The Artistic Resurrection of James Wellington Taylor
By D. Amari Jackson
In life, particularly in challenging times, whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, we are presented with a choice. We can wallow in our predicament and misery, blaming the world and others for the serious situation in which we find ourselves and, in doing so, spiral deeper into a toxic, hopeless abyss where healing or reconciliation—be it physical, mental, spiritual—cannot take place.
Or, despite our grave circumstances, we can choose to live the best we can for as long as we can. We can choose a perspective more conducive to healing ourselves and, by doing so, further impact the world around us from our clarified vantage point and transmit our unique energies in a way that transforms all it touches. Perhaps, renowned author and speaker, Wayne Dyer, put it best. “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
James Wellington Taylor chose art.
In 1992, after years of bouncing from job to job, the Air Force veteran was diagnosed with a terminal illness. “He had terrible bouts with cancer, but he managed to be beat them all until the end,” says Taylor’s son, James Taylor III, of the disease that finally took his father’s life in 2016. Upon being confined to the veterans’ hospital in Atlanta “several times because of the terminal illness, he began to draw and paint as an outlet,” explains Taylor III. “He would use it as therapy, and he became really good at it.”
Others agreed. By the time of his death, Taylor had established a vibrant legacy in paint both locally and nationally. A master of watercolor, Taylor’s inspired art earned him recognition and awards from the likes of the Atlanta Artists Center, Fulton and Dekalb County Public Art Programs, Morris Brown College, The High Museum of Art, and the Atlanta-based African Americans for the Arts. His works have been exhibited at such locations as the Hampton University Museum in Hampton, Virginia; the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia; and the Hammonds House Gallery and Resource Center in Atlanta. Taylor instructed and mentored countless young artists in Life Drawing classes at the South Dekalb Arts Center and Atlanta Metropolitan College, and he was the first Black president of the Georgia Watercolor Society. To this day, his work graces more than a dozen private and public collections across the country.
“I believe James Taylor is one of the preeminent watercolorists of American history, especially given that so few have gotten the recognition they deserve in the African-American community, and the way he documented the African-American community,” says Kevin Sipp, a fine artist, scholar, and arts administrator who worked at Hammonds House for 15 years and as curator from 2003 to 2012. Sipp, who’d been wholly impressed by the work Taylor had displayed at Hammonds House art auctions for several years, was eager to exhibit his watercolors once he became curator. Further characterizing Taylor as “one of the most important artists of the current era,” Sipp points to how people often promote “what they think are more innovative styles in abstraction, mixed media, or multimedia work, but the skill in which he used watercolor to capture the human spirit and the human portrait, I think, will never go out of style. And the fact that he captured the African-American community in this medium stands head and shoulders above many.”
“My dad really loved to draw for the passion of it,” says Taylor III, describing his father as a community-oriented, “extremely laid back people-person.” Also an Atlanta-based artist, Taylor III depicts how his father struggled to find purpose in non-artistic industries where “he just wasn’t able to find a good fit. He told me, ‘Son, you can work for people your whole life and lose the skill that you have innately in you, and you can look back over your life and realize that there’s nothing to show from it.’ So he really urged and exhorted me to develop my skills as an artist as much as I could,” continues Taylor III. “And he honestly believed that, if I focused on becoming a better artist, my skills would develop and everything that I needed would come, versus going out and getting a 9 to 5 and suffering the drudgery of waking up every morning and going to work for people that don’t really appreciate you and can fire you at any time.”
Such drudgery was a particularly hard pill to swallow for a young man raised in a stable Gary, Indiana community where Black residents appreciated one another. Given the World War II revival of the steel industry, Gary became an economic magnet for thousands of Black workers seeking good-paying jobs and strong residential communities. Born in the city in 1951 to two prominent educators—his father, James Taylor Sr. was a Tuskegee airman, teacher, and police chief; his mother a 30-year public school teacher and college professor—Taylor came of age in an era where Black folks were asserting themselves, demanding their rights, and establishing their own prosperous communities. “Gary had a great impact on my father,” acknowledges Taylor III, noting the social and economic vibrance of the steel city in the 1960s. “My father actually played basketball with some of the older Jackson boys,” he reveals of Gary’s most celebrated product apart from steel, The Jackson 5. “He remembered them vividly and would tell me stories about how stern their father was. He knew them personally.”
After graduating high school, Taylor spent several years in the Air Force as a language specialist and studied chemistry at Grinnell College in Iowa. Upon spending time in Atlanta after college, Taylor met Thomasine Jordan in the early 1970s and relocated to the city where they’d subsequently marry and give birth to Taylor III.
Though his artistic skill had been apparent from an early age, Taylor merely dabbled in art for years. However, his 1992 illness, for all its disabling pain and trauma, brought with it a new sense of purpose and clarity as he devoted himself fully to his craft, subsequently studying under master illustrator, Carl Owens, taking classes, and doing residencies. In an artistic statement, Taylor reflected on the plight of those, like him, whose purpose was forged by fire. “During my convalescence, I began to see the humanity and spirit of the people I encountered, along with colors, smells, and the play of sunlight on things and scenes that were around me,” he once offered. “I discovered a very strong character in people, which is revealed through their challenges, disappointments, and rewards of holding things together through relative obscurity. It is this strength of spirit that I am compelled to express in my paintings. My goal is to involve the viewer in the insightfulness and humanity that art has to offer.”
Consistently, Taylor’s art had a lot to offer, particularly given his intentional contribution to the intricate medium of watercolor. “A lot of people don’t understand that watercolor is a very technical field, and it doesn’t always come out right,” explains Taylor III, noting “it’s probably the most unforgiving of the artistic mediums. When you lay that watercolor on the paper, there is no pulling back. You have to go in knowing what you’re doing and how you’re going to get out.” Stressing the rarity of prominent Black watercolor artists and subjects, Taylor III drives home his father’s unique gift to the field, his “exploration of the multitude of skin tones of our people through watercolor” and how he “probably had a hundred plus different recipes for what colors to use to give different skin tones for the different shades of our people.” Unfortunately, laments Taylor III, “I wish they were written down. I wish they were saved and documented, but he was living his life and I was living my life at the time, so it’s something that is just lost. You can only capture it in his artwork.”
Taylor, who also exhibited superior talent with charcoal and pastel, is commonly believed to have started the first African American Life Drawing group in the city at Atlanta Metropolitan College in 2008. The class ran for over a decade and his son helped facilitate it for six years. “It was the only life drawing class in the city where you could go and practice drawing Black models,” reports Taylor III, revealing that “we had a lot of celebrated artists that actually came and made cameo appearances.”
For Taylor, his own appearances within the Atlanta arts scene often masked his failing health. “Early on, he never really spoke about his illness,” says Sipp, acknowledging he eventually “began to let me know why he wasn’t even more productive, as he was struggling with the illness on and off. But he carried it with such dignity that it never was really a major part of the conversation.”
In 2013, Taylor III left for Seattle to visit a friend. He ended up getting married and staying there for two years until his father—who, by then, had been divorced for decades—called him back to Atlanta. “My father told me that he had one year left and I came back to take care of him and to give him a great homegoing service,” recounts Taylor III. “When I came back, I had so much of his artwork it was like I was revisiting who I was when I was a child, while he was in the latter moments of his life. He really was a community person, and a lot of his artwork was of friends, family, and neighbors. So he didn’t really celebrate celebrities, but he took great pride in the depictions of our people.”
Taylor III takes great pride in knowing his talented father ultimately chose to live life on his own terms. “He really lived the life of an artist,” he acknowledges, contentment in his voice. “He loved women, and when he would go to Florida or travel a lot, he would always have a muse with him” as he and his mentor, Owens, were “constantly surrounded by a coterie of beautiful models that loved them dearly.” Taylor also loved horror flicks, laughs Taylor III, depicting how his dad “had a large DVD collection of nothing but scary movies. He would invite women over, they would get comfortable, and he would play them. I think he liked for them to grab on to him when the scary parts happened.”
“He really lived the life that he wanted,” reiterates Taylor III. “When he passed away, I knew he was content because, for a long time, he had tried to do what society wanted, the status quo for all of us Americans, and that’s just to get up, go to a 9 to 5, and just get the money and leave,” he says, noting his father “didn’t find any satisfaction or joy in that. But he loved to just paint and draw and not have a care as to where his next dollar was coming from.”
“He knew,” adds Taylor III, “that if his skills reached a certain height, he’d be okay.”