NATIVE NATURALISM

by ALAENA HOSTETTER / photography by HOLGER OBENAUS

Artist Emily James has always been as captivated by South Florida’s natural beauty as she is by brush and canvas, so it makes sense that her art would bridge the two with vibrantly luminous vignettes of local life.

A native Floridian, James adopted her love of the natural world from her mother. She grew up drawing what she observed on legal pads her father brought home from his law office. “I’d sketch on every available scrap of paper in the house. One of my first memories is asking my mother to phone him at work to bring home more paper,” she says. “My mother always knew I would be an artist. I was born an artist.”

She’s since graduated to large canvases, where she precisely renders people, towns, beaches, everglades, birds and plants in color palettes that are dynamic or ethereal, depending on the composition. The overall effect is transportive—her work belongs in the most realistic of dreamscapes.

Since opening her gallery in Naples five years ago, James has enjoyed notable acclaim. Emily James Gallery was voted “The Best of Naples” two years in a row by readers of the Naples Daily News.

“There’s no shortage of galleries and artists in Naples, so it’s all the more special that we’ve been so successful,” she says. Prior to that, James exhibited her work in other galleries, even earning a spot in a collection at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

It’s hardly a surprise her gallery has been a hit, as James was a success from the start of her career. Her native talent was highly sought after, and clients began to commission her work while she was in college. Even one of her professors at Florida State University asked her to illustrate his history book. “I was trained classically to paint what I saw,” James says. “I painted what people requested. It was a great learning experience.”

The commissions have continued to be a large part of her practice. She has a robust portfolio of commissioned portraits and has taken on other not-so-ordinary requests, including re-creating a scene from a couple’s first date, when they sailed to an island off the Florida coast.

James estimates that she has about seven different series that she works on at any given time. In addition to the aforementioned, she also does abstract works that involve weaving scraps of canvas into grid patterns and “whimsical decorator pieces” filled with flora and fauna that aren’t abstract but not quite as realistic as James’ typical work.

“When you walk in the gallery, you’d think there must be a dozen artists represented here,” James says. “Diversity is my claim to fame.”

Regardless of how far-reaching the subject matter, there are some common threads. “I love water,” James states. “I try to incorporate water in a lot of my paintings.”

Her love of water is apparent even to those who can’t see her art. A wild manatee befriended James about five years ago on her daily swims off Marco Island, where she lives with her husband of 51 years.

“I’ll go out there swimming and here comes my manatee. I don’t know why he likes me; I don’t feed him, but it’s a nice relationship. I adopted him through the Save-the-Manatee Club, so he’s my manatee now,” she says with a laugh.

James seems to have it all—a loving and supportive husband, two children and five grandchildren, and an adorable manatee, not to mention a thriving art practice. She credits her indispensable team as a major part of the gallery’s success.

“I have wonderful people in the gallery who do everything else, so I can paint,” she says. “I go nuts if I’m not able to paint. I read somewhere that ‘talent is the gift plus passion.’ I definitely have the passion for creating.”

Given that she’s devoted 73 years to creating, the recognition is appreciated. “It’s overwhelming how much people have embraced my work,” she says. “It’s been so very gratifying and fulfilling.”

Alaena Hostetter is a Dallas-based journalist who writes about her favorite things: art, design, culture, music, entertainment and food.