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Artist James Gayles fuses watercolor paintings with poetry

on October 3, 2014

When several art forms, disciplines and cultural backgrounds blend, there comes reflection, innovation and imagination. James Gayles, an Oakland-­based Emmy Award-­winning artist and musician, is striving to draw out the aesthetic value hidden in the intersection between painting and literature through a collaborative book he’s titled Reflection.

He juxtaposes his own watercolor paintings of iconic cultural and historic figures, such as Nelson Mandela, Miles Davis, Celia Cruz, Nina Simone and James Baldwin, with poems written by people he knows personally. In his book, released this summer by Pochino Press, poems sit on pages opposite to the paintings, imbuing each painting with new soul, and inviting the reader to consider the improvisational interplay between the text and the art.

Aqueila Lewis, an Oakland-based journalist and model who participated in the Reflection project as a featured writer, wrote a poem titled “Somebody’s baby, nobody’s victim,” based on Gayles’ portraits of singer Nina Simone. A sense of sadness is evident in the colorful four-portrait combination piece. “If you look at the picture, each one of the characters, they are not smiling,” Lewis said.

In her poem, Lewis writes:

She remembers their pain.

She embodies their pain.

See, she’s been torn apart.

Ripped limb from limb.

She’s dragging.

But strong.

She captures Simone’s sad expression and her own feelings about being a survivor. “People who have been abused or have been through a lot of different things, they feel like they are victims until they make up their own decision or someone comes and mentors them, tells them they are beautiful and they can survive,” Lewis said.

In another poem, “I Spiral Round Again,” illustrator and puppeteer Emily Butterfly chose part of her college thesis, which she wrote 20 years ago, to fit the painting “Dreaming.” A butterfly, the rainbow, and some unknown symbols add mystery to the dreamy backdrop behind a portrait of a thoughtful-looking woman. In her poem, Butterfly writes:

I have a centered eye that tends to scry those scandalous minds as they unfurl…

My pace through space is just like the face of a tornado wind whirl…

Well, you may feel me in the breeze, for I can be a weather wished tease,

I have a centered eye that tends to scry those scandalous minds as they unfurl…

Or I can be a weather whisked tease…

Or you may peak me down upon your knees…

Or hanging from the branches of the weeping willow trees…
But what ever form you meet me in…

Just know that Earth tone it be the color of my skin…

And don’t be surprised that my hide has no end…

For as I be from Earth…

The poem, she said, is meant to be heard as a song—as she wrote it, the melody automatically popped up. “When I saw the painting James gave to me to write about, this song fit perfectly with the piece,” she said. She regards the painting as being about a journey of being on the Earth, loving and protecting it, and being guided by spirit.“I appreciate his use of color, it is just so beautiful,” she said of the portrait. “His work is beautiful, indelible and healing.”

Born in New Jersey, Gayles attended Pratt Institute in New York, where he studied fine art under renowned painters Jacob Lawrence and super realist Audrey Flack. He began his career as a commercial artist after graduation and established himself as a graphic designer and illustrator for News Center 4, NBC. At NBC, he won an Emmy for design and illustration. Then Gayles moved to the Bay Area to seek a more relaxed lifestyle.

Watercolor painting, his chosen medium, is his way of expressing Oakland’s culturally rich society through “every single drip, splash and bleed of color.” His distinctive watercolor painting style is well-suited to his signature subject: portraits. Capturing historic and cultural figures on canvas means everything to him, he said. It is a way to “bring the people and their customs to light,” Gayles said. He added, “I like to focus on the eyes. The eyes are very important for me. And it makes the painting more dramatic and emotional. “ He chooses bold colors, like blue and violet, to make the painting look more sensational.

Gayles’s work also examines the interplay between Black music and images. As an accomplished hand drummer, he is able to translate his music inspiration into visual paintings. His paintings are similar to jazz music, as they draw upon “improvisational play of Jazz music in a much more subtle manner,” wrote Duane Deterville in the introduction of Reflections.

“A lot of times when I am making artistic or creative decisions I go by feeling rather than intellectual reasoning.” Gayles said, describing the portrait he selected for the book’s cover. “In choosing the image of James Baldwin for my book, it is enough to say that it felt right. I know that James Baldwin himself is one of the greatest literary figures of this century. But that is coincidental and not the reason I chose him for the cover. I chose him for the composition and the intensity of his eyes. They seem to draw you in and get you to read what’s inside. ”

Click the audio player above to hear from Oakland artist James Gayles.


  1. James Gayles featured in Oakland North | OAKSTOP on October 7, 2014 at 7:25 pm

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