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Against all odds: A look at British artist David James
By Megan Clark
Posted July 23, 2007

British artist David James in his studio

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.

A closer look at David James' work:




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