Early Love of Animals
James Dunbar has long had a knack for drawing animals. As a small child growing up on the outskirts of Phoenix, he remembers watching spiders, snakes and wild horses. When he moved to an Oregon farm at the age of six, he especially enjoyed being around goats. “They had a lot of character,” he said. Some of his favorite early subjects were elephants and lions, which he still paints all these years later. But he’s come a long way from following along in an art book, drawing a lion’s face on a grid.
When James was eight, his mother met James Vaughn, the man who would become his stepfather, a huge motivational force in his life and a champion of his talent. “He hung my pictures like they were masterpieces,” James recalled fondly.
Fan of Norman Rockwell
As a child, James collected Norman Rockwell books. He loved the pictures Rockwell did for the Saturday Evening Post. “I wanted to be a graphic artist when I grew up,” James said. “I wanted to see my drawings on the front page.”
While Rockwell might seem an unlikely hero for a young African American boy, James never wanted his art to be defined by his race. “I didn’t want to just do black art,” he said. “I never wanted to be known as just a black artist.”
James admired Rockwell’s skill. If Rockwell’s world was mostly populated with white people, James figures the man was portraying what he was exposed to in a small town.
The Non-Art Years
Despite his talent, James started his move away from art during his teenage years. He became more interested in sports. After his schooling, he supervised security for Wackenhut. Then he tried the restaurant business. He had to struggle to finance his restaurant, but he is still proud of its successful run from 1991 to 1997. “Delicious D’s was a household name in North Portland,” James said. “I created jobs. I created an incredible atmosphere before Alberta Street was Alberta Street.” His restaurant was on NE Killingsworth and 30th, where Cup & Saucer is now. Delicious D’s served American ribs, burgers, fries and old-fashioned milkshakes. James’ friendliness made him many friends, and his business skills kept the restaurant afloat.
The Return of Art
During his years working security and in the restaurant business, James mostly kept his early artistic aspirations to himself. He had one artist friend, an 80-something street dweller named One Eye, who encouraged him. “I used to bring stuff to him under the bridge, show him my art,” James said. “He used to talk to me about continuing my art.”
But it wasn’t until James met Robyn – now Mrs. Dunbar – that things changed. He showed her slides of some paintings he’d done of African warriors. “She looked at them and couldn’t believe it. She said, ‘What are you doing? You need to take your art out and show it!’”
James fully credits Robyn with starting him on the path to being a full-time professional artist. “If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be doing this right now,” he said.
Finding His Voice
Inspired by Robyn, James started showing his work to galleries and other artists. Several gallery owners gave him opportunities and valuable advice. Gary Lawrence of the Lawrence Gallery saw James’ potential and gave him a show, but advised James to figure out who he was as a painter. James was already painting with bold colors, but local artist Joachim McMillan was the one who convinced James to trade his brush for a palette knife. “I got that palette knife and I started texturing,” James said. “I started shaping the paint.” The palette knife is integral to James’ distinctive style of sculpting oil paint on canvas.
James also developed his subject matter. He has a strong sense of place, and some of his favorite places to paint are Africa, Tuscany and Portland. “I started painting Tuscany by accident,” James recalled. He was inspired by an episode of the television show No Reservations, wherein chef Anthony Bourdain eats his way around the world. Another inspiration was artist Jacob Lawrence, whose bright colors and stories about growing up with his mom resonated with James.
James got shows, help and encouragement from Portland’s Gallerie René, the Shaffer Gallery and Carole Bordak of Forever Art Gallery.
Taking Art to the Street
While galleries and their owners helped James develop his style and direction, he ultimately chose the streets. “It’s like poker,” he said of galleries. “The house always wins. The gallery makes money, and the artist is considered a starving artist. The only way you can make a living doing art is to get out on the road.”
James’ charisma, energy and experience interacting with the public are also assets to his career as a street artist. He sells at First Thursday, Last Thursday on Alberta, and lots of festivals around the Northwest.
The Urban Art Network Street Gallery has contributed to his success. “I met some of my best clients at First Thursday,” he said. In addition to connecting him with art collectors, he’s enjoyed the interaction with other artists. Christopher Bibby, a painter who also loves his palette knife, was especially helpful to James’ development. “He encouraged me to stay motivated, to get out there and get my work in places people haven’t thought of,” James said.
Advice to Artists
James thinks it’s important for artists to help each other. He is full of advice for those who want to sell their work.
“Pricing is the biggest issue,” he said. “Most artists price too high.” Until you build your name, he says, you have to think in terms of volume. “If you’re willing to paint and produce a lot of work, you can make a living at it,” he said. “You can’t be selling a painting once a year.”
James follows his own advice. He’s a prolific painter who sells 20-30 paintings per month. The young Norman Rockwell fan who dreamt of making his living at art has come full circle.
Come see Jame’s work at the First Thursday Street Gallery. His upcoming shows also include Vancouver’s Art in the Heart, August 5 and 6; Seattle’s Great Meltdown, August 13; Bumbershoot, September 3-6 and the Italian Festival at Seattle Center for Italian Festival, September 24-25.
—by Teresa Bergen