,” Jim recalled looking around at the stone arrangements in his garden. “I said, 20 years”

Jim hunted for huge boulders, interesting rocks and architectural salvage from locations all around the Northwestern Ohio area, creating an amazing and eccentric collection of found objects that fills every nook and cranny of his large yard. Jim said when visitors are in his world, “they are in my state of mind.”

The environment is a natural extension of Jim’s lifelong fascination with history and storytelling. From an early age he would seek out interesting people to interview — often taking away not only their oral histories but also objects related to those stories.

What I’m really proud of is the history that’s preserved here that would have been lost forever, like these are the steps to the canning factory. I’ve got the steps to everything as they tore down the buildings,” Jim said. “I think things are permeated with the history they witnessed.”

Memories & Motivation

Humanity and enlightenment are the overarching themes of Jim’s rock creation. Jim recalled one memorable day when three weddings were scheduled back to back. In the morning, Buddhists married by Buddhists monks, in the afternoon, Catholics married by Catholic Priests, and at night, Jewish people married by a Rabbi.

“And the rabbi got to know the Catholic priest and they became best friends,” Jim said, laughing at the memory.

This year Jim will have hosted 750 weddings at the Temple of Tolerance, all for free.

“This yard, I don’t know what you think of the physicality of it and the people here, but everyday I have great conversations there! Because the real thing is, every subject is just a set up for enlightenment,” Jim said.

Temple of Tolerance front
Renee Wilde
Jim Bowher conceived the idea of the Temple of Tolerance in the 1980s.

I met up with Kevin Rose at a coffee shop. He’s a historian at the Turner Foundation who has been working to help preserve The Hartman Rock Garden in Springfield. Kevin said there are two sites in Ohio that are visionary art environments — Hartman Rock Garden and The Temple of Tolerance.

“In many ways they are very similar and in other ways they are quite different,” Rose explained. “Ben Hartman was a horticulturalist, he loved flowers and plants, where Jim is a historian, He’s a story teller, so the site is really woven around his stories, around the history of Wapakoneta, the history of Ohio.”

For Jim Bowsher, his primary motivation has always been to create a safe place for kids within the community rather than an art environment.

Yeah, kids especially from that neighborhood,” Rose agreed. “And that’s the reality you’re going to find with most of these visionary art environments across the country. They’re often in neighborhoods that have seen a level of disinvestment (and) decline through the years. Often they’re in areas of cities that have been redlined through racist policies.”

Rose said, “Often we’ll use the term ''outsider' for this type of art, and there is this certain outsider component, and I think that’s what has, at least from the stories I hear from Jim, really connects the kids to his art. That they feel they have a kindred spirit.”

Throughout the yard Jim had placed inspirational signs, or what he called 'disembodied verbiage.' One sign said, “The key to a successful life with two columns of numbers."

The first column contains a number two over the number four. In the second column, the numbers are reversed.

“So here’s what it means,” Jim said reading the sign “At the end of your life you’ll add up two columns of figures. What you did for people and what you did to people. If the fours outnumber the twos, you’ve had a successful life.”

Leaving behind a legacy

Word of Jim’s stage four cancer diagnosis has spread throughout the community, and the uncertainty of not knowing how long he has to live has sparked some introspective conversations. He recalled that one person asked him what he got out of building the Temple of Tolerance.

"I don’t have any regrets. I wasn’t perfect in what I did, I did the best possible job I could," Jim said.

The Temple of Tolerance center piece.
Renee Wilde
The center peice of the yard is the temple of tolerance.

In other words, Jim has more fours than twos in his columns.

“That’s what I did, you got it,” Jim said smiling. “So what is the payment? When people knock on my door and there’s a guy standing there I don’t recognize and he says to me — ‘Jim, I just want to shake your hand. I want to thank you, because if I wouldn’t have had your yard to come to when I was growing up I never would have survived,’ and then he walks away.”

Jim’s wish for his yard is to continue being preserved as a community safe space and to help foster the enlightenment of future generations of visitors. He’s researching how to keep his vision going long after he’s gone. That includes reaching out to foundations and nonprofits.

And then I come away thinking, ok, you just die Jim,” he reflected. “And I said (to myself), no you don’t. You leave something behind that enlightens people and you never die.”

Renee Wilde was part of the 2013 Community Voices class, allowing her to combine a passion for storytelling and love of public radio. She started out as a volunteer at the radio station, creating the weekly WYSO Community Calendar and co-producing Women’s Voices from the Dayton Correctional Institution - winner of the 2017 PRINDI award for best long-form documentary. She also had the top two highest ranked stories on the WYSO website in one year with Why So Curious features. Renee produced WYSO’s series County Lines which takes listeners down back roads and into small towns throughout southwestern Ohio, and created Agraria’s Grounded Hope podcast exploring the past, present and future of agriculture in Ohio through a regenerative lens. Her stories have been featured on NPR, Harvest Public Media and Indiana Public Radio.