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Leo James Pajarillo, who goes by Jim, first left Mingo County for Massachusetts to attend boarding school, then Kentucky, and eventually landed in California. He worked there as an attorney for 17 years.
Pajarillo made his journey home in 2014. He opened up a law practice but he’s quick to say, that’s just his day job. He’s also building up the arts community in the small town of Williamson.
In Mingo County, residents might recognize the name. Jim’s dad, Leo P. Pajarillo, has worked as a pediatrician there for more than 20 years. While growing up in Williamson, Jim remembers a vibrant downtown and welcoming community.
“This isn’t just home, it was a place where we felt welcomed,” Pajarillo said. “My parents are Filipino. I’m a first generation Filipino American. We found this community so welcoming. Me, myself, my two sisters, my mother, we all became part of the fabric of the community. I’ve always been grateful for that. Other people in (a similar) situation, you know, their hometowns weren’t as welcoming, weren’t so kind.”
After living in San Francisco and Bakersfield for 17 years, he realized he lost the energy for what he called “the fun part of his life”.
Appearances may be different, but the heart is still there. Despite all its flaws, Williamson still had a dedicated group of people that were determined to try to improve this place, try to make this a better place to live.Jim Pajarillo – Williamson, W.Va.
“I realized my parents are getting older, and I wanted to spend more time with them in their sunset years,” Pajarillo said. “I wasn’t doing much in California, other than going into work and coming home.
“It just seemed like a time for a new stage. So I took the bar (examination) and decided to set up a law practice here.”
What he found was abandoned buildings, closed businesses and fewer people.
“When they say this area’s hit by two things, the economy (because) of the decline of coal and the opioid epidemic, Mingo County, Williamson, statistically got it worse than anybody just about,” he said. “So you see the results of that, this (place) isn’t the same place I grew up in. You drive down to downtown Williamson, it’s not the booming, bustling downtown that it was.”
But there was a glimmer of hope.
“Appearances may be different, but the heart is still there,” Pajarillo said. “Despite all its flaws, Williamson still had a dedicated group of people that were determined to try to improve this place, try to make this a better place to live.”
Pajarillo worked as an attorney in San Francisco where entertainment was almost at every corner. In Mingo County, he’s supporting artists and people who want to see more in Williamson.
“Since I’ve been in this space, we’ve had monthly meetings called creative callouts,” he said. “It’s an open meeting to anyone in town, who has ideas or, or artists themselves or anyone creative, that wants to get together and we throw out ideas. What I learned is you don’t have to create your own. But because one of the nice things you can realize, though, is that if you find enough like-minded people, these things can be sustainable.”
Right now, Pajarillo is investing a lot of time off the clock in his community. He’s also a part of the Tug Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, and a member of the board of directors at the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts.
He and a friend helped to begin an open mic night at a local restaurant. Aside from COVID shutdowns, it’s been going for five years.
“I don’t mean to downplay the fact that I’m an attorney and I have a business,” Pajarillo said, “but what I really am passionate about is what I can provide outside of my work and how I can tie in what I’ve learned during my work as an attorney, and being involved with the rehabilitation process.
He started a project called, the Art of Recovery.
“We involve the entire recovery community, from clients, to to recovery coaches, to counselors, to anyone that’s involved with the recovery process. We create a pop-up gallery for them to display their art. And it doesn’t have to be about addiction, but a lot of the product is. We’ve had the Art of Recovery, two of these so far and we’ve had over 30 pieces exhibited per gallery. A lot of it is clients that produce this art as part of their recovery process and it’s just amazingly powerful stuff.”
Pajarillo says two pieces of art, one paint and the other pencil, were taken back to Washington D.C. and the White House. He also formed a local comic convention in 2017 called Willcon.
“The pop culture convention is kind of like our version of Comic Con,” he said. “In three years, we built attendance to just under 3,000.”
He had no idea that there was such a legion of cosplayers in the Williamson area.
“I think a lot of kids here are struggling to find places where they have outlets to express themselves,” Pajarillo said. “Unless you play sports, you don’t have a lot of attention here when you’re young, and there’s nothing wrong with sports but there needs to be something for the artistic, for the creative kids, for the more introverted children and hopefully in 2022 it will come back.”
Pajarillo and his team are in the process of forming a nonprofit called the Heart of West Virginia or HeArtWV.
“Hopefully, we can bring more substance to what we’ve already started,” he said. “We want to build the artists, the art community and let them figure out how to best solve their issues and how to grow. I’m hoping that the more people get together, the more ideas can spring from that.”
He’s also been inspired by the arts community that’s already here.
“It’s very helpful,” Pajarillo said. “It lends to the idea that whatever we have in the state is worth fighting for.”