Creative couple making use of different talents
URBANA — Jim Lorr was living and working in New York when, on a weekend off, he wandered into a Jin Sho Do acupressure class.
"It was completely random," he said.
But fate has its way.
The random action led to Lorr studying acupressure — and taking a class in which he met Laura Gillen, the woman he would marry.
It led to him changing his profession from cooking to acupuncture.
And then, two years ago, it resulted in their moving with their son to Champaign and Lorr opening, in late 2011, possibly the first community acupuncture clinic in East Central Illinois.
He opened Urbana Acupuncture inside Lincoln Square Village. There in the large treatment room without cubicles are three folding screens and 16 upholstered reclining chairs, draped with blankets.
The mood is calm, relaxing. Taped ocean and tree frog sounds fill the air. The dim light is provided by a string of tiny white and blue lights along the baseboard, a few night lights in the walls and a lamp over Lorr's desk near the entrance.
Also decorating the large space are four potted trees, a large banner of Earth as seen from outer space, Chinese prints and large posters depicting the standard meridian points on the body for acupuncture.
On a recent weekday afternoon, a woman rests in one of the soft chairs; she's so covered by a blanket you can barely see her. Nearby another woman sighs from time to time, as if she's having a pleasant dream. They don't seem to notice the buff young man wearing a Miami T-shirt who saunters into the room and heads directly to an empty chair in the back, where he waits, but not for long, for Lorr and his needles.
Lorr's clients do not disrobe but rather pull up their sleeves and pants legs. Most of the acupressure takes place on the arms from the elbows down, and the legs from the knees down.
Urbana Acupuncture is one of 200 or so clinics affiliated with the Portland, Ore.-based People's Organization of Community Acupuncture in which multiple patients receive treatments at the same time.
That reduces overhead costs. Community acupuncture clinics also charge sliding-scale fees. Lorr's are $15 to $35 per session, with an additional $10 charge for new patients.
"It's community-driven," he said. "Because it's low overhead and slim margins we take care of each other. I couldn't continue if people didn't tell each other about this."
People apparently are doing that.
In less than two years, the lean, wiry acupuncturist with a short shock of graying hair has built a steady clientele, and he's now ready to hire another acupuncturist to work alongside him.
In the mainstream
Acupuncture itself has entered the mainstream, with some hospitals as well as chiropractic clinics offering it. Dating back thousands of years in China, acupuncture is the practice of inserting fine needles through the skin at specific points in the body to relieve pain or stress and to promote general health.
As does Lorr, practitioners use thin, sterile disposable needles.
"The trick of making it work is getting enough of it," he said. "If you charge $75 a treatment and want to see people five days in a row, your demographic disappears pretty quickly."
His wife did acupressure as a sideline when she lived and worked in New York as a scenic artist. Acupressure treats symptoms by applying pressure with the fingers to specific pressure points on the body.
Gillen eventually gave it up, leaving all the professional bodywork to her 47-year-old husband.
The two married in 1998, four years after meeting. In 2000 they moved from Brooklyn to Peekskill, N.Y., where Lorr opened a private acupuncture practice.
In 2003 he, Gillen and a partner also opened the Peekskill Coffee House. It became a community center, particularly for young artists who worked in New York and were buying and renovating neglected houses in the former industrial town.
"What we sold was community," Lorr said.
At the same time his private acupuncture practice was "limping along." One evening, he Googled "community" and "acupuncture" and found that some practitioners had put the two together.
"It was like a lightning bolt hit me," he said.
Within a year Lorr switched his private practice to the community model. Eventually he and Gillen wanted more community — that of family.
So they moved here so they and their son, Ronin, now 8, could be closer to Lorr's big family in the Chicago suburbs and Gillen's smaller family in Colorado.
Lorr, who grew up in Deerfield, had studied chemical engineering at the University of Illinois for three years before dropping out to cook at restaurants.
After moving in 1994 to Brooklyn, he worked at the Natural Gourmet Cooking School. By then he had enough of the business.
"He was one of those seekers," Gillen said. "He found through different avenues Jin Shin Do acupressure, and that led to acupuncture."
Lorr sees similarities between acupuncture and cooking, which he continues to do at home.
"Cooking was great, and I love doing it and I love restaurants, but this clicked," he said. "It's very tactile. I like using my hands."
Using her hands
Gillen has always enjoyed using her hands, too. While growing up in Hudson, Ohio, she made art and learned to crochet when she was 7 or 8.
She studied art in high school, and though she knew no artists except for her art teacher she decided to major in art at Carnegie Mellon University.
There she focused on painting. She painted in the abstract style because that was the genre of the moment.
Eventually it didn't feel genuine to her and she began painting and drawing representational portraits and landscapes, using oils but in the looser style of watercolor.
After graduating in 1987, Gillen remained in Pittsburgh, teaching at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. In 1994 she moved to Brooklyn — within a month of Lorr's relocating there.
Through a friend, Gillen landed work as a shop assistant for Scenic Artists Union Local 829. Because there was so much work, she became a union scenic artist, working mainly on movie sets.
Some of her more memorable jobs were on the movies "The Royal Tenenbaums" and HBO's "Angels in America." While working on "Tenenbaums," she met actor and Danville native Gene Hackman, who plays the family patriarch.
"He has so much presence and so much background that he commands respect," she said. "But he was really friendly. Because he's so well-known, you don't expect him to be a down-to-earth guy."
As a scenic artist she worked with a variety of materials including drywall and plaster. The biggest set for "The Royal Tenenbaums" was a huge brownstone that had been converted into an apartment building.
"We kind of restored it and painted the walls hot pink," she said. "Any of the woodwork that couldn't be salvaged we painted like wood grain. We replastered ceilings and crumbling walls and made it look like a really nice house again."
For "Angels in America," Gillen did a "ton of plaster work" to fashion fancy fruit and flowers for a ceiling. She carved from foam a life-size angel that was later covered with plaster to resemble a graveyard angel.
"I wasn't a sculptor in college, but you get to do things in scenic work that you think you can't do," she said.
After she and Lorr moved to Peekskill, Gillen wanted to focus on having a child. She gave up the 40-mile commute to New York.
Still, she continued to paint and draw and send her work to the Flatiron Gallery in Peekskill, which represents her.
She would like to become more active in the Chamapign-Urbana arts scene, but her and Lorr's main priority so far has been to settle their son here and to get Lorr's practice up and running.
A fun project
Gillen, 48, had planned to set up a studio at home this summer but instead spent nearly two months on a commission: painting Monopoly game squares on the walls of a basement in a Champaign home. Amy Weber hired Gillen for the job; the Monopoly "board" was to have been a surprise for her husband Jamie's 40th birthday. He's a big Monopoly fan.
Gillen personalized many of the game squares to reflect his life and the Webers' life together.
"It was pretty amazing," Jamie Weber said a few days after the "board" was revealed. "The details were pretty impressive."
Gillen called it a really fun project.
"I've been in heaven doing this, being able to work with my hands every day," she said a couple of weeks before she finished the job.
Lorr would say he's in heaven, too, working with his hands at Urbana Acupuncture.
But he said he does not consider himself a "special shaman healing type.
"I worked hard to learn my craft and do it well; you want that out of somebody," he said. "I don't have a special grace from God that I will bestow you and charge you a lot of money for."