Go West – to St. Petersburg’s James Museum
By Colette Bancroft
In downtown St. Petersburg, you can take a walk through the American West.
One of the newest additions to the city’s rich roster of museums is the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art. Amid the canyon of high-rise buildings at the eastern end of Central Avenue, its massive, curving sandstone entryway beckons.
Those sandstone forms, towering two stories high, continue inside the grand entrance, evoking the arroyos and pueblos of the Southwest. The wide hall, lined with artist John Coleman’s detailed life-sized bronze sculptures of 19th century Native Americans and cowboys, is punctuated at the far end with a waterfall wall of black granite.
The museum, which opened in April 2018, was created to house the extensive art collection of Tom and Mary James. Tom James is the chairman emeritus of Raymond James Financial, which is headquartered in St. Petersburg. The couple have been collecting Western and wildlife art for years, amassing more than 3,000 pieces in a wide array of mediums and styles.
Architect Yann Weymouth, working with architectural firms Harvard Jolly and Wannemacher Jensen, designed the 80,000-square-foot space expressly to display about 400 pieces from the James collection. The cost of more than $75 million for the project was paid largely by the Jameses.
On the first floor, the Arroyo Sculpture Court is flanked by an event space that will hold up to 750 people, a smaller auditorium, a gift shop and a cafe, operated by the Datz Restaurant Group.
The Canyon Cafe’s visual signature is a huge antique wood bar that runs across the back wall, formerly part of a San Francisco hotel. Tables occupy a space with window walls looking out on busy Central Avenue. The menu features familiar dishes (most under $10) with Western twists, such as a Hatch green chili cheeseburger, a short rib and chuck burger topped with roasted green chilis and white cheddar, or a Santa Fe Chicken Caesar salad with charred corn and cornbread croutons.
From the entry hall, stairs switch back between the sandstone walls to the second level, which contains the museum’s seven galleries, arranged in a circle. The orientation theater near the stairs plays a short introductory film in a loop, and a small army of visitor assistance staff, dressed in black, are stationed throughout the galleries to answer questions.
The first gallery, Early West, houses older pieces in the museum’s collection (most of which were made post-1980). They include paintings, prints and other works by well-known early Western artists like Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, and later works, many of them Western landscapes, by Maynard Dixon and members of the Taos Society of Artists. There’s also a display of traditional Native American artifacts: a beautifully beaded Lakota dress and several pairs of beaded moccasins.
The next gallery, Native Life, is the largest. It groups works depicting Native American subjects made by non-Native artists. Western art is often thought of as synonymous with cowboy art, but that’s not the case at this museum -- the West’s indigenous peoples are the emphasis.
Many of the works in this gallery are traditional in style and historical in subject matter, like several oils by award-winning artist Howard Terpning and carefully detailed photorealistic portraits by Don Crowley.
Others offer contemporary looks at Indian life, like Ray Swanson’s Kachina Carver, a richly hued oil of a Hopi man dressed in jeans and sneakers, painting one of the dancing figures that embody his tribe’s ancient religious traditions. A few are more contemporary in style; among the most striking is Paul Pletka’s large surrealistic painting Red Talkers.
The works in the next gallery, Native Artists, tend to be more modern in style and complex in their depiction of Native Americans. One memorable work is Cherokee, an aggressive, vibrantly colored pop art portrait by Fritz Scholder, a member of the Luiseno tribe.
Rain Talker, a bronze by Southern Ute/Navajo artist Oreland Joe, is an abstract take on the Yei dancer, an iconic figure in Navajo religion. Apache sculptor Allan Houser’s bronzes are figurative but sleeker and more modern than the realistic bronzes in the other galleries.
Some of the works by native artists draw on historic events. Navajo Rick Nez’s “The Long Walk” is a sculpture in alabaster depicting the 300-mile forced march in 1864 to remove Navajos from their land to a reservation, a tragedy that left more than 200 people dead.
“Sunrise Circle of the Big Sky People,” by Crow painter Earl Biss, was the first work by a Native artist purchased by the Jameses. An enormous, dramatic oil, it’s a dreamlike melange of abstraction and realism.
Within the Native Artists gallery is the aptly named Jewel Box, which houses a spectacular selection of handcrafted jewelry.
The display boasts several gorgeous pieces by Charles Loloma, a Hopi who is recognized as the most influential Native American jewelry maker of the 20th century. His jewelry combines traditional materials and inlay methods with striking mid-century modern design.
There are also a number of pieces by Navajo/Hopi jeweler Jesse Monongya. His buckles and bolos that feature intricate images of Monument Valley and night skies full of planets and stars, rendered in brilliantly colored inlaid stone, are stunning.
Next up is the Frontier Gallery, with many images of the cowboy experience that is often central in Western art. There are other, less familiar scenes as well, such as paintings by Chinese-American artists depicting the lives of the thousands of Chinese immigrants who were part of the settlement of the West, and scenes of peaceful social interactions between white settlers and Native Americans.
The Wildlife Gallery is the only one not exclusively focused on the American West. Although it offers many paintings and sculptures of creatures like grizzly bears, bison and coyotes, there are portraits of animals from around the world, from penguins to elephants. One of the most arresting is “Dark Presence,” a majestic painting of a gorilla by John Seery-Lester.
The New West Gallery is the most contemporary, with works like “Mother and Child,” Andy Warhol’s pop image of a Native American family, and James Michaels’ satirical collage “The Bold and the Beautiful,” which juxtaposes stereotypical portraits of women in the West, from an Edward Curtis photo of a 19th century Hopi girl to Jessie, the cowgirl doll in Toy Story 2.
The last gallery, Special Exhibitons, will hold a changing variety of shows not from the James collection. The first one, which opened in July 2018, is “Art and the Animal,” the 58th annual exhibition of the Society of Animal Artists. Its dozens of paintings, sculptures and other works depict just about every bird and beast imaginable; Andrew Denman’s “Totem #5: Stacked Coyotes and Ravens” is a standout.
When you go…
The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art
150 Central Ave
St. Petersburg, Florida