David James should be dead.
Instead he is 66 years old and sitting in his art-filled
apartment in Bellevue, Washington. James was shot while
walking through the seemingly quiet Boston suburb,
Brookline. The bullet hit every major organ in his stomach
— 15 years later he is still trying to recover. However the
shooting, as great of significance as it was, does not
define James. It was just an event, one of many, that makes
up the character of this renowned British artist.
James, who was born and raised
in London, now lives in a small apartment on the eastside of
Seattle. His paintings and sketches of anything from cars to
portraits adorn the walls. Several colorful canvasses, two
or three deep, prop themselves up on any available space
throughout the apartment. The coffee table is cluttered with
thick books on photorealism, although by looking around it’s
easy to think he probably wrote them.
Photorealism is James’ niche.
From an outsiders perspective he seems to have mastered the
craft, although he’ll be the first to point out problems
with his work — problems that only he would catch. James
began painting photorealism before it really got big. He
quit school when he was 14 years old and years later he
attended Walthamstow Art School in Essex after being an
apprentice at a commercial arts studio. “I went to art
school quite naked really, I was in my mid-twenties,” said
James. “Simply because I didn’t want to spend my life doing
an ordinary job and drawing was the only thing I was good
at.” He was only there for a year and a half before getting
kicked out because of his political activities with the
school. But learning art wasn’t the only highlight from
attending Walthamstow. James hung around ex-art school
musicians such as Eric Clapton, Keith Moon, Jimmy Page,
Robert Palmer and several others. “If you’re moving in the
same circles you sort of just meet these people,” said
James. “Like Jimmy Page’s ex [girlfriend], I have a drawing
of her; I’m still in touch with her actually.” By the time
James left Walthamstow it didn’t really matter. He already
had the talent to be a successful artist, but like many
artists, he struggled during his career.
His first job out of art school
was as a miner’s mate digging the Victorian Line in London.
From there he became a steelworker where he had his first
brush with death up on a high scaffold. It wasn’t until 1968
that a 27-years-old James received his first commission at a
motor racing magazine doing drawings. It was the first time
he was paid for his artwork.
Just before the motor racing
magazine picked him up, James had this idea of putting oils
and inks in between glass while a projector heated them up.
This process created a psychedelic light display that James
used in shows for Pink Floyd. Somewhere during the mining
and Pink Floyd shows, James married and later on divorced
his first wife Enrica. He also found time to travel and do
cycle racing all over Europe. When he was 38 years old, he
made his first leap over the pond to Boston, Massachusetts.
A few years after coming over to
the U.S., James met and married his second wife, Beth. He
became Mr. Mom after their son Niall was born, while Beth
worked full-time. James rarely found the time to paint while
raising Niall, so he gave it up for a while. After a couple
years had passed he began to do ink drawings and a few
watercolors, but never really got back into it until later
when Niall was in high school.
When Niall was 18 months old,
they all moved down to Los Angeles. “It still just looks
very temporary to me, like it’s not meant to last,” said
James about L.A. Lucky for him, their stay there wasn’t
meant to last either. Beth’s job took them back to Boston,
which was when James was shot. Around that time, James was
training and coaching bicyclists, which might have helped
save his life. The doctors told him after he was shot, that
because his body was in such great shape, he was better fit
for survival. James spent a month in the hospital before
being released, and then spent the rest of the year
struggling to recover. At the end of the year, they
relocated to Florida for a while and then back to Seattle.
Beth got settled at her job in
Seattle while James remained at home with Niall. Through
Beth’s work friends, James ended up meeting actor and
racecar team owner, Paul Newman. Watching the races again
sparked the artist and in 1998, James started painting
again, only to find that over the years he had lost his
technique. He would basically have to start all over again
to remember it. The struggle to come back was almost too
much for him. He became deeply depressed and suicidal. Since
his first stint with pneumonia in the hospital after his
bullet wound, James continued to struggle off and on with
the illness. Overall James was in horrible shape.
One day when he was in England
for a wedding, James took Niall to the British Museum where
he found the inspiration to lift him out of his depression
and put him back in front of the canvass. Out of all the
paintings at the British Museum, it was actually a sculpture
of a horse’s head that got him fired up. He ended up
spending a month in England to regain part of himself that
he had lost over the years. By the time he was back in
Seattle he knew exactly what he needed to do.
James got back into painting and
slowly but surely he worked at trying to regain his
technique. A little over three years ago, James and Beth
called it quits after being married for 25 years. “You often
hear women say you can have it all, you can’t,” said James.
“You can’t have it all, it just doesn’t exist.” The idea of
being able to have the career, the kid, the perfect city,
and the happy family was just too much.
James is currently working on
paintings that look so much like a photo you feel as though
you’re looking through a window and outside is the front of
a movie theater in Berkley, California. To be an artist
means you have to give a lot and receive very little. James
is living off of very little. He is holding on to some
paintings and working on others for a show he hopes to have
by next March. He also has a few of his paintings in a
gallery in Boston. After the bouts of depression and
struggles to stay financially afloat, James is working not
only on perfecting his paintings, but also his life.
closer look at David James' work: