Born in Moore Haven, Florida, a fourth generation Floridian, James was the first of JC and Bernice Gibson’s eight children; three children died young. His family moved to Fort Pierce when he was three or four years old. His mother took care of the family and his father worked at a white Presbyterian church for forty years. The congregation really liked the Gibson family, so much so that they gave them a car one Christmas. JC eventually became a deacon in the church. James washed dishes on spaghetti nights. He earned $3 for his work, but people came by and put extra money in his pocket. He also made money by taking the school bus with other children on Saturdays to pick tomatoes.
Like many of the Highwaymen, James’ interest in art was sparked at an early age. He copied images from comic books and storybooks. Inspired by Bean Backus, he sometimes sold a drawing, which allowed him to purchase a serving of ice cream. He graduated from Lincoln Park Academy in 1958 where he briefly had Zora Neale Hurston as a teacher. His teachers and parents taught him to be respectful of others, a skill that proved helpful throughout his life. His mother always believed in him and so he was able to go to college. Majoring in biology, James attended Tennessee State University but had to drop out after two years because he couldn’t afford the tuition. Two of his younger brothers were also in need of college funds and James wanted them to have a chance to study. James knew from being home in the summers that Alfred Hair was taking painting lessons from Bean Backus. A letter from Alfred while he was in school informed him of his success and suggested that James should also learn to paint. So James headed home.
He met Bean Backus when he was seventeen. But it was having the chance in his early twenties to actually make money from art that made him consider painting as a serious occupation. Besides, James was unable to get work anywhere else at the time. With enthusiasm, he learned to paint in the backyard of Alfred’s mother’s house on 13th Street. In the early days, according to James, there were four main painters: Alfred Hair, Harold Newton, Roy McLendon, and James. Mary Ann Carroll and Sam Newton joined in next.
Painting fast and making a lot of money was the goal. James tells a story about a bet he had with Alfred. He said he could paint a hundred paintings in one day—painting them factory style. He met his goal with two days of preparation, tacking a hundred boards in a line. There were only two colors and the scenes were basically the same. A light beige color defined the background and a dark pigment depicted the overall scene.
Alfred had a huge effect on James. Both James and Alfred had good business sense and Alfred stressed the importance of a strong sales pitch. When new colors were marketed for homes, James learned about them by calling carpet factories to see what was in fashion. He also paid attention to wall colors when he traveled. He then painted in those colors so that his work would readily fit into a home or business.
Although there was a seriousness about painting and selling, the painters’ gatherings could also be light-hearted. Alfred liked to play tricks on his friends. One day he changed the label on a can of dog food to pass it off as corn beef hash. James and his friends ate it.
James worked for Backus when he could. He’d make frames for him and clean his studio. When Bean talked to a student about how to mix a color or think about a composition, James listened. Backus encouraged young artists to paint every night, sometimes lending Alfred or him a painting to take home and copy. James learned, however, that you can’t really copy a painting. “You can’t do a painting the same,” he laughs. “Even when people asked you to. Besides”, he explains, “it’s boring to do the same scene over and over again.”
In the early days, he’d work through the night. In the morning he would load the wet artwork into his brown ’57 Cadillac and drive to Miami or another coastal town to sell. He did well in beauty parlors and a jewelry store in Orlando. Some days he’d sell only enough for gas money to get home. As he got better at painting and selling, more sales were made and life got easier. After the Highwaymen got their name in the mid-1990s, people were coming to him and he stopped selling on the road. By that time he was spending 36 hours on a painting that he might have spent 36 minutes on when he first started out.
Painting landscapes became his life work. Early paintings sold for $25 to $35; his first sale went to a Fort Pierce dentist named Dr. Sims for $20. There was friendly competition for sales on the road. If one salesman went to Miami, another would go to Orlando so as not to work the same places at the same time. He mostly had good luck on the road as a black man moving through white neighborhoods. After knocking on a door, he asked if anyone was interested in seeing his artwork. If they said “no,” he knew he had to get out quickly. He explains that attitude makes a difference: “You know, you dress decent [and] that means a whole lot. And even if they say no, you still have a smile. They never forget it.” But a “yes” meant that he had to set up quickly and deliver a winning sales pitch. He figured he’d have to go to a hundred places to sell ten paintings. It was hard work, but it beat picking fruit. During the 1960s he was sometimes able to eat in white restaurants because the people there liked his paintings.
About his good fortune, he says, “It’s about the way you carry yourself.” But he was once stopped when he was driving his Cadillac. The policeman asked him whose car his was driving. When he explained that he was an artist and showed his work, the cop purchased a painting. As James continued down the road, he was stopped once more and told there were a few policemen at the station who wanted to purchase some work. He complied with the request and had one of the best sales days ever.
In the early days, he kept his colors simple and sometimes reproduced pictures from calendars and magazines. Because he didn’t know how to mix colors when he started painting, he used the color straight from the tube. Upson board was used because it was cheap. The more he painted, the more he learned; his colors got more varied and his compositions became more detailed. He explained that he often sold to tourists and would adjust his colors to fit their needs. “I liked to use a lot of orange in my paintings in the winter because they had to go back home to where it was cold and gloomy outside. In the summer, when it was hot, I used a lot of blues and grays,” he said. When he got good enough and money was coming in, he changed to canvas. He started taking pictures and painted from the snapshots. He began “getting into the painting” and “feeling the beauty of it.” James started recognizing that being an artist was having a certain kind of spirit about what you did. He knew he was “trying to make his work sing.”
By the end of the 1990s, James reported that he had had three styles throughout his career. The first was painting for everyone. The second was painting for those who wanted to spend a bit more. By 2000 he was painting exceptional works that only a few people could afford. He had arrived as a well-respected artist. He continues to take more time with his paintings and critiques his work with vigor. He sets goals, like learning to make clouds the way Backus did.
James Gibson has three children, James, Jr., Dawn, and Kim. He figures he has produced well over 10,000 paintings and has earned enough money to put two of his children through college. Still he laments, “If Alfred had lived, he would have been a millionaire. If he was a millionaire, I would have been a millionaire as well.”
Among his many awards is the 2005 Florida Ambassador Art Award. His work was displayed in the Florida Supreme Court in 2000 and 2003. His patrons include former Secretary of State Glenda Hood, former Governor Jeb Bush, and former U.S. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. Former Governor Charlie Christ used one of his landscapes on his Christmas card when he was in office. He created an ornament for the White House Christmas tree and several of his paintings have been shown in the White House collection. Two of his brilliant landscapes were featured in Steven Spielberg’s film, Catch Me If You Can. His beach scenes with windblown palm trees were perfectly placed on the wall of a 1960s Florida motel room.
In 1999, Gibson described his paintings this way: “I’m on the style of Mr. Backus. See, one reason I’m on that style is because I love Backus’ paintings. I don’t want to paint like him. In other words, I want to get what he’s thought into paintings. That’s a good feeling you know.”
James also mentions that he can do what the PBS TV personality Bob Ross could do. Ross makes a landscape painting in a half hour television show. Gibson says, “In thirty minutes I can do it too. But it takes time to do what you do, like thirty years.”
After creating the background of his landscapes, he paints in the dark colors; the brighter colors go on top, making the artwork come alive. His early frames, like those of other Highwaymen, were made from crown molding. He later started purchasing frames that weren’t selling; now he purchases a variety of frames that he likes. He selects simple frames that won’t detract from his paintings. He likes to visualize the frame and the painting working together.