In December of last year, I had the privilege of meeting W. James Taylor. He is a local artist, musician, father, Granddaddy, husband, advocate, and the embodiment of joy. You will often find him in his art gallery, Geneva Galleries, inside the Emporium Building on Gay St. James, and I sat down with his artwork and his guitar to have this beautiful conversation. As February is Black History Month and the theme this year is Black Artists, I jumped at the chance to tell his story.
Before we get too far into the story, I want you to know about one of his biggest passions. James runs a fine arts camp he founded in 2019 at Overcoming Believers Church with his daughters Geneva and Briana. Tragically, Geneva passed away before the camp began, but he and Briana opened as planned and are still running the camp now with the help of Gale McDonald. The Multicultural Fine Arts Camp is a 5-day camp for children ages 6-14. It will be held in July. He funds the camp through donations and grants, allowing as many children as possible to attend for free. If you want to contribute to this Multicultural Fine Arts Camp, please click the link and donate. His goal is $7,000.
And now, his story…
Born in 1949, Willie James Taylor grew up in Knoxville. He was born into a segregated society to parents who witnessed some of the harshest times of the Jim Crow era. James was the 7th child of 11 born into his family. He remembers hearing often as a child, “You’ve got to be better. We don’t have the same opportunities. You’ve got to be doubly good!” He knew that because of the color of his skin, he was going to have to work 100% harder than someone with white skin to be recognized for the same things. He says this has driven him his entire life.
When James was nine years old, he saw an ad in the back of a comic book asking young artists to send in a drawing for a competition. He decided to do it and won! Part of the congratulatory letter was an offer to purchase art books. His mother pawned her wedding band to afford the books. She told him he was going to be a great artist. Her belief in him has been another driving factor throughout his life.
James laughed as he told me that every child who sent in a drawing got the same letter ‘awarding’ them for their submission, but he didn’t mind because he got his hands on those books that still inspire him today. Norman Rockwell, Albert Dorn and others were represented. While studying Rockwell, he said he thought, “If a white dude can draw like that, then I can too!” And so, he did. With no formal training in the arts, James has been honored with gallery shows, won awards and sold his art worldwide.
He also grew up surrounded by musicians. His father, Eldred, sang with the Royal Travelers on the Old Ship of Zion radio station in Knoxville in the 1960s. James sings and plays drums and guitar. His website says, “As a professional drummer with different bands in the ’60s, he opened for famous Motown Artists performing on the Chitlin Circuit like Rufus Thomas and Mary Wells, later in the 70’s opening for acts like Parliament Funkadelic and Bill Withers, both at the civic coliseum in his hometown Knoxville, Tennessee.” You can hear some of his music HERE.
After working as an architect apprentice at TVA, James joined the Knoxville police force at age 24. He left at age 29 because he wanted a change before turning 30. That change was to move to Washington, DC. There, he saw African Americans who owned their own businesses and thrived. This was like nothing he had seen before, and it spurred him to open Geneva Galleries, Inc. in 1975, named after his mother, Geneva. He flourished in DC and Maryland through the sales of his art.
In 1983, W. James Taylor had his first solo exhibition at Howard University in Washington, DC. In 1986, he was commissioned to do a portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. In 1987, he had a solo exhibition at the University of Tennessee Black Student Union. He has served on art councils, as a panelist and judge in competitions, and has continued his musical career, publishing his first CD/album in 2018 called “In My Life.”
James was inspired to do pencil drawings on watercolor paper from the influence of the art books he got when he was a child. That art form eventually became a series of portraits he calls the Power Five: Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglas, Malcolm X, Girl on a Bus, and Barack Obama.
James is primarily a chalk pastel painter. He expresses the Black race’s past, present and future in America through his art. He calls this method Vicissitude: A History of the Black Race Illustrated. By definition, vicissitude means the quality or state of being changeable. James uses this to show “A collection of extraordinary paintings and drawings created to share the greatness of a proud people, my ancestors, and their struggle for equality.” He has lived the vicissitudes of life.
I asked James about his experience growing up in Knoxville with the struggles of segregation. He acknowledges how difficult it was and still can be. However, he believes in staying positive and using his willpower to overcome challenges. He also feels that relationships and understanding each other are crucial elements of a better community.
This final story stood out to me. He tells of seeing a march against segregation on Gay St. outside the Tennessee Theatre in 1963 when he was 14 years old and working as a porter at the theatre. Though he had never participated in a march or protest, he quit his job and joined the march. In 2022, he was the first Seniors Got Talent winner on the stage of the Tennessee Theatre and the following year, he returned as a judge. It came full circle for him. He is featured on the theatre’s website.
While James lived in Maryland, he worked with a woman named Millie Shott. She was his mentor and inspiration for beginning an art camp in Knoxville. For 20+ years, Millie mentored James through the art camp she ran. She taught him how to work with children individually and engage them in the art. He is now turning around that mentorship and is a mentor to artists who teach at the MFAC camp and the children who attend. James pays the artists a fair wage because he believes they must be “paid what they are worth.” The children are exposed to 15 art mediums and take a complete portfolio home with them at the end of the week. They also learn the song by Bob Devlan, “When the Rain Comes Down” that tells the story that we are all the same. When the rain comes down, you get wet no matter who you are. The children walk away with confidence, encouragement and skills they won’t get anywhere else.
There is a light around James. He is engaging, kind and insanely talented. While I took some photos, he serenaded me with a Beetles song and one he wrote himself. This almost 75-year-old (in April) creative is not slowing down anytime soon. If you would like to donate to his Multicultural Fine Arts Camp, please click the link and donate. You can also catch James on an upcoming episode of the Tennessee Theatre show on PBS called Pass the Mic: Creating a Stage with Change airing soon!