Ralph Grady James | Voyages Into the Sublime

Ralph Grady James captures the movement of the natural world

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Ralph Grady James, The Great Voyage, oil, 24 x 30.

Ralph Grady James, The Great Voyage, oil, 24 x 30.

This story was featured in the June 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  June 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

As the sun breaks over the horizon on Ocracoke Island, the sand sparkles and the sea is flecked with gold. In the sky, two birds fly directly into the sun, and their feathers glow as the light shines through their wings. The sanderlings in Ralph Grady James’ painting THE GREAT VOYAGE [see page 66] are winging their way north from the tip of South America to their summer residence in the Arctic tundra—a 6,000-mile odyssey they make twice a year.

Like his feathered friends, James often journeys to Ocracoke Island twice a year, too. To observe the ritual spring and fall migrations, he packs up his camper and drives more than four hours from his home in the Winston-Salem area to Swan Quarter, NC, where he boards the last car ferry to the island for the day.

Ocracoke Island is part of the wild, unspoiled terrain of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a 200-mile-long string of narrow barrier islands off the Atlantic coast. James’ sojourns to the area are an integral part of his creative process. His usual routine includes rising before dawn and ambling along Ocracoke’s white, sandy beaches. As he strolls, his camera set to automatic, he shoots thousands of coastal scenes that will inspire him in the months to come. James explains that his camera is set to capture motion, not detail. “I am always more interested in capturing the movement and energy of the water and the birds,” he says.

Similarly, in James’ painting RUNWAY 5, his artistic mission is to depict the waves rolling onto the shore, where a lone seagull breaks into a running start before lifting into the salty air. The gull’s dash across the beach is akin to the forward motion of an aircraft on a runway as it attempts its takeoff into the clouds, hence the title.

THE GREAT VOYAGE and RUNWAY 5 are quintessential works by James, ones that showcase his mastery of light and motion. Indeed, his loose brush strokes and sublime portrayal of light and atmosphere are reminiscent of some of art history’s greats, such as Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla [1863-1923]. For James, light is the ingredient that transforms a painting from something pedestrian to a work of beauty.

James is regularly juried into the prestigious Birds in Art exhibition at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, WI. His paintings have been featured in the exhibit’s nationwide tours, and the museum has purchased his works for its permanent collection. As this story was going to press, James was completing paintings for a solo show at Edward Dare Gallery in Charleston, SC. Gallery owner Julie Cooke says James’ florals and coastal scenes are faithful to Mother Nature in palette, design, and atmosphere. “His passion for ecology, conservation, and his particular understanding of tides and salt marshes guide him in creating compositions that are genuine reflections of nature,” she says. “He has a way of capturing movement that guides you around the painting so that you become a part of it. Gentle ripples in a glassy waterway, the lift of a delicate wing, crashing waves, and crisp seagrass—all give his paintings a palpable sense of lifelike energy and authenticity.”

Meanwhile, a visitor to his studio immediately sees additional evidence of James’ passion for nature. Polished stones, rocks, seashells, and birds’ nests are scattered throughout the space, offerings from the sea collected on the sand. A visitor can also count on hearing sounds from the wild. James explains that sometimes, to get into “the zone,” he works to soundscapes of roaring surf, calling seagulls, and rain falling in forests. With a laugh, the artist recalls the time painter Susan Lyon paid him a visit. Momentarily puzzled, she asked James, “What is that I hear? It sounds like something is dripping.”

James credits Lyon and her husband, Scott Burdick, with nurturing his career. From 2008 to 2010 he painted alongside the couple in their weekly drawing group. To this day, James gratefully acknowledges their generosity in sharing their knowledge and considers them significant contributors to his success as an artist. During the two-year span, he was working full-time as a printing company’s sales representative. His flexible schedule allowed him the freedom to regularly paint with Burdick and Lyon.

James took a circuitous route on the road to becoming a full-time fine artist. When asked if he always knew he would be an artist, he vehemently replies, “No, no, no. I thought artists lived in alleys and cut off their ears,” James jokes. “I wanted to be a cowboy or a forest ranger.”

As a young boy James liked nothing better than to visit a family farm near Winston-Salem and explore the surrounding hardwood forests and wetlands. The irony in James’ early life story is that while he initially rejected the artist’s life, he loved to draw. His father, Eugene, was an architect, and he mesmerized his son with his effortless talent at depicting everything from complex buildings to cartoon characters. Soon the younger James was asking his father to teach him to draw, too.

In addition to a fondness for the natural world and drawing, music became increasingly important in James’ life. In high school he played the trombone with both a rock group and the Winston-
Salem Symphony. When he graduated from what was then called the North Carolina School of the Arts, he applied to college and was accepted into the music department at Indiana University. His musical pursuits in college seemed like a natural progression. However, by sophomore year, James realized he was burned out and dropped out before earning his diploma. In 1979 he returned to North Carolina, where he met his future wife, Kathi, and also began working at a printing company as a warehouse supervisor.

But the absence of music left a gaping hole in his creative life, he recalls, and eventually, he began painting in watercolor to fill the void. By 1988 he was grabbing every spare moment to paint, including nights until two in the morning, weekends, and lunchtime. In 1998 he took his first oil-painting class, and oil soon became his medium of choice.

A major turning point in James’ fine-art career, he says, came in 2009, when he was juried into the Birds in Art exhibition for the first time. “The show helped me gain momentum,” he says. “It gave me a great deal of confidence knowing that this type of national show was within my reach if I worked hard at my skills.”

James is reluctant to define his style of work. He hesitates a moment before saying, “I think my art is in the gray area between realism and impressionism. I am either a loose realist or a tight impressionist.” He brings this combination to his lush florals as well as his coastal and wildlife works. Again, he isn’t trying to create a highly detailed floral that might grace a greeting card. Still lifes, he says, should not appear too still. His goal is to portray the flowers as if they were freshly plucked from the garden, not purchased from the local flower shop. “I want flowers to appear as they do in nature. Blossoms droop, petals fall to the surfaces around them,” James explains.

Texture is a key element in his work, and he employs both the palette knife and scumbling in his paintings. Scumbling is the process of applying a thin or broken layer of color over another layer so that patches of the color beneath show through. The result of these combined techniques is that James’ paintings possess dimension and depth. “You see objects in those marks and shapes that look like fallen petals or folds in a fabric,” he says.

FIRST BLOSSOMS offers a good example of James’ approach to florals. He gathered the brilliant yellow flowers from his own garden. The bouquet appears to be a few days old and is beginning to wither. And that’s precisely what the artist wants to convey—flowers as they move through the life cycle of birth, growth, and death. In Japan, artists call this concept “wabi-sabi,” a theory of beauty centered on the acceptance of transience, movement, and imperfection. Biophilia, the idea that man is innately connected and drawn to nature, also comes into play. The hypothesis was introduced and popularized by American biologist and researcher Edward O. Wilson. Wilson, author of the 1984 book titled Biophilia, defined the term as the “urge to affiliate with other life forms.”

James is a firm believer in the idea that nature is restorative. Thus, he titled his recent solo show Sanctuary, referring to the natural beauty of the landscapes and wildlife he paints. “I am a spiritual person, and I want that to pervade my life and work,” James says. “Painting, in a way, is a form of worship for me.”

Throughout his life, the artist says, he has turned to nature for peace, contentment, and healing. “Indeed, an innate tendency to seek connections with nature is strong within the human spirit,” he concludes. “I have witnessed how powerfully therapeutic this combination of art and nature has been for others as well as myself.”

Edward Dare Gallery, Charleston, SC; Germanton Gallery, Germanton, NC; Saks Galleries, Denver, CO; Howard/Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, WA; Sandpiper Gallery, Sullivan’s Island, SC; Down Creek Gallery, Ocracoke, NC.

This story was featured in the June 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  June 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Subscribe to Southwest Art magazine
Learn how to paint & how to draw with downloads, books, videos & more from North Light Shop
Sign up for your Southwest Art email newsletter & download a FREE ebook